by Lucy Kaplan
In the sixth grade, I loved My Chemical Romance. So did all my friends. We would gather in each other’s homes to listen to radio-edit versions of all the hits and sing along to all the classics. Occasionally, we would all share a pair of headphones and someone would hop on YouTube and find the unedited version of the song we wanted to hear.
One day, one of my friends asked my mom if she let me listen to music with bad words in it. I realized that I hadn’t technically ever asked, just assumed the answer was no. My mom said, “There’s something in the world called artistic license. If you’re an artist, you can say anything you want if that’s how you want to express yourself. If a singer, Lucy likes sings curse words, they’re words that are important to the song and what it says.” Finally, I could openly enjoy My Chemical Romance in their complete unadulterated glory, with the passion I could once only feel in private!
Up until this point, most adults in my life had conditioned me to think that curse words were bad. And here was my mom, the biggest influence in my life, telling me they were okay. This totally defined my understanding of art, and it’s a principle I still hold on to; if you are saying what you want to say, you can say it however you damn well please, because controversial words and images can say a whole hell of a lot if you put some thought into it.
Words and images have so much power that they can change the world. But they can deal out a world of hurt if you want them to.
For the purposes of this article, I will call myself politically correct, but really I hate being called that. No one’s ever said “politically correct” with the intent of applauding some hero. Political correctness is something practiced by liberal crybabies and entitled millennials, intent on dismantling free speech, scared of bad words, with nothing better to do than sit around and fight a petty fight against fun. Due to my unfortunate penchant for discourse (okay, arguing) on Facebook, it is definitely a term people have used to describe me. But am I really politically correct? If I hold free speech dear and see the value in saying inflammatory things, can I simultaneously break down free speech and censor anyone who thinks outside the box?
The short answer: no. In reality, I try to be conscious of words and practices that hurt people and contribute to systems of domination. There’s nothing “political” about that. Thinking about how words hurt people is not an issue of the left or the right and certainly is not what drives my votes. I can’t say it is “correct,” either, because I question my own political correctness all the time. Not only would it be cocky, but also it’d be pretty naïve to think that my way of thinking is the only correct way.
Sometimes, my non-political, non-correct political correctness drives me to call out things people say that are hurtful. In my heart of hearts, I think that most people don’t want to hurt other people. Words carry baggage; words drop their history on your head and make you hurt for a long time after. The full scope of that is hard to grasp, especially if there aren’t many words in existence that are specifically meant to hurt you. Remember in elementary school, when your friend made fun of a kid about something they couldn’t help? Remember how your stomach tightened just a little? Remember the moment passing, confusion sitting in your gut, having said nothing to stick up for that kid? That still happens every day. My instinct when I feel it is to just let my brain auto-file it into the place where all the other small injustices of the world go, but more and more I’m becoming brave enough to say something.
When I do say something, the perception often is that I’m accusing someone. Calling out oppressive language is not an accusation; feelings have very little to do with it. I rarely feel angry or upset when I hear oppressive language, because it doesn’t usually affect me directly. When I stop a conversation to address it, I’m not demanding an apology, and I’m certainly not labeling you as some horrible bigot. I’m assuming that you want to learn, just like I do, about the small ways we can improve what we say and how we say it. I’m telling you my story. Sometimes I’m telling you someone else’s story. But I’m definitely telling you a story, and I’m hoping that you get why it might be hurtful for you to say something that disrespects an important story.
I still struggle with this regularly. The braver I feel to speak out, the braver others seem to feel to tell me I’m wrong. When I call someone out, the response is sometimes that the real world cares not for my sensitivities. But aren’t we all in the real world? Is a college campus on another plane of reality from the grocery store, the office, or the DMV? I don’t think so. The fact is we’re all in the same world. This world sucks. It’s racist and sexist and homophobic and ableist and xenophobic and it still is all the things we thought we got rid of in the ‘70s. None of that occurs naturally. We make it happen, which means we can also amend our own behaviors. The way we speak about others impacts how others see us, and it affects social systems. Whether or not ours line up with the social systems that oppress, that’s on us.