This morning I read a short post over at Riley Dad’s Weblog which reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post about adoption language issues.
One of the first things that struck me when I started working at Carolina Hope in 2005 was the lingo. I was told there were certain things I wasn’t allowed to say (e.g., “real mother,” “children of their own” — and many other similar expressions!). Some of the language choices were intuitive, but others struck me as a bit over-reaching. PC, if you will.
My assumption about our blog’s audience is that most (but by no means all) of you are politically conservative. And if your experience in the conservative movement has been anything like mine, you’ve been taught that Politically Correct Language is a hallmark of sloppy liberal thinking which disguises the truth about people, institutions, and relationships. Conservatives, on the other hand, say what they mean, and use logically rigorous language. Right? I mean, come on! “Indian” was good enough for them a century ago. Why should I waste syllables saying “Native American” or (horror of horrors), actually care enough about a person to find out what tribe they’re a part of then refer to them as Cheyenne or Cherokee or Choctaw?
Well there, I’ve tipped my hand. You see, there are at least two good reasons for language we often dismiss as PC.
First, it’s common courtesy to call a person what they ask to be called. My fiancée’s name is RuthAmy. She goes by Amy. She does not go by Ruth. I think we all recognize how rude it is to call someone by a name they prefer not to be called — even if the name we ourselves prefer is “logical”! (I mean, why prefer Amy to Ruth?) The fact is, human communication is not a logically rigorous system. Language is our means of building and maintaining relationships, and relationships are most assuredly not built on logic.
Closely related to the first reason is the following observation about human language: all languages in all cultures have ways of softening or avoiding difficult or taboo topics. It’s not a bad thing that we say “pass on” or “go to be with the Lord” instead of “die.” St. Paul himself talks about “falling asleep.” Softening our language is not dishonest; it’s natural and gracious. In most contexts, “special needs” is so much better than “crippled” or “handicapped.” If you yourself have a disability and you want people to refer to you as “crippled,” I have no beef with you. But if you’re healthy yourself, then you should try to speak compassionately and positively about people who have special needs.
Just a few caveats: Some PC language is so convoluted or round-about that it simply cannot catch on. In my opinion, “differently abled person” fails in so many ways that it’s not worth the effort. Further, some PC language was invented by guilt-ridden people in the majority who never bothered to consult the people in the minority for whom they were devising language. You can safely ignore these people (whom I do not hesitate to call the “thought police”). Also, some PC language is inaccurate. We’re told to say “Inuit languages” rather than “Eskimo languages,” but the first is not synonymous with the second (Eskimo includes both Inuit and Yup’ik). Finally, there’s a whole stream of Political Correctness that is culturally and politically insidious. I’m not talking here about PC as a political philosophy, but instead PC as most of us think of it: substituting nice ways of saying things for harsh or dis-preferred ways of saying things.
I haven’t made much application here to adoption language. I hope this post can be a sort of foundation to later posts about specific aspects of adoption’s “PC” language. I invite your comments and feedback.