04/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conservatives Rethink Political Correctness

I have been puzzling over the concern about language that has been demonstrated recently by several prominent conservatives. First there was the jihad a few months ago led by RNC Chairman Michael Steele about Harry Reid's reference to Obama's ability to use (or not) "Negro dialect." From the right came outraged demands for Reid's resignation, if not his head.

Now we have a fresh new linguistic crime -- and conservatives are never soft on crime. A couple of weeks ago, in a private conversation (like Reid, come to think of it), presidential adviser Rahm Emanuel referred to an idea he disapproved of as "retarded." Sarah Palin (naturally) started the outcry, suggesting that Emanuel was guilty of a slur against her son. On The View, the blond and buff conservative Elisabeth Hasselbeck inveighed against Emanuel, insisting several times that he should resign. (At about the same time she was lambasting White House press secretary Robert Gibbs for making fun of Palin for attacking the president for the crime of using a TelePrompTer. Palin herself, of course, wrote her notes on her hand -- a much more virtuous technique -- forgetting that the use of the TelePrompTer was hardly an invention of the evil left, but had been given plenty of use by none other than St. Ronald himself. Hasselbeck went on at length to the effect that Gibbs was wasting America's valuable time, at a moment when our lives were in the balance, on trivia -- something that she and her pal Palin would never do. He should, she opined, resign.)

Why all this commotion on the right over words and their expression? Surely language is the province of the ineffectual intellectual left. One can only wonder if language is coming to the fore of the conservative critique because they have nothing else to attack. But their targets are still troubling.

Consider the attack on retarded. It suggests a conservative ignorance of the way language works, the way words change meaning and connotation over time. Let us consider briefly the history of English words used to describe people of less than average intelligence. During the nineteenth century, the pseudo-science of phrenology was taken very seriously, and experts in that and allied fields worked to devise a scientific-sounding vocabulary for psychology to legitimate its claims to scientific status. At the same time I.Q. tests were developed, so it was -- pardon the expression -- a no-brainer to create a precise-sounding jargon to describe different levels of sub-normal intelligence. The words moron, idiot, and imbecile were put into use as terms of art, each covering a range of I.Q. points. Of course, the whole idea was eventually discredited, and the words returned to the everyday figurative vocabulary of easy verbal abuse.

Likewise, for much of the twentieth century, retarded served as the polite and scholarly term for the same thing. But in time it, too, became too closely associated with its negative implications, and was replaced with a new euphemism: special. This change allowed retarded to move into the figurative realm, as a casual term of abuse equivalent to dummy and its relatives.

Words on the borderlines of respectability tend to work this way: they move from the technical to the polite to the offensive to the casually insulting. Retarded today, for most speakers of English, is no more a slur against people of lower intelligence than is stupid. Nobody -- not Rahm Emanuel and I would bet not Sarah Palin or Elisabeth Hasselbeck -- seriously considers the word specific and technical enough nowadays to mean what conservatives claimed it had been used to mean.

So at best, the yelling was no more than a diversionary tactic, like the threat of a filibuster -- probably best ignored like a two-year-old's tantrum. Or maybe it was well meant, an attempt to come to the aid of a group that needs help, just overdone.

I find it odd that the people who seem so gravely offended at the very idea of a linguistic slur are the same ones who have for many years now been using expressions like "political correctness" to discredit attempts to discourage the use of racial, sexual, and other epithets intentionally used to exclude those so designated from full rights in this society. These are words knowingly used not merely about but to those they describe, and they still are capable of causing real harm. But conservatives now for a couple of generations have been professing bewilderment about why, for instance, they are so touchy about the use of the N-word, while we have no problem with being called honky. Is it possible that conservatives have finally seen the light?

In any case, you have to agree that their touchiness about retarded makes some sense.

African Americans are, quite reasonably, edgy about the use of words meaning "African American."

Jews are, quite reasonably, edgy about the use of words meaning "Jew."

And so it is perfectly expectable for conservatives to be edgy about words meaning "stupid."