• Ty Vuong

I don't do 'Politeness'

Updated: Oct 1, 2020


With an election coming up and as I find myself, again, exploring two political candidates for the major parties that I don't entirely agree with, or really even like very much for that matter, my brain begins to think through philosophical rationalities in an attempt to ascertain the core-characteristic principles driving these would-be US Presidents so as to choose whom I feel would best reflect my views of our country.

Today, I awoke with this thought in mind. "What does speaking, or not speaking, in a politically correct manner tell us?"

Initial searching into the topic found an article by Rosenblum, Schroeder, & Gino (2020) that provides evidence for the idea that being politically incorrect, or "telling it like it is", promotes an authenticity of character. Their research claims conservative folks are more likely to see politically incorrect language as a sign of an authentic person, where liberals see it as "cold" to speak in that manner. (As an aside I was curious what it meant to be conservative so the definitions of conservative and liberal I am bringing to the table are based on The Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy below).

This just raised further questions. Why does seeing someone speaking in a politically incorrect manner seem to promote authenticity in conservative people? Intuitively, it would seem to say that conservatives relate to this type of direct un-restrained speaking because it matches some innate sense within people to speak in an un-reserved way, and that is a natural sense to have.

Dana, my wife, happened to walk by and notice my blog post and was kind enough to point out people prefer the simple language because it is easier for them to understand. Which led me to think, do people prefer the simpler language because it is easier for them to fill in the ambiguity how they see fit? Are we appreciating simple because simple lets me define it how I want, whereas complex is, well, less flexible.

The use of flowery or softened technical language would be argued by some that it takes away from the field of characteristics that the listener is decoding in their head (aside #2, remember communication is a complex thing and when we speak we are conveying information following a process of encoding, transmitting and decoding). It would seem the use of simpler language, for example calling an individual 'not a hero' because they were a P.O.W., isn't entirely wrong, but it isn't entirely right either. It is a broad statement and it depends on how we are defining a 'hero' or even 'war-hero'. When politically correct individuals would avoid calling a war-veteran 'not a hero because they were captured' they are being more sensitive to the fact that the language and words can be used more broadly and avoiding certain implications. What characteristics define a 'hero' and what defines a 'war-hero' can be more idiosyncratic, or individually defined.

We all have to understand words mean things. Our minds build these characteristics of what a 'hero' is and places these characteristics into our mental category of a 'war-hero'. We do this from a cultural level, but also on an individual one. Now, if I were to mentally imagine a prototypical war hero, I would imagine a man, bulk-chested, adorned with metals, scarred face showing signs of his tough-fought battles. If I were to imagine a POW, it is a man in a cage or jail cell, wearing army fatigues, sad, more scrawny looking (this shows in many ways my intrinsic biases). These images in my head are both a creation of my internal schemas (individually) of how my brain has defined these words and a product of my culture and upbringing (socially) for I would not even have the pieces/experiences/insight of others from war movies and video games and/or wherever had I not been a part of some social culture (and more specifically in my case an US American Midwestern culture).

So the question becomes, which of these is right? Is it right to follow the established mental constructs of what it means to be a war-hero? Bulk-chested man with scars and metals? Or should I remain sensitive to the fact, not belief but FACT, that someone else may very likely view a war-hero different from me?

A conservative nature would be inclined to follow the cultural organism. They would be inclined to say a war hero is a war hero, a man is a man, a cow is a cow, basing their standpoints on the aggregate of shared cultural experiences. It's not wrong to view it that way. It is NOT wrong to interpret language as it is culturally defined. The problem doesn't come from using the aggregate of experience to define language and constructs. The problem is making assumptions as you do it and not recognizing you're making assumptions. Let me explain...

The use of broad language such as 'hero' or 'sad' or 'bad' versus more technical language like "experienced nurse who has saved the lives of 3 patients" or "emotionally distraught and crying" or "purple-shirted-eyeball-stabber" is that is forces the person hearing the language to define it based on their own experiences. And while we are very good at coming up with working definitions, we are not great statistical rationalizers (a rant for a different time). We tend to fall into a trap of thinking we know the average or the most acceptable language, when really we are basing that off of whatever we have personally experienced through our culture (this is where multi-cultural religious texts come in handy). We are using cultural language. Cultural language, while useful tends to fall prey to in-group and out-group biases. We tend to make the assumptions that the language we are using is appropriate for everyone and makes sense to everyone. But, it just doesn't. It can't, there is ALWAYS an area of unique experience each person bring to the table. When we fail to consider these unique experiences outside of our own mind (things outside the box of thinking) we are, in many cases, disregarding the individual nature of language. But at the same time if we are overly sensitive to it, we are using overly complex and inefficient language. ... A tricky place to be.

So to clarify, it could be possible that conservative natured people are more apt to prefer broad language as it allows for more self-initiated, or internal rationalization, of the words used. It implies that what is said is "good enough" and why overcomplicated what does not need to be complicated. Let me state clearly "THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS VIEWPOINT" and that it is very much in our human nature to do this. Our natural tendency to feel self-validated by hearing words that we are internally defining in a way we think is culturally correct is natural, but in some senses is confirmation bias. But, as I feel I need to point out, just because it is in our nature does NOT make it something completely acceptable in all situations.

The answer, it seems, here is that we need to use language appropriately. We need to conjure the appropriate images when speaking, and also be technical as possible without being overly technical. We need to be acutely aware that even in using technical language there are still possible ambiguities and mis-understandings. In many ways, this sounds like being politically correct. And while I don't think being PC is always required, it is a more humble approach. It is conveying that you are doing your best to use the right words, but also understand that you may be wrong and that the cultural and personal interpretations may be different. Being PC is having a respect for an individualistic interpretation of language.

Now... forcing people to be speak in a PC manner...well that's a different story...

Rosenblum, M., Schroeder, J., & Gino, F. (2020). Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(1), 75–103. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000206

Hamilton, Andy, "Conservatism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/conservatism/>.

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