LAURA HESLOP considers whether ‘political correctness’ and freedom of speech can live in harmony together

Despite its rise in prevalence as a concept over the past 30 years, political correctness still does not enjoy the approval of many people. Even though political correctness is a term used to apply to many dimensions of behaviour, it is particularly interesting to look at how mere language use can generate vitriol and even police involvement. Allan and Burridge (2006: 90) argue that ‘[B]ecause it is politically driven, political correctness will obviously attract more attention, and certainly more hostility, than most acts of linguistic censoring’.

In July of this year, comedian Frankie Boyle, whose humour is widely known to be controversial, received heavy criticism in British newspapers for saying on Twitter that Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington had a ‘dolphin face’. As Nick Owens (2012) reports, the tweet also generated responses in abundance from angry Twitter users who demanded Rebecca Adlington receive an apology from the comedian. Comedy thrives on controversy; once we start telling comedians that they have to stop making jokes that might offend somebody, we effectively end the career of every comedian and comedy writer on the planet. When people defend examples like this, it is not the joke which is being defended, it is a person’s right to make it.

As reported by Jerome Taylor (2012), in October, a twenty-year-old man was arrested and sentenced to 240 hours of community service after posting the message ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’ on his Facebook page after six British soldiers died in Afghanistan. Yes, the message was shocking and incredibly insensitive, but was it really criminal? Is it the case that political correctness, a concept which, at its core, has good intentions, has led us to a point where people can actually be arrested and convicted for being a bit nasty? The comment undoubtedly offended many people, but why is it that people get so angry about an emotion which is completely relative?

Causing offence is what political correctness seeks to prevent, and it is definitely a well-meaning and righteous aspiration, but it is also unattainable. The only way such a utopia could exist is if every single human being on the planet was offended by the same things and were offended by those things to the same extent as everyone else. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

So, who gets to decide what is and is not offensive? There are lots of things that I am offended by that you might not be, just as there will be things that you find offensive that I do not. My point is, we are all offended by something. Nobody has an opinion that they do not think is the right one, but we must accept that our ability to think and speak freely is a privilege which is granted to everyone. Someone’s right to say what they like does not mean you will be forced to agree with or adopt their views; you have the exact same right to disagree, and that is what is so great about free speech.

LAURA HESLOP,  English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

Allan, K. Burridge, K. (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. United States: Cambridge University Press.

Owens, N. (2012) [Accessed 22 November 2012] Available at:

Taylor, J. (2012) [Accessed 22 November 2012]. Available at:


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