Sacrificing language for political correctness

There was a letter to the editor not long ago where a local professor objected to the phrasing of a headline.

A story in the Jan. 10 edition featured the headline, “Educating Maine’s Autistic Children.” This phrase is representative of how the Kennebec Journal often refers to people with disabilities, and I am requesting that you adopt person-first language as editorial policy.

Person-first language is a widely accepted practice that acknowledges the power of language to control and “otherize” people with disabilities.

As a professor of special education at the University of Maine at Farmington, I emphasize the importance of using person-first language to our future teachers, and I am disappointed when our own newspaper does not model accepted and standard writing practices for our students.

This professor (Rick Dale) has good intentions here, but he’s pushing the limits. First, this whole person-first business assumes the reason someone might say “autistic child” instead of “child with autism” is based upon a lack of concern for the child. That isn’t true and, if anything, is insulting to a huge swath of individuals who genuinely care about those with autism. Second, how is person-first language “standard”? It’s a relatively recent trend for political correctness. Whether it’s right or not is one question that can be debated, but whether it’s standard or not is not up for discussion: it lies outside the bounds of normal writing and discourse and is primarily the concern of those in the relevant field (as Dale notes later on) or with relatives afflicted with disorders like autism.

Observing person-first language requires the use of phrases that emphasize the person and not the disability. For example, the headline in question would become “Educating Maine’s Children With Autism.” Realizing that newspapers have space considerations, I want to point out that the suggested phrase is only three characters (including spaces) longer than the headline the KJ used.

My objection here is that this is so obviously unwieldy; it is not a concise way of writing or speaking. It reminds me of the movement to use “he/she” or “him or her” in place of male-only pronouns. It’s an ugly way to write a thing. Furthermore, it reminds me of the other part of that movement where people insist on using female-only pronouns in place of male-only pronouns where gender is not relevant. All that does is bring gaudy attention to an issue which is in all likelihood irrelevant to the subject at hand. The difference, however, is that with the female/male pronoun debate, it’s a result of a shortcoming of the English language. With the person-first argument, there is no shortcoming; the traditional phrasing (“autistic child”) is born of an outside convention.

Another issue is one raised in the Wikipedia article to which I linked. Some people view their situation not as one of disability, but rather as part of their identity. It’s a valid issue; imagine talking to Jesse Jackson and referring to him as a person who is black. I would hazard a guess that he’d prefer to be called a black person; his color is an integral piece of him and how he defines himself. (And if I happened to pick a bad example – and I don’t think I did – then this can obviously apply to plenty of other people, at any rate.)


The The Impotence of Proofreading

Today’s horoscope

Do something vaguely positive. But watch out for vaguely negative consequences. And above all, be direct and ambiguous.