UCLA law prof Eugene Volokh spends some serious time with the question of “whether people have some sort of good-manners obligation to abandon ‘disabled’ for ‘handicapped,’ ‘American Indian’ for ‘Native American,’ ‘black’ for ‘African American,’ and so on. I think the answer is generally no, unless the old term is so commonly used as a pejorative that listeners can reasonably infer that your use of it is pejorative, or possibly if the old term is so rarely used and thus archaic that listeners can reasonably wonder ‘what does he mean by that?’ when they hear it (e.g., ‘Negro’ or ‘Hebrew’ as a noun to refer to Jews). The mere fact that some members of a group, or even a majority of the members of a group, prefer the new term doesn’t impose on us an obligation to use the new term.”

He gives five reasons, and the comments are intelligent, but the second comment hit me between the eyes:

“It seems like ‘political correctness’ as a trend over the last 25 yrs has paralleled a decline in the large-scale social / political appetite for ongoing substantive reform. For example, since nobody in the majority REALLY wants to face up to the difficult problems still facing black America, members of the majority can pat themselves on the back for remembering to say ‘African-American’.

“Meanwhile, the majority can convince African-Americans that they’ve won some kind of important concession by persuading polite, civil Americans to adopt this term.

“It’s like the boss who boosts morale by giving her employees impressive-sounding new titles to do the same jobs for the same pay. Cosmetic appeasement distracts from the substantive failure.”