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Kakutani’s “Word Police” Essay

In Michiko Kakutani’s essay, “The Word Police,” the author uses examples, illustrations and definitions to support the claim that our language is on the brink of absurdity because we hide our true identities and inequalities with euphemisms. In regard to euphemisms, Kakutani states that they “tend to distract attention from the real problems of prejudice and injustice in society” (423). Although the essay is persuasive and supported well, the author falls short of persuading her unbiased audience because of repetitive and tedious criticisms of the politically correct movements. Her argument lacks absolution in her failure to provide her audience with an alternative solution.

Kakutani opens with the claim the political correctness is prevalent in society today. For support she uses several examples of icons that are being redeveloped to appease the growing demand for P.C. These include Little Miss Coppertone, who will soon have a male equivalent, and Superman, who will come in four new flavors. In using these familiar, mainstream products, Kakutani sways the audience in her direction while consolidating her claim. She also makes us aware of her aversion to politically correct movements with the use of her sarcasm in renovating the words “Miss” and “Superman.” The author then discusses a more considerable issue, that of the controversy over our language.

“Political correctness” defined by Kakutani as “a vision of a more just, inclusive society in which racism, sexism and prejudice of all sorts have been erased,” (421) has good intent, but the methods used by politically correct activists to achieve their goals are too extreme. This, in turn, will just lead to the “scorn of conservative opponents and the mockery of cartoonists and late-night television hosts” (421). To validate her claim, Kakutani uses the example of a woman changing “testimony” to “ovarimony” at a Modern Language Association. This illustration supports her claim and persuades the audience to agree that the techniques used by P.C. radicals are excessive. To further her claim, she also adds a list of commonly used words and phrases, such as “charley horse” and “lazy susan” that, in a politically correct language, would never be acceptable and debates the necessity and feasibility of changing them.

The author also believes that the trendy surge of P.C. dictionaries becoming available to us is forming a new way of speaking and writing. The majority of Kakutani’s backing for this is Rosalie Maggio’s book The Bias-Free Word Finder, a Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language. Maggio offers over 5,000 prejudice words and phrases to avoid, as well as techniques on how to make one’s speaking and writing less offensive. In order to support her argument that politically correct language is on the verge being ridiculous, she farcically reconstructs several popular phrases with the use of Maggio’s “dictionary.” Leonardo DiVinci’s “Mona Lisa” becomes his “acme of perfection,” while “king of the jungle” becomes “monarch of the jungle.” The extreme illustration is an excellent technique for convincing her audience, but her narrow breadth of sources causes the reader to doubt whether or not she has any other support.

Kakutani then inquires as to who will accept and live by these P.C. rules. Her use of satire as a persuasion technique is very efficient when she states that Maggio’s book will most likely never become a staple in the average classroom, or be “adopted by the average man (sorry, individual)” (421). She then argues that these “P.C. dictionaries” only create confusion among there own supporters with there self-contradictions.

More proof for Kakutani’s claim is an example from Language, Gender, and Professional Writing, by Francine Wattman Frank and Paula A. Treichler of the Modern Language Association. In the book, Frank and Treichler state that using “he” or “she” is an “appropriate construction for talking about an individual (like a jockey, say) who belongs to a profession that’s predominantly male” (422). Kakutani points out that later in the book, the authors contradict themselves by stating, “using masculine pronouns rhetorically can underscore ongoing male dominance in those fields, implying the need for change” (422). This example regains the trust of Kakutani’s readers. The citation accomplishes its goal in influencing the audience to agree with her claim and causes the reader to wonder what good the politically correct activists are doing if they cannot even agree with their selves. With the readers trust regained and the support of Kakutani’s belief, the author proceeds into her most persuasive argument.

Kakutani discusses Maggio’s suggestion to substitute politically incorrect words and phrases with symbols in order to draw attention to the fact that those words and phrases are improper. Rebutting this idea, Kkautani proclaims that Maggio’s philosophy offers no real solution to remove bigotry from our country. In actuality, Maggio’s suggestions focus only on the surface of the word or phrase being corrected and not it’s content. Kakutani supports her claim with the example of when Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was under consideration for being eliminated from school curriculums because it was labeled racist due to the fact that it included the word “nigger.” By using such a well-known incident, Kakutani again convinces the reader to agree with her claim, in part because of the common ground that the incident creates. The support succeeds in persuading and building communion with the reader since most well educated individuals have read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and are aware that the book has no racist purpose.

Kakutani then argues that the politically correct actions taken to correct our language are in reality distorting the meanings of the words being attacked. Using the pamphlet, “Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases” as an example, Kakutani lists non-prejudicial words that are labeled discriminatory. She relates her claim to words used to describe the Vietnam War and Watergate by the government. Using two incidents that are associated negatively to the reader, the author succeeds in convincing her audience.

Kakutani next repeats her allegation that the replacing of politically correct words by symbols or other words is not a solution to end problems, instead it will “make it easier to shrug off the seriousness of their situation” (423). Once again, Kakutani retreats to an example from Maggio’s book to probe her claim. Concluding, Kakutani states that the actions taken by the politically correct activists are being “purchased at the cost of freedom of expression and freedom of speech” (424). She ends her argument with an illustration of how the Gettysburg Address would sound if it had been written in a politically correct manner.

Overall, Kakutani loses the readers attention towards the end of her debate. She convinces the unbiased audience that the politically correct movements are flawed, but fails to full persuade them to agree with her view that they are ineffective. The use of so many examples from the same source entices the reader to ponder the legitimacy of her arguments. One book is not enough ground to convince a sophisticated, intelligent reader. Moreover, Kakutani’s neglect to suggest an alternative solution to the one offered by the politically correct advocates makes her essay seem unfinished, and casts a negative shadow over Kakutani’s entire debate.

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