I think it's a given that it is morally worthwhile to pick polite words rather than rude words. No, seriously. Nobody who expects to be taken seriously uses openly racist terms in public, for example. But the question is how far to take this basic principle. This gets into philosophical questions of how far language influences reality, and also political questions about where the ideal balance is between avoiding offence and using language expressively. Actually, both those principles are pretty important to me. I strongly don't want to insult anyone by using an inappropriate term to describe them, but I also care very much about precise and meaningful communication.
We all agree that racism is bad
On one level, it's a matter of basic respect. Yes, it can sometimes seem as if the fashion for which terms to use changes with the wind, and the whole system can look very fraught and complicated, or in many cases silly. But the thing is, if you can't be bothered to find out how someone wants to be referred to, that essentially means that you can't be bothered to make even a small effort to avoid insulting and hurting them. Of course, you can innocently get it wrong, because yes, the correct word to use is going to depend in a detailed and unpredictable way on the preferences of an individual and the situation and so on. I think the appropriate response in that case is to apologize and switch to the preferred term. Insisting on continuing to use the offensive term once you know it's offensive is extremely rude. Of course, a lot of the time you're just talking about a group of people in the abstract, and you don't have a specific individual around to express a preference. I think it's morally right to make a reasonable effort to find what the generally accepted terms are in that sort of situation.
Having said that, I am wary of euphemisms. It seems to me that a statement like "It's a well established fact that African-Americans have lower IQs on average than Caucasians" is much more racist and dangerous than a statement like "See that black guy over there? He works with my mum." (For that specific example, I feel very weird about the term "African-American", because very few of the black people I know are either African or American. However, see the previous paragraph about respect; if someone prefers to be called African-American rather than black, it's rude and obnoxious for me to grumble about that preference.) To me, though, the formal sounding terms for ethnic groups actually promote the idea that "race" is a real and important characteristic, and allow people to say things that are actually really offensive while superficially coming across as rational and objective. I also really don't like the hodgepodge of skin colour terms with geographical terms, nor the implication that there's something insulting about mentioning the fact that someone is black.
It's more of a grey area when we get into terms that are not direct references to ethnic groups, but are metaphors and figures of speech which may or may not have insulting connotations. It's not helped because there are loads of urban myths around such terms; no, niggardly is nothing to do with thinking that black people are mean. (Though if a particular person felt offended at this term, I would probably avoid it in their presence, even though they're wrong on etymological grounds.) At the opposite end of the range, a thoughtful person probably should look for an alternative simile to replace working like a black. There are lots of examples in between; is it racist to use fair for beautiful, for example?
What about gender?
When it comes to sexist language, there seems to be much less broad agreement than with racism (though as I've outlined, there's still a range of views about that topic). Even actively insulting terms for women (bitch, cunt, pussy, etc) are arguably acceptable in some circumstances. Though I think that someone who referred to women in general as "bitches" would probably face as much social opprobrium as an open racist. I am not absolutely convinced that calling a mean person a bitch or a cowardly person a pussy hurts women in general, but it seems likely that it might, so I'm leaning towards the opinion that I should stop using such epithets. Then there are terms which are thought of as sexist, but aren't insults as such, like bird, chick, sometimes girl, and so on. I think they're pretty context dependent in many cases, but it's good to be aware of them.
The other hot button issue is terms which do not insult women, but which seem to imply that men are at least the default, if not actively superior. I'm really conflicted about those. The argument that saying chairman rather than chairperson makes it harder for women to take charge of meetings and companies seems really implausible to me. However, there does seem to be increasing evidence that this sort of thing really does matter. Words that mark women as exceptional seem to be a bad idea; I don't at all regret the demise of lady doctor / doctoress or undergraduette. Things like actress and waitress seem to be heading the same way, but some people think that actor and waiter are explicitly gendered masculine, and want to say waitron / waitstaff, and er, what's the gender neutral form of actor? Although it grates, altering words which actually refer to a man is probably worthwhile, though replacing them with reasonable neologisms seems more likely to succeed than using clunky constructions where man becomes person. I really can't buy in to the idea that it's needful to find-and-replace every possible incidence of a syllable that sounds like it might have to do with men, because that just leads to monstrosities like herstory, girlcott, a-people, personscript and the like.
Pronouns. I think English very much needs a true epicene pronoun, and I think any effort to create one is very nearly doomed. (Mainly I think it's needed to allow people to opt out of picking sides in the gender binary, but I think that too is a feminist goal, as well as helping uncomplicatedly female identified women.) Short of that, the question arises about what to do when writing about hypothetical people. I was resistant for a long time to altering the generic he which has become standard at least for formal writing, but now I know more about the history of how singular they was deliberately marginalized, I am prepared to relax my prescriptivist stance and accept that singular they is correct because it comes naturally to most native speakers. (Swedish people speaking English tend to use the formally correct generic he, and it's actually starting to sound weird and stilted to my ears.) Also, partly because feminists have kicked up a fuss about it, he now sounds explicitly male, and therefore should be avoided. I think it's more important to think about the content of writing, and not assume that a generic person is male unless otherwise specified, but making an effort with pronouns may help to counter that lazy assumption. It should go without saying that when speaking about an individual, I will try to find out, and subsequently respect, that person's choice of pronoun.
Gender neutral liturgy
One subset of the debate about gendered language is how one handles religious texts to avoid implying that God is male, or that worshippers always are. This is something I'm very much involved in, because I end up leading services and dealing with liturgy a whole lot. Of course, in this case, there are pretty strong conservative forces, as there's a real value in keeping texts familiar. I am generally on board with altering language to get away from the metaphor of God as an old man in the sky, primarily because God is not supposed to be a super-powered person, as much as because that might lead to people thinking God is male. So, let's translate God's name as "Eternal One", rather than "Lord"; the latter is a translation of a euphemism, but it definitely carries unwanted connotations, and it seems more theologically valid to refer to God as the root of existence (though of course we don't pronounce the Divine name in Hebrew) than as a powerful feudal leader. I don't know if the use of the male pronoun for God historically meant that God was seen as male, but it certainly comes across that way now, so I generally avoid pronouning God at all where I can. Of course, there are also plenty of neutral and abstract terms for God, Almighty, All-present, Holy One, Most High, and so on.
In contrast, I don't think we should throw out the metaphors which talk of God in masculine terms. Source of our life and our Sovereign is a horrible, weak rendition of Our Father, our King. There is an emotional resonance to talking about God as Man of war, Lord of Hosts, Hero, Champion etc, which is completely lost if those are replaced by gender neutral terms which also happen to be completely abstract. My preference instead is to emphasize the feminine metaphors for God alongside the masculine ones. Let's talk about God as Maternal and Nurturing, not just Merciful or Gracious. Let's delve into the texts which cast the Shechinah, the In-dwelling Presence of the imminent aspect of God, as explicitly feminine.
When it comes to talking about the worshippers, mostly the same arguments apply as for using gender-neutral language about hypothetical people in a secular context. The vast majority of the liturgy uses "we" anyway, so gender is a non-issue there. But where that doesn't work, I think it's good to be sensitive and make it clear that the community includes women. What I'm not so keen on is the attempt to find a female counterpart every time a historical male figure is mentioned, saying Abraham-and-Sarah in place of Abraham, and so on. I think that's actually counterproductive, because it makes the women seem like appendages to their husbands and brothers. Miriam wasn't the "counterpart" of Moses, she was a person in her own right, so let's talk about her actual history, rather than attributing the stories about Moses to Moses-and-Miriam. The thing that really riles me is people taking the noun adam, which explicitly means human (not man), as if it were the proper name Adam, and changing it to Adam-and-Eve. That's just illiterate, and actually takes away one of the very few gender neutral terms available in Hebrew.
(I am talking mainly about translation here. Hebrew has no grammatical neuter at all, it's a purely bi-gendered language, so trying to make it gender neutral just linguistically doesn't work. I suppose one could try to use the feminine plural as generic in place of the masculine, but it would be very unnatural and not particularly helpful, because there's just no way round the issue when talking about anything in the singular. Also, it's a lot easier to update translations than change original texts; I'm willing to change prayers when there's a good reason, but not gratuitously. And like most Jews across the spectrum, I'm not willing to alter Scripture in any way.)
Extending the argument
If I haven't stirred up controversy by now, I suspect I'm about to, when I talk about other discriminated groups. Note that I'm not saying that other forms of prejudice are analagous to racism, but rather that some of the same arguments apply. We want the world to be a better place for people who are currently disadvantaged, and we want the people we are talking about to feel respected. The same question therefore arises, how far can deliberately politically correct language help with these goals, and is it worth the annoyance of having to change habits and slightly restrict what can be said?
The issue I feel most strongly about is also the one that is most difficult to convince people of. I want to think very seriously about using language which may potentially hurt people with disabilities. At least among politically aware circles, people are just starting to notice that it's not appropriate to throw around terms like retard and spaz as insults. But even that basic politeness isn't anything like universal. Aside from using disability related terms as actual insults, many people use outdated words and phrases to talk about people with disabilities in what they believe is a neutral manner, but is actually perceived as offensive by many, words like cripple, handicapped, wheelchair-bound and so on. I understand why people are resistant to changing their habits with this sort of thing, because it's distressing to learn that you are accidentally offending people when you think you're a perfectly nice person (but just haven't kept up with the latest trends).
Indeed, it seems to me, as an outsider to the disability rights community, that there isn't quite a consensus yet about how to use language. For example, I am following the so-called "person-first" mode of saying people with disabilities rather than the disabled, but among groups that have a strong cultural identity, such as the Deaf and autistic communities, this isn't favoured, because they often don't want to talk about an impairment as a separate thing that has happened to them, but rather as an element of who they are. I don't claim to be an expert at all, but it's something I'm aware of. Even though it can be fairly fraught, I do think it's worth it to try to use language in a way that makes the world more friendly to a large minority who have dealt with some really horrendous issues of discrimination both historically and currently.
If it's hard to convince people to say uses a wheelchair rather than confined to a wheelchair, it's next to impossible to put the argument regarding disability related metaphors. I suspect part of the problem is that people actually do hold ableist prejudices, so it's not as simple as everybody agreeing that we should support people with disabilities, but arguing about whether politically correct language is an effective way to do this. Instead, a lot of people are stuck on the so-called "medical model" of disability, seeing disabilities purely as bad things which can happen to people, and obviously you can use a bad thing as a metaphor for another bad thing. But if you take into account the idea that a disability may also be part of a person's identity, then it can become problematic to throw disability terms around to indicate that something is bad, horrible, stupid or non-functional. Again, it's clear to me that it's necessary to be sensitive to context and not just find-and-replace "bad" terms with euphemistic equivalents.
I am trying to cure myself of saying that somebody is crazy, lunatic, mental or a nutcase when I mean that their point of view is irrational. Terms for stupidity are awkward, because almost all of them (even idiot) have been used as medical terms at some point in history, and as insults at other points, but ideally I'd like to see cretin and similar terms consigned to the same bin as retard. I am willing to at least hesitate before using crippled or paralysed in a metaphorical sense, or blind and deaf to mean unperceptive. I am rather expecting to get angry comments about this paragraph, because every time I've seen the topic raised, even among generally politically aware people, I've seen major, major resistance to the idea.
Along similar lines, though again not making any direct analogies, I personally would be much happier if fat were not used as a negative intensifier. You can perfectly well call someone a bastard without calling them a fat bastard. And if some unpleasant person happens to be fat, why not criticize them for being unpleasant, rather than implying that everybody with a similar figure is equally disgusting.
Let me try to preempt some of the arguments I expect to be made against the view I'm taking. Yes, linguistic precision is important. If you read my journal at all, you're probably aware that I care very much about both correct grammar and choosing the most apt word to express what I'm trying to say. To some extent, artificial terms created to avoid offence can go against established ways of using the language, and can block off certain forms of expression. I am not dismissing this argument, and it's probably the major reason why I am not full of enthusiasm for political correctness. I think there's a balance between insisting on speaking the same way people did 50 or a hundred years ago no matter who gets hurt, and hacking the language to bits and speaking like a stupid bureaucrat to avoid any possible hint of offence.
Yes, the goal of making language reflect the more just society we want can be subverted by stupid identity politics. Politically correct terms can become shibboleths, which are mainly used to catch out outsiders who don't use vocabulary the same way as a particular activist group. That's what the originally perjorative term "politically correct" was satirizing. Indeed, it is very often people who make "activist" a big part of their identity who make the most fuss about terminology, sometimes ignoring the wishes of the people they are supposed to be supporting. I have read articles about people of American Indian extraction getting into arguments with white people who insisted on calling them "Native Americans" against their express wishes, for example. I think the only thing to do about this down side is to be as educated as one has time for, making sure to listen to members of the relevant minority group as much as possible, not only to advantaged activists talking about them. But that's a good idea in general if you want to work for a fair society, so I don't see this as a major extra burden.
Yes, political correctness can be taken to ridiculous extremes. However, I think a lot of the obviously comic examples are made up by not very witty comedians or people who want an excuse not to have to bother, or even to carry on being bigoted. I don't believe anybody ever seriously proposed the term vertically challenged as a euphemism for short, or insisted on saying chalkboard because blackboard was racist. Certainly nobody outside over-zealous left-wing local authorities in the 70s. Along similar lines, I have little time for the argument that being deliberately politically incorrect is a sign that you're a really direct, honest sort of guy, bravely resisting some vague conspiracy to keep middle class straight white guys down. That kind of argument is almost always a preemptive excuse for making offensive remarks. A person who really objects on principle to any kind of language alteration, or who really can't manage to remember the appropriate terms to use, doesn't need to advertise how bluff and hearty they are. It's a slightly more sophisticated equivalent of saying "I don't mean to be rude, but." It's nothing to do with "free speech" and certainly nothing to do with the surveillance-based dictatorship of 1984.
What to do with people who disagree
In short, nothing. I have very little interest in telling anybody else what they can and can't say. There are certain obviously offensive terms which I will object to hearing, but even those I am not even slightly advocating for making illegal. And for most terms which are arguably offensive, I might think less of someone who uses then, or I might point out why they are considered offensive if the speaker appears to be genuinely ignorant. But I'm not going to take any active steps to get people to change their usage. Language is a very personal thing and people have to make their own decisions about what terms they want to use or avoid. What I'm asking for in this post is for people to be mindful, and think about the ramifications rather than just casually using borderline words because they come naturally. If you decide to put the boundary between offensive and acceptable in a different place from me, I don't have a problem with that decision, but it should be a decision.
I would argue very strongly against censoring any media which contains offensive terms or even offensive concepts. Censorship is bad, mmkay? I'm totally in favour of criticizing media which promotes offensive views or uses dubious terminology, or refusing to support it financially if it's really extreme. People in public positions, particularly politicians [arrgh alliteration alert!], should face career consequences for expressing racist and bigoted views, but they should be perfectly allowed to express them. I should probably mention older works which use terms which would be unacceptable today; I don't give anyone a pass because "everybody was racist in the olden days", or something, but to my mind there's a big difference between using a no longer valid term, such as negro, and actually taking a racist view. It also seems obvious to me that fictional characters are sometimes going to express offensive views and use offensive terms, and that sort of rigour with viewpoint shouldn't be compromised because the author and readers don't agree with the offensive opinions.
Basically, you can say what you like, the question is whether you should.
I've been writing this in bits for a while, but have been very busy. I hope it hasn't grown too rambly and incoherent, and that the thread of the argument is still clear with all the tangents I've included! I'll be surprised and disappointed if it doesn't raise some strong reactions...