There is value in distinguishing ‘politically correct’ ways to speak about people who might otherwise be ignored in our collective ‘blind spot’. Such speaking can highlight inequity and discrimination and raise our awareness of those areas where our actions and our values don’t line up—where we aren’t walking our talk!
I also think there are areas where nitpicking labels can be overdone and even undermine the point that needs to be made. It’s one thing to eliminate sloppy and pejorative characterizations of people (for example, the list of slang words we’ve used to put down people because of race, religion or sexual orientation). So now we have “persons of color”, “persons of faith”, and “people who are gay” as language for distinguishing individuals in these categories from others.
When we’re talking about larger numbers of people (such as women or older people or younger people), the terminology we use takes on a different slant. When we as a society began the process of correcting the imbalance between men and women in the workplace, the language began to become almost a kind of political weapon. Salesmen became salespeople. The generic ‘he’ encompassing humankind was transposed into s/he or “she and he” or they, requiring authors to be explicit or be labeled chauvinists—itself an obvious use of a pejorative label to marginalize those whose use of language differs from what some groups considered ‘acceptable’.
Not a week goes by that someone isn’t raked over the coals in the media for some sort of insensitive and or irresponsible remark or, in the case of Ken Richards, a full-blown racially charged rant. Imus’s arrogant and cocky put down of black women was just the latest in a long list of celebrity mistakes. Governor Thompson is now under fire for making remarks referring to Jews as ‘good business people’ (a label that offended the Jewish community). No one thinks he was malevolent—he just ‘mispoke’. Nonetheless, the controversy will hurt him, regardless of his intent.
Almost everyone in public life—whether politician, commentator, performing artist, famous celebrity or recognized authority—is now forced to filter and sanitize their speech against a long list of politically correct terminology or risk paying a high price, perhaps even their entire career. Now I don’t apologize or defend anyone who is a closet racist or any kind of ‘ist’, but I think the vast percentage of ‘offenses’ are more politically motivated that sincere moral or ethical sensibilities. We are becoming a ‘gotcha’ society grounded in a kind of cynicism that is destructive to all of us.
The bottom line: we’re creating a climate in which people in positions of responsibility and influence are ‘walking on eggshells’ lest they offend someone. In one government bureaucracy, this has even taken the form of a kind of institutionalized sanction that any employee can sue their boss for ‘harassment’ should they, the employee, feel he or she was embarrassed, treated unfairly, yelled at or in any other way feels the manager’s ‘style’ is inappropriate. Result: managers don’t take risks, don’t press people to accomplish more than they think they can accomplish and, at the end of the day, more and more people quietly “buy into” a worldview that kills leadership and perpetuates resignation and cynicism.
I don’t think there is yet a generally accepted and politically correct way of speaking about older people. I hope there never is. We are a third of the population and very heterogeneous. There are as many arrogant narrow-minded folks among us as there are sages and leaders committed to making a difference. Age doesn’t define who we are. While we should not tolerate discrimination where it exists, please, let’s not turn age into a political agenda and polarize grandparents and the rest of the population.