Political correctness came into the forefront of media attention during the 1970s and 1980s, with much prominence developing during the 1980s when the phenomenon was introduced by students in universities across America (Hughes 2010:5).
Since then there has been widespread debate about PC. Some argue it is censoring and controlling the language, dominating what should be freedom of speech (Dunant 1994). Others argue it is necessary to adopt approaches that are simply terms of politeness and there is nothing wrong with not causing offence (Muir 2009).
So, is political correctness a good thing, or not?
PC is heavily related to taboo, as taboos are the polar opposite of what political correctness encapsulates. Whereas PC uses lexis that is euphemistic, polite and (in theory) inoffensive, taboos are dysphemistic, impolite, offensive and derogatory (Allan and Burridge 2006:2). You could argue that without taboo, there would be no call for political correctness, for, as Allan and Burridge state, taboos motivate lexical change through the consequent censoring of a taboo, thus terms of taboo change to inoffensive PC terms.
Many taboo terms in today’s Western society are related to etiquette, and language speakers have a tendency to carefully censor their own lexical choices as a way of preventing ‘losing face’ by offending others (Allan and Burridge 2006:237).
However, this creates negative connotations for the Political Correctness phenomenon, as language users grow increasingly more anxious about their own use of lexis (Hughes 2010). It now appears that being seen as offensive and un-PC is equally just as bad as being described as ‘politically correct’.
Those who are against Political Correctness argue it threatens freedom of expression (Dunant 1994:23), as PC is a way in which to ‘police’ thoughts, telling people what to say; and consequently, what to think.
Media coverage of Political Correctness has also helped increase its unpopularity. News stories create an ‘us and them’ approach to PC, reporting on events such as the alleged change of lyrics in ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ (Dunant 1994:173) and local councils disallowing the flying of the St George’s Flag (Daily Mail Online 2013). Popular headlines relating to PC often state it has ‘gone mad’.
It is now argued that political correctness has become a problem within its own right (Gallagher 2013). Whereby PC was originally a way to ‘encourage tact and sensitivity’ regarding topics considered as taboo, people now choose to avoid topics such as race, gender, religion etc. all together.
However, those in favour of PC do not agree that it polices thoughts. Instead, a more innocent opinion is held, referring to PC as ‘verbal hygiene’, ironically a euphemism. According to Muir (2009) PC creates an inclusive society in which people from different backgrounds are offered equal opportunities. Social interactions are generally respectful and courteous (Allan and Burridge 2006:238), therefore PC is regarded as a politeness strategy as opposed to anything more sinister.
Referring back to my question posed earlier (is political correctness a good thing?), it is difficult to form a clear answer. Many are divided, and will remain divided on the issue for the foreseeable future. To the vast majority, PC has gone too far and creates anxieties about language use, yet others see no harm in altering certain lexical choices to protect people from offence and encouraging politeness.
BECKY DEWHURST, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Daily Mail. (2013) Daily Mail Online. [Accessed 14 November 2013]. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2324999/Rural-council-stops-flying-flag-St-George-claiming-offensive-Muslims-links-Crusades.html
Gallagher, B. (2013) Huffington Post. [Accessed 28 November 2013]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/the-problem-political-correctness_b_2746663.html
Muir, H. (2009) [Accessed 08 November 2013]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/dec/21/philip-davies-political-correctness