Big offences, no offence or on the fence? HELEN SMITH explores the place of political correctness in 2014

“Why is everyone so PC? It’s not my fault if you take offence” – Cheeky rap duo Rizzle Kicks don’t think that a linguistic rapport with political correctness has a place in our everyday language use. So why is it that so much lexis is prescribed by minority groups in order to minimise so-called ‘hurt feelings’ or derogation?

Political correctness and its relationship with taboo language – defined by the OED (2014) as ‘A total or partial prohibition of the use of certain words, expressions, topics, etc., esp. in social intercourse’​ – has been a topic of debate amongst educators, scholars and journalists alike for the past few decades. Take Closer magazine, for example:  their 2013 article ‘The Funniest Examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad’ gives examples of language altered because of its potential offence to minority groups. The author, Anais Rach, gives examples as extreme as a Seattle school’s use of the term ‘spring spheres’ to refer to the April’s annual seasonal treat – Easter Eggs! ‘Spring spheres’ is, according to the author, a more faith-neutral term that can be used by any child, regardless of faith. Now, for a start, Easter Eggs don’t, by means of shape or characteristic, resemble spheres. They resemble eggs. Secondly, it makes perfect sense to argue that Easter Eggs shouldn’t technically be consumed or referred to by those who don’t associate themselves with Christianity – the religion that the holiday and celebrations derive from. Surely non-Christians can’t complain about a faith-specific notion that stems from a Christian belief?  Do ‘spring spheres’ really represent resurrection?

It is, however, fair to say that language alterations such as this have been journalistically sensationalised in their reports of political correctness (as reported by Crystal, 2012: 90). It is undoubtedly a ‘hot topic’ with two strong, opposing sides to the debate -the somewhat ridiculousness of ‘spring spheres’, compared to a disabled person’s perspective of the insults given through use of derogatory terms. Rose (2004) writes that the terms we use to refer to those with disability range from the patronising and condescending – like ‘special’ or ‘different’ – to the downright insulting, outdated and culturally shunned, like ‘retard’ or ‘window-licker’. Whitley & Kite (2009: 511) highlight the current disability-friendly PC term  – ‘people with disabilities’. ‘People-first language’, as Rose (2004) points out, links to language’s relationship with thought: “It’s born of a belief that we’re people first.”  When we utter the word ‘people’ before ‘disabilities’, it is believed that our thought process does the same, without pre-defining a person as ‘disabled’.

As we can see, political correctness is a radical concept that coincides with social change (Fairclough, 2001: 17). As the world around us changes, certain language becomes unacceptable when used to refer to a social group or action. This leaves us with a ‘taboo’ – i.e. a lexical item that, due to a pejorative association with minority groups,  is deemed inappropriate for use in modern-day contexts. The rapidity of social change explains why we hear older speakers still using outdated, ‘tabooed’ terms. My old piano teacher was in his eighties and regularly used the term ‘blackies’ to refer to the keyboard’s black keys (when comparing said keys to people). Whilst most modern language users would deem this entirely unacceptable, it is also easy to spring to Mr Flower’s defence –  in his lifetime, immigration rates shot to an all-time high, social activists in the 60s finally secured African-American rights and  the USA voted in their first black President. Mr Flower’s childhood piano teacher could have uttered ‘blackies’ a hundred times without any students batting an eyelid, but our changing society means that with every utterance we make, cautiousness and the prospect of offence makes us more and more likely to hold our tongue.

It is clear that political correctness has its place in this modern world. It is also clear, however, that it is almost entirely determined by social change. Whatever euphemisms we use, the language we use remains as arbitrary – we’re still referring to the same entities, even if we are ‘softening the blow’. Where will political correctness take us next? Maybe ‘spring spheres’ are on their way out – we could, after all, be deeply offending ‘sfairesphobics’ (those with a fear of spheres)!

HELEN SMITH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Anais Rach, J. (2013) The funniest examples of political correctness gone mad. Closer. 27 September [online]. [Accessed 24/11/2014] 

Crystal, D. (2012) The Story of English in 100 Words. London: Macmillan.

Fairclough, N. (2001) ‘Political correctness’: the politics of culture and language. Discourse & Society. 14 (1) pp. 17-28.

OED Online (2014). Oxford University Press. [Accessed 17/11/2014] 

Rose, D. (2004) Don’t Call Me Handicapped! BBC News. [Accessed 17/11/2014] 

Whitley, B. & Kite, M. (2009) The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. London: Cengage Learning.

 

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8 thoughts on “Big offences, no offence or on the fence? HELEN SMITH explores the place of political correctness in 2014

  1. Rhiannon Sharkey says:

    Firstly, I think that the opinion from the Rizzle Kicks that it is not their fault if someone is offended by what they say is not always correct. It can be good to think before you speak and evaluate whether or not what you are going to say can hurt somebody’s feelings. In this sense, political correctness protects those who could be patronised, such as people with disabilities and so maybe this is worth the ‘mad’ political correctness, such as ‘spring spheres’?

    I agree with Rose (2004) that in pre-defining someone with a label, such as ‘disabled’, we are not deeming them as a person first. If we were to talk about someone without a disability, we would not say ‘able person’. However there is also an issue with the OED (2014) definition of political correctness; is this censorship and do we have freedom of speech when some words and phrases are not ‘prohibited’ in social discourse? Finally, I do agree that society is constantly changing and with it, political correctness will change. I hear about people’s grandparents who say things which can be construed as racist, but they are given the excuse of being born in a different time. However is this excuse good enough when they say something which could potentially severely offend another human being?

    • Helen Smith says:

      I think your comment about generations not having a fair excuse to justify offensive language use is interesting. It’s definitely justifiable to say that groups have the potential to take offence at ‘outdated’ terms, but how do you propose we teach these older generations that such terms are unacceptable? Wouldn’t that just confuse things more – being told now that one term is the politically correct usage, then to be told in a decade that such a term has now become outdated again and yet another new term has been brought to the forefront?

  2. Cinzia Warburton says:

    I like the balance between the use of information about political correctness in the articles and how this relates to examples of political correctness that are prominent at this moment in time. It made it interesting to read and really made me think about my opinion in the subject. In your post you said “where will political correctness take us next?” And I’d like to know where you think it will take us? Do you already think it has gone too far? And do you think it will just get worse. I really liked the “spring spheres” example because that is new to me and highlights how far political correctness can go in my opinion.

    • Helen Smith says:

      I would like to see where PC takes us next too! Like I articulate in my blog, a changing society means a changing linguistic reflection of notions that are and aren’t acceptable. Political correctness can be a vicious circle – words seemed acceptable at one time so seem to suddenly surge out of favour as time ticks by. Maybe we can check back in five years time to the ongoing ‘disability’ discussion – what will be the acceptable reference of 2019?

  3. Laura Taylor says:

    Where do you draw the line between realistic/reasonable political correctness and PC gone mad? I know you ended your blog post with the joke about spring spheres possibly being removed from language because it could offend people who have a phobia of spheres, but (hypothetically) what if it is genuinely triggering to a person? It seems silly to those of us who don’t have such a phobia but does our lack of knowledge or empathy regarding the issue mean that we should disregard the effect it may have on people?

    • Helen Smith says:

      Interesting point about empathy – I think that’s definitely a valid point that we need to consider when thinking about the language we use to refer to such people. The definition of a phobia is, after all, an ‘irrational’ fear; there’s no tangible reason why they exist and language users often don’t attempt to empathise via their linguistic choices. Who are we to define what’s acceptable and what isn’t when we aren’t the ones with the phobia?

  4. Matt Davies says:

    Hi Helen
    How do you feel about people who use words and phrases deemed ‘unpolitically correct’ but whose etymological meaning is lost and hence most people don’t see why they might be offensive. I am thinking for instance of terms which could be seen as derogatory towards Irish people such as ‘having a paddy’ or ‘taking the mick’. Should we turn a blind eye to such uses when the origins of them are lost on most people?
    Thanks
    Matt

    • Helen Smith says:

      Hi Matt,

      I think this an interesting aspect of the debate. Many people of unaware of such etymological boundaries and everyday examples, like the ones you mention, are saturated with the roots of lexis that did, in times gone by, cause an uproar of offends by their very articulation.

      As you seem to suggest, the loss of their literal meaning – that is, a racist jibe in the case of ‘having a Paddy’ – means that phrases like this are thrown around nowadays without meaning to refer to their roots. Is there any harm in this? I don’t think so. When phrases lose their etymological roots, they gain arbitariness: that is, they bear next to no connection to their external meaning. Does the person using the phrase ‘having a Paddy’ mean to stir a controversial, racist and historically rooted insult with such an utterance? I’ll bet my pint of Guinness that he/ she isn’t aware of its roots!

      So, to answer your question: I don’t think it’s fair to pull language users up on archaic phrases that have lost their a) meaning and b) relevance – especially when their topic is way out of the social boundaries and knowledge of a speaker.

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