On Civil Rights, Don Imus, Feminists, and Political Correctness

A student from another institution telephoned me and wanted to talk about political correctness. I asked if he'd be willing to write down his questions and told him I'd be using my own answers in print; he said that was fine. Our exchange, unedited, appears below:

Our class was assigned a research paper, and the topic I chose was the issue of political correctness. The professor asked that included in our research, we attempt to interview at least two people who might share an informed opinion on the subject. Your name was of interest to me because of the brief desrciption of your life experiences on the UConn English department website. Any information you could share with me, especially as an African-American woman, would be invaluable to me. What role do you believe political correctness plays in our society today?

Probably the first thing I should mention is something you might not consider to be a helpful response. You asked me to give my response as an African-American woman, but since I am not an African-American woman, I can't provide that particular angle. As a half-Sicilian, half-Quebecoise woman, however, I am happy to address any and all questions.

I believe that political correctness has become one of those terms like "fashion victim," "American idol," "celebrity superstar" or "professional dog-walker" that has entered our vocabulary without our paying much attention to it.

When I hear "p.c." I think "personal computer."

If, however, you're asking whether I think there should be things that people are chastised for saying because it makes them sound like ignorant, narrow-minded dolts, then yes, I'm all for pointing those terms out to folks. No one should sound like an ignorant, narrow-minded dolt without meaning to.

Where does the First Amendment stop, and political correctness begin? Are we not entitled to freedom of expression?

Yes, we are entitled to freedom of expression. We are also entitled to wear T-shirts saying "I am a Pedophile" and "My Pitbull Will Attack Your Honor Student," but I wouldn't recommend it if you're going to a fancy party. Anybody can sound like a moron if he or she chooses. The First Amendment guarantees that right.

Does the fact that people are using the notion of insenstive language to change the use of "Christmass and Halloween" (sic) deminsh (sic) the efforts of civil rights activists?

I'm not sure I understand that particular question although, of course, that in no way interferes with my responding to it. This is my belief and I hold to it religiously: No one should be permitted to legislate how we celebrate the holidays, especially when dressing up as elves or fairies is involved. Actually, any occasion involving the use of tights is off the table. Also, we should remember that when it comes to giving gifts, everybody likes a box of chocolates. The First Amendment guarantees that right.

How has the civil rights movement gone from the fight to gain a voice (suffrage), to the censorship of offensive language, which is broad and difficult to define?

All human rights are broad and difficult to define because everybody thinks rights apply mostly to themselves and probably other people don't deserve as many. This is why it is a good thing that there are public schools and federal courts.

Do you have any comment on the Don Imus saga, and his return to national airwaves?

I think Don Imus is very funny, although I do think it's too bad that his inner censor is not more effective at curbing what even he knows are remarks that are so narrow-minded and moronic (see above) that they surpass what the most ordinary of audience members consider appropriate.

Why are feminists offended by words like "mankind" and "manpower"? What about the word "woman (wo-m-a-n)"?

Most feminists have a lot of other things to worry about, such as the fact that even the most educated and capable of women still make $.68 on a man's dollar, that women are still subject to many more crimes of physical and domestic violence than men, and that girls are raised to be passive, cute, silly, and skinny while boys are encouraged to be assertive, strong, powerful, and successful -- fab for the boys, not so fab for the girls.

My bet is that if you ask any woman what her big problem is on any given day, she's not going to whine "Gosh, I'm really upset about the words 'mankind' and 'wo-m-a-n'" whatever that means, which, I'm presuming, is more than just pointing out the woe in woman, right?

My bet is that she's going to grab you by the collar and tell you that she needs to find adequate childcare, affordable health insurance, a decent retirement plan, and a partner who won't freak if she takes 20 minutes to parallel park. But perhaps that's just my girlish way of looking at things.

I hope I have answered your questions. Good luck with your project.

*Based on a piece by Gina Barreca in The Chronicle of Higher Education