While my recollections of first grade are hazy at best, some random memories do stick out in focus: Danny and I were cast as the only two “evil gnomes” in the class play, I got in relatively big trouble for stomping on a sponge to see how deflated I could make it (and encouraging others to do the same), and my desk partner Ramona and I dissected an anchovy with a fork during handwriting class to settle a class bet on bone size. My memories are hazy, but I do recall one small, specific memory from my 2001-02 class year: my first grade teacher had (and still has) the most common form of dwarfism. That teacher told the best stories about King Multiplication and Queen Division during math, made us tea every Friday afternoon, and created a community in which each and every student was assured of love, acceptance, and unconditional kindness.
As I sat down to write this article, I became aware of just how queasy and uncomfortable I become when people use the term “midget” or “dwarf” to reference someone with dwarfism, and I want to figure out why. Maybe I feel this way because I loved my teacher, or perhaps it’s not more than exposure to TLC network shows like “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple.” It may, (as some of you Freudian readers might suggest), stem from some significant parental conditioning that could have occurred to keep those derogatory words out of my vocabulary—but I’m not sure.
I reference my first grade teacher because I want to spend the final 1972 column before winter break discussing the importance of political correctness. Recently, I’ve seen several articles circulating major news sources (and coincidentally, one of our campus publications The Fenwick Review) that challenge the importance of political correctness in our increasingly global world. To paraphrase the common anti-PC trope: political correctness unnecessarily censors free speech to coddle people with “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” To which I reply: enough is enough.
Enough of those voices crying, “political correctness is a creation of the 21st-century.” Now, more than ever, there exists a more expansive realm of “politically correct” terminology, which proves an occasion for celebration and growth, not for bigoted yelps. The people whom “politically correct” terminology ostensibly protects are not a product of the 21st-century—our transgender, gender-fluid, and gender non-conforming neighbors have always been a part of these United States, a part of this America. Just because society has very slowly started to adopt appropriately inclusive language to fully recognize our fellow citizens does not mean that people started existing the same year Silicon Valley really “took off.” Just because colleges and universities recently started issuing real repercussions for students who donned racist and culturally appropriative costumes does not mean that these things were not racist or culturally appropriative before.
Besides, the very notion that “political correctness” emerged as a phenomenon in the 21st century utterly ignores the very history from which it so claims absence. Politically-correct language and terminology does not develop independent of the culture from which it arises; it grows alongside, changes and morphs in conjunction with the general uplift of society. Here’s a sobering thought for those of you who think political correctness is just another way to meaninglessly police free speech in the 21st-century: think about the terms deemed “politically correct” about eighty years ago. Hand in your computer, polio vaccination, and protections under the Social Security Act, and I’ll give you typewriters, polio epidemics, and absent protections. We’ve come far, but why take off your boots when we still have miles more to go westward?
In September, Donald Trump stood in front of the American people and said: “I refuse to be politically correct.” As a woman on a college campus—as a human being in this country—I cannot find the words to articulate why respecting trigger warnings, safe spaces, and basic human dignities are so important. In the face of the overwhelming statistics signaling disproportionate violence, hate crimes, and de facto segregation, I feel that I shouldn’t have to. Tolerance and respect must start here, on a campus of educated, global, and bright young people to best permeate outwards. In the plainest terms possible, if you do not see the value of political correctness, you are not someone who has ever had to fight the labels of those so-called “against political correctness” groups. Today, we begin in recognition to validate all those who compose the fabric of the United States, all those who historically (and currently) reside in the margins of global society. Tomorrow, may we be armed with the politically-correct language to meaningfully say, “We see you, we value you, we stand with you, and we will protect you.”