In the early 1990’s while I was attending college there was this mass hysteria over political correctness. ( Ah, don’t we long for those halcyon days when the biggest problem facing this country was how to refer to people’s differences without offending them?!? That sounds very much like a quaint pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, pre-financial meltdown and pre-Gulf disaster world to have lived in, doesn’t it? )
You had people on the right denouncing the left for acting like the language police. And you had people on the left arguing that insensitivity leads to intolerance ( I know, I know…I just rolled my eyes when I read what I just wrote in that last sentence too ).
Political correctness quickly ran amok. But at the same time, the point was fairly made that people need to watch what they say.
The Senate has now passed, and an Assembly panel has now cleared, a Sweeney bill that would cut out demeaning terms for people with disabilities from state law. That includes “retarded,” “mental retardation,” “feeble minded” and even “idiot.”
I think it is fair to say that these terms have no basis in the law of this state. They are indeed offensive and demeaning. The first way to dehumanize someone is to cut them down with degrading language. Moreover, words like “retarded” are simply not acceptable anymore. The same way terms like “homosexual,” “midget” and “oriental” are antiquated to the point of being offensive when used in modern parlance ( although I did recently have to quietly remind an elderly relative that one of those aforementioned terms from that second grouping is indeed unacceptable after she decided to scream it out loud in the middle of a crowded restaurant ).
It’s hard to teach people new habits. You just gotta keep reinforcing the point. It reminds me of my father’s famous refrain in reference to me and my brother while growing up which was: “It is never an inappropriate time. To remind my children. To lower their voices.”
If you gotta keep reminding people to say something the right way or act appropriately, then do it. The English language is evolving. And Sometimes government does need to set an example.
And yes, the title of this post is an homage to William Safire with whom I may have had the shortest conversation in modern history. I dialed him up at work years ago to ask if he would speak at our graduation, and he simply said “no.” End of conversation.