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Political Correctness and the Dilemma of Old Song Lyrics

This article was a response to a very long mailing list discussion about how to deal with some of the old songs that contain racist or sexist language. Some people wanted to stop singing them altogether. Others were in favor of modifying the lyrics. And some were indignant over the mere fact that anyone was even raising the question.

Ben McDaniel asked a reasonable question that has yet to be addressed:

"For those who have been complaining of political correctness, could you please be more specific? I cannot figure out the ways America could be hurt by political correctness."

That's an important question, because there is a lot of misunderstanding out there about what political correctness is and is not. If you'll bear with me for a moment, I hope I can answer that question for you by comparing the way the concept is commonly mischaracterized with what "political correctness" actually refers to. Forgive me for making this so long, but the phenomenon of political correctness has been a part of my research efforts for many years, and really is a complicated issue to explain.

Much of the confusion and miscommunication plaguing the so-called "PC debate" stems from the imprecise and trivializing manner in which terms such as "offensive" and "politically correct" are bandied about. Consider just a few examples: Shelley Herman wrote: "This sounds like politically correct nonsense to me. Every song that we sing has some conflict in it that is liable to get someone mad." Roger Olson wrote: "Whether or not you ascribe to political correctness, no matter what song you may choose to sing, there's bound to be someone who doesn't like it." Montana Jack Fitzpatrick wrote: "Being occasionally offended by something is just a part of the price we pay for living." Finally, Matt Swan wrote: "Why don't we sing songs on shows with a bunch of curse words in them? Because someone might be offended? That's political correctness, folks."

While I agree with Matt that avoiding cusswords is a good idea, all of the above statements represent common misconceptions. What they described is not the same thing as political correctness. The term "politically correct" does not refer merely to any words or actions that might hypothetically offend someone, somewhere, at some time. The concept is far more complex than that.

First, let's dispense with this word "offensive" by making an important distinction. There is a huge difference between words that merely offend someone's sensibilities (cusswords or dirty jokes, for example) and words that directly belittle, demean, or humiliate an individual or group. We may use the same label for them—calling them both "offensive language," as if they were only different by degree—but we're really talking about two qualitatively different things. So what's the difference? There is nothing in the nature of cusswords and dirty jokes (with the obvious exception of racist and sexist jokes) that can be said to be a direct affront aimed at denigrating any specific person or group. Indeed there is nothing about cusswords that is necessarily offensive at all. If someone chooses to be offended when they hear cusswords or dirty jokes, that's ultimately a matter of sensibility on the part of the listener, and the speaker can't really be said to hold responsibility for that. We might refer to a person who cusses excessively as crude or vulgar, but we could hardly justify referring to him (or her) as immoral. It would be more accurate to call it a simple violation of common decency. There are times and places where cusswords and dirty jokes are appropriate. We all agree that a public Barbershop performance is not one of those places. I'll refer to this type of language as "superficially" offensive.

Contrast that with the second type of offensive language, which I'll refer to as "morally" offensive. On the extreme end we have hateful, unambiguously racist, sexist, or homophobic statements, intended as an overt, verbal assault. I'll not give examples in this forum, but such statements make most of us squirm a bit when we read or hear them. Why? Because they are morally reprehensible. We call that "hate speech" for a reason. But toward the lower end of this category are words that are easily recognized as demeaning or denigrating to a person or of entire groups of people. At this end are also phrases that seem to make light of or trivialize things that are morally egregious such as slavery, sexual abuse, oppression, and so on. And this is the area, I submit, where the discussion of questionable lyrics takes place.

But there's a peculiar irony in our current situation. While superficially offensive language represents a far less serious transgression than morally offensive language, curiously no one seems to be complaining about changing the lyrics of songs that contain cusswords. Replace "damn" with "darn," "shit" with "shoot"? No problem, everyone's cool with that. After all, as Matt suggested, that would be offensive to the children and the old ladies. Furthermore, no one has suggested that those people are being "too sensitive" if they are offended by such language. But suggest that we replace "darkies" with "folks," or have the audacity to suggest that we refrain from singing a song that seems to glorify date rape, and you'd think, based on some of the reactions, that Barbershop Harmony as we know it was coming to an end. Why is it that we have no problem editing out superficially offensive language, but when someone suggests editing out morally offensive language—language that would be directly belittling, demeaning, or humiliating toward an entire group of people—we would rather dismiss the suggestion, blow the pitch, and sing? I'll return to that question in a moment.

I assume, Ben, that your understanding of political correctness is that it primarily consists of common moral concern for how our words and actions affect other people. But that's only one of its starting points. The other starting point is a fairly uncontentious fact: sometimes the way we use language can, and often does, serve to perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes that we would otherwise prefer to eliminate. That's all well and good. But political correctness moves far beyond those points. Political correctness suggests that if we use certain words or phrases then we are revealing our own latent prejudices. It doesn't matter that we didn't intend to morally offend. Political correctness is a way of saying that intent does not matter. In effect, the politically correct mindset says: "We know what your 'real' intent was, even if you don't."

To get a flavor of how political correctness exaggerates reasonable concerns over how we use language, let's consider a few examples:

(1) The "inclusive language" movement is a well-meaning concern for the fact that gender-specific language can both reflect and reinforce stereotypes and can inadvertently marginalize an entire group of people. And it doesn't really take any effort to start using terms like firefighter, police officer, and mail carrier, nor to expand the default pronoun to "he or she." That's all well and good. But political correctness takes it a step further by suggesting that use of such words as fireman, policeman, and mailman indicate that the person actually harbors sexist attitudes. For example, in many Northern regions of the US people use the phrase "you guys" in exactly the same way as we in the Southern regions use the phrase "you all." I recently heard a popular feminist theorist berating people for using the word "guys" to refer to both men and women. It doesn't matter that both men and women in the North use "you guys" in a gender-neutral way. To her mind, that is an indication of latent sexism and it perpetuates sexist thought processes.

(2) The trends of inclusive language are similar to a phenomenon known as the "euphemism treadmill." Simply put, labels associated with emotionally-charged areas of life tend to accumulate negative connotations over years of use, which leads people to drop them and reach for new, "clean" terms. For example, decades ago the phrase "mentally retarded" was simply a clinical term. After several decades of grade school children using the word "retard" as an insult, the term took on pejorative connotations and fell out of use for that very reason. Terms for black people followed a similar course: "darky" -> "colored" -> "black" -> "African American." Interestingly, however, even though "black" has not taken on pejorative connotations (due, I believe, to the success of the Civil Rights movement), Jesse Jackson pushed hard for the new label "African American." Other leaders, however, within what came to be known as the "black power movement" rejected "African American" and embraced "black" as a label of pride. Consequently, "black" has not fallen out of favor. Again, that's all well and good. But political correctness goes a step further and suggests that someone who uses one of the outdated terms is actually racist, even if they didn't realize that the term was outdated. Call a "Native American" an "Indian" and you're suspected of being a racist. (Never mind that the Indians don't care that they're called Indians.)

(3) Sometimes we all inadvertently say or do things without realizing that they are morally offensive to others. That's simply a consequence of our unavoidably limited perspectives on the world. Kenny gave a perfect example of this one: "While it had never occurred to me that 'Darktown' had a subtext, it sure had occurred to our African-American virtuoso bassist, Rick Johnson, from Detroit." Sometimes we just don't know what will be morally offensive to someone else. And generally, once we are made aware of it, we attempt to avoid those words or actions in the future. That's all well and good. But the politically correct attitude goes far beyond suggesting that we ought to try and be more sensitive toward how the things we say and do might make others feel. Political correctness suggests that when we say or do things that are insulting to a minority group, it doesn't matter if we don't realize that it's offensive, it's still considered an indicator of something more iniquitous deep within our psyche. Political correctness suggests that such an "insensitivity" demonstrates that we are actually racist, deep down, whether we know it or not.

I hope, Ben, that the above explanation helps you understand why so many people find political correctness so distasteful. In arguments about political correctness, the two sides almost always talk past one another because they're each using the term to refer to completely different things. I assume, for example, that when you don't understand why someone thinks political correctness is harmful to society, you think of it in terms of being considerate of others and trying to eliminate morally offensive language. But someone arguing against political correctness is thinking in terms of unjustified accusations of racism and sexism based on nothing more than someone's interpretation of one little thing a person said or did.

Now you may be thinking to yourself: "Isn't all that an exaggeration? Surely it's not really that extreme." And the answer is, yes, to a certain extent, it is an exaggeration. Like most terms of derision, "political correctness" was most widely used by adversaries attempting to ridicule the ideas they oppose by creating an exaggerated straw-man they could easily knock down. The actual "PC debate" had a brief but fiery lifespan with a huge flurry of articles in the popular press in the early 1990s. In those articles we see a concerted effort of fear-mongering, comparing political correctness to McCarthyism and the Hitler Youth. The reality was far less dramatic. Overt accusations of racism and sexism were uncommonly few and far between.

The negative aspects of political correctness, however, are still festering in our collective conscious. We feel it whenever we engage in conversation. We're all too aware of that little cautionary voice in the back of our minds: "I better be careful what I say, in case someone misinterprets my words and jumps to the conclusion that I'm racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic/etc." It's an ever moving target. We never know which words might trigger someone to suspect the worst of us. That's what most of us find so worrisome about political correctness. Will political correctness be the "ruin of this country," as Bob and others assert? I don't think so. I think our society is far too resilient for that.

I do think, however, that the pervasive presence of the politically correct attitude causes a serious problem—but for a very different reason. And this is where I see the truly sad consequences of political correctness at work in our culture. Facing the fact that our words and actions might affect other people in a negative way is difficult, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. It would be easier if we just didn't have to worry about it. None of us want to be, purposely or inadvertently, mean-spirited, derisive, or insulting towards others. In our day to day direct interactions with others we generally strive to be kind, neighborly, and considerate. But when considering a large group of people with whom we rarely come into contact—people who are different from us and far removed from our immediate experience—that compulsion we normally feel for compassion and empathy is seriously lessened, and it's easy to let that concern for morally offensive language fall by the wayside. Like starving children in Somalia, those other people are so outside our immediate experience of life that we don't give them much thought.

But what I see happening all too often is that the genuine concern for morally offensive language gets rolled up into the discredited notion of political correctness and conveniently dismissed out of hand along with it. Basic concerns for empathy, decency and respect for others become collateral casualties as we mock and dismiss political correctness. As I said in a previous message, concern for morally offensive lyrics is not about being politically correct. It's about taking the effort to step outside our narrow, confined perspectives on the world and trying to understand how the things we do and say affect other people. So when it comes to questions like whether lyrics that refer to blacks as "darkies" are demeaning, we flippantly blow it off and say "That's just politically correct nonsense." But virtues such as empathy, consideration, and compassion are far too important to be conveniently dismissed like that. This is why political correctness is so insidious. It's given people license to dismiss common decencies and considerations by simply lumping them in with the broader concept of political correctness. It would be nice if we didn't have to ever think about it. But we live inextricably as part of a society, so we can't shirk that responsibility.

That brings us back to the earlier question that I left hanging: Why do we hear no complaints about editing superficially offensive language (like cusswords), while at the same time we try so hard to evade the responsibility of editing morally offense language?

I would suggest that part of the reason might be found in a phenomenon known in social psychology as "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance refers to the fact that we can't hold two diametrically opposed ideas simultaneously, so when that situation comes up for us, we have to alleviate the dissonance by dealing with one of the two opposing viewpoints. As a simple example: if you're a smoker, you know that smoking is harmful to your health, yet you are smoking nonetheless. So to relieve that cognitive dissonance you need to either quit smoking or convince yourself that smoking isn't really that harmful to your health. For over 50 years, literally thousands of observational and experimental studies in social psychology research have revealed many of the tactics that all of us use to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

The most interesting research (to this philosophy geek's mind, anyway) is in the domain of moral dilemmas. Generally speaking, all of us are kind, compassionate, caring people. But every now and then we do or say things that are not so kind, compassionate or caring. That creates cognitive dissonance, and somehow we have to reconcile those two conflicting pieces of information. One of the most common techniques is to employ rationalization maneuvers to convince ourselves that there's really nothing wrong with what we're doing. As kind, compassionate, caring people, we would never say demeaning, humiliating, or degrading things directly to other people. Yet that is just what we're doing when we sing morally offensive lyrics. One way of alleviating that cognitive dissonance is to justify why we choose to ignore the issue. We might put forth an exaggeration that is easy to dismiss such as "ANY song you sing will be offensive to SOMEbody," or we might convince ourselves that those people are just being too sensitive, or we might dismiss the whole issue as nonsense and say, "Just don't worry about it. Blow the pitch and sing already." All of these tactics would help us to alleviate the dissonance.

But there is another way, a very different way. You could go the other direction, acknowledge that this is a problem and do something about it, just as Kenny did: "My thinking was, if the song offended Rick, it would offend others." Kenny had the rare opportunity to hear first-hand, from someone he knows and respects, that the words he was singing were insulting to that person. And, he had the wisdom to listen to his friend and to be sympathetic and understanding, so he decided to stop performing that song. But absent such direct confrontation, it's all too easy for us to blow it off and dismiss such concerns by labeling them "politically incorrect" and mischaracterizing them as superficially offensive. But ask yourself: if a good friend of yours came to you after a show and told that one of the songs you sang was deeply insulting and demoralizing to him, would you respond with, "Get over it. Don't be so sensitive."? I don't think any of us would.

Most of the songs we sing contain nothing offensive at all, while a few are unquestionably morally offensive. Ben McDaniel asked, "So, where do you draw the line?" Where indeed? I think Rob Campbell pinpointed it quite accurately with two excellent examples that fall on either side of that line. First, he said, "certainly some [songs] have needed fixing to remove racist overtones. We’ve rightly done that. 'Darkies hummin' a good old tune' became 'Folks are hummin' a good old tune.'" In those cases he was referring to fairly obvious racist overtones. Contrast that with his second example: "Some years ago on the publications subcommittee,... we decided not to publish 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo' because of 'pardon me boy....' And using 'boy' would possibly offend some as-yet-unknown black person somewhere out there in hypothetical-land, therefore we shouldn’t publish it." I agree with Rob that this second judgement, like "mammy," is a good example of over-analyzing the situation.

I can't reiterate enough, this is not a question of "political correctness," nor is it a question of whether the lyric might hypothetically, superficially "offend" some individual or group. Let's get those terms out of the discussion. Rather, let's try to be more precise about just what we think is wrong with questionable lyrics. When you're evaluating lyrics that you think might be inappropriate, don't be content to ask the simplistic questions, "Is this politically correct?" or "Might this be offensive to someone?" Such questions are too vague to be effective. Instead, take advantage of the wide range of descriptors in our language so that you can determine, with precision, just what you find wrong with any given lyric. Say, rather, that "This lyric is insulting," or "That lyric is demoralizing." Say that the words are disrespectful, degrading, belittling, devaluing, demeaning, humiliating, abusive, debasing, vilifying, slanderous, defamatory, stigmatizing, marginalizing, exclusionary, denigrating—whatever adjectives you can find that will allow you to explain just what you think is wrong with those lyrics. All those terms capture subtle distinctions. Don't give in to the temptation to treat the issue simplistically with generic terms like "offensive." Give it some serious thought. Talk to someone about it who you think might be affected by it. Identify exactly what is wrong. Make a decision. Adjust a lyric if it needs adjusting. THEN let's blow the pitch and sing.

P.S. For anyone geeky enough (like me) to be interested in the history and arguments involved with political correctness, you can find the majority of articles that form the corpus of the "PC debate" in two excellent collections:

For more information about the concept of cognitive dissonance, see: