LAURA WEBB considers to what extent we should mind our language when it comes to ‘political correctness’

The notion of political correctness, according to Geoffrey Hughes (2010), began when it was stirred up by universities in the 1980s. It was initially concerned with educational reform and this later spread into other aspects of life, such as race, culture and gender; becoming the political correctness we know today. Hughes proposed that the origins of political correctness lie in people’s strict enforcement of what could and couldn’t be said; it sought to eradicate the language which was deemed offensive and derogatory to others, in particular to minority groups.

There is nothing intrinsically offensive about any word – all meaning is arbitrary – and it is the connotations that society attaches to a word which results in people finding it offensive. This can be linked to Saussure’s theory that language consists of signs, the signifier (the word as sounds) and the signified (the concept). The connection between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary and results in words taking their meaning from their relationship with other concepts. Saussure also quantified that the signifier and the signified are inseparable, there is always a thought attached to a word. This is simple to grasp yet there remains much controversy and debate surrounding the positive and negative impact of political correctness in our language.

Political correctness is a loaded phrase which carries many negative connotations, most common of which is the idea that it constantly reduces a person’s right to free speech. Is it the case that ‘indulging’ the rights of minority groups comes at the expense of the freedom of the ‘majority’? Or is censoring a person’s offensive use of various words not an encroachment on freedom, as freedom equates to much more than this? Personal choices on how to speak, act and think can still be made, however this can be done without it being impolite or hurtful. It must be remembered that a group should have the right to monitor the language used by others concerning them in a public domain, particularly from a position of authority or privilege. What is also clear is that what people do and say in private cannot be controlled; and how far this ought to be controlled is another question entirely.

There is no reason for freedom and civility to be contrasting terms; they can remain cohorts if language stays on the side of decency, open-minded values, and to some extent, progress. Political correctness concentrates on power, in particular the power that language has. By carefully constructing language choices it is possible to avoid discrimination or identity-based divisions between ourselves as a society. Is it right to consider the phrase ‘PC Brigade’ as a ‘…word that is overused by closet racists, sexists, homophobes and bigots to describe anyone who dares to challenge their hate speech with the values of respect and common human decency’ as the ‘Urban Dictionary’ does? Or should we challenge the notion of political correctness itself, defining it as ‘organized Orwellian intolerance and stupidity, disguised as compassionate liberalism’? (also taken taken from www.urbandictionary.com).

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

References

Hughes, G. (2010) Political Correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Wiley-Blackwell Publication: West Sussex.

Sanders, C. (2004) The Cambridge Companion to Saussure. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Urban Dictionary. (1999) [Accessed 20 November 2012]. Available at: http://www.urbandictionary.com

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One thought on “LAURA WEBB considers to what extent we should mind our language when it comes to ‘political correctness’

  1. Louise Willis says:

    Reference to Saussure’s theory of signs definitely provokes thought about some of the ways in which language is regulated for the sake of PC. As all words are arbitrary, it doesn’t matter what signifiers we attach to the signified. Surely then, changing words such as ‘brainstorming’, from one arbitrary signifier to another is an unnecessary act.
    Whilst I can understand people’s desires to regulate language which is ‘used’ offensively, there is nothing offensive about language itself. Changing words to a PC equivalent often causes frustration and confusion.
    Whether PC, in a broader sense, is a positive thing or not boils down to which is more important; preserving freedom of speech of the masses or protecting minorities or vulnerable groups from language which may cause offense to them.
    But if the latter is deemed to be most important how do we even begin to determine what constitutes offensive language. The line between offensive and acceptable language is hard to find. Everyone is riled by different usages of language, so offensive language can never be categorically defined.
    Maybe then it shouldn’t be particular forms of language that are regulated, but instead instances where language is used with obvious or even subtle ‘intent’ to offend that should be censored.

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