Political Correctness or freedom of expression – a conflict? NATALIE MOORE investigates

Political correctness is widely debated in the media on a daily basis. Some propose that it threatens freedom of expression (Dunant 1994:23) whilst others suggest political correctness has been extremely successful in changing people’s linguistic habits and behaviour (Allan & Burridge 2006: 90).

Battistella (2005: 111) suggests that many live in fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ and its power to offend someone. At no point is overcoming political correctness an invitation to accept discrimination. However, when people question use of everyday lexical collocations such as ‘black coffee’ because it could be interpreted as offensive (Global Language Monitor), then surely we have to question its influence over our freedom of speech? Although the intent itself is to be commended, somewhere a line needs to be drawn.

Muir (2009) argues political correctness results in a united society whereas Gallagher (2013) proposes political correctness has ‘made everyone avoid the topics all together’. So at what point does political correctness go too far? Often comedians are found expanding the limits of political correctness. In The Telegraph online Hodari (2012) summaries some of Jimmy Carr’s most controversial moments. It states that in 2009 Carr ‘stunned’ audiences suggesting we would have a ‘good Paralympic team’ as a result of the numerous servicemen amputees, sparking outrage both in the media and on social networking sites. However, Lampanelli (2013) suggests that without controversy it is fair to suggest that comedy would be virtually non-existent. It poses the question, would Jimmy Carr be so well known if he didn’t make such controversial remarks?  Lampanelli (2013) states that ‘comedy is like music – there are genres and styles for every taste.’ In these instances is it not in the individual’s right to express their thoughts through humorous language? Lampanelli (2013) suggests that often some people are ‘too sensitive’ about language used in jokes. And so the conflict between political correctness and freedom of speech begins to come into question.

Political correctness seeks to prevent offence (Allan & Burridge 2006: 90) therefore it has to be commended as an honourable and well-intentioned prospect. It has remained successful in censoring certain taboo words and labels for minority groups, generating a consciousness of offensive terms. Klotz (1999) suggests that what we chose to say often relies on politeness. If we are aware that a term is offensive then we should respect language and employ self-censorship on our part.

Dunant (1994: 23) describes political correctness as a way to monitor and adapt thoughts. Imposing rules about what people can say consequently affects the way they think. However, with language persistently changing, we have to consider the affect this has on different generations. My grandparents wouldn’t question using the term ‘handicapped’ over ‘person with disabilities’, now the ‘correct’ term of reference (Rose 2004). Older generations have no intention of offending this group of people; it is merely the term they have been brought up to say. Personally, I am more likely to refer to a person with ‘disabilities’ but does this really mean we think about these people differently? Personally, I don’t think it does.

Language is forever evolving and changing in meanings and what is the correct term today could be labelled unacceptable tomorrow. Much of the disapproval surrounding political correctness is a result of the media. It can take a term that begins as a rumour and through a sensationalised medium spark discussion. This often results in the lexical choice being questioned in terms of political correctness and there appears to be constant confusion about what we are and are not ‘supposed’ to say.

Many are divided when it comes to political correctness. Some claim that political correctness hasn’t nearly gone far enough whereas others live in fear of what is to come next. Language is arbitrary in meaning and there is nothing inherently offensive about certain words, it is merely the connotations society attaches to these words. Political correctness creates anxieties about language use and that is a shame. In light of political correctness Battistella (2005: 111) proposes that people feel they have to modify their speech and thought in order not to offend people. So, at what point does this threaten our freedom of speech and thought?

NATALIE MOORE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


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

Battistella, L. (2005) Bad Language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dunant, S (ed). (1994) The War of the Words: The political correctness debate. London: Virago Press.

Gallagher, B.J. (2013) The Problem with Political Correctness. The Huffington Post [Online], 25 February [Accessed 6 December 2014].

Global Language Monitor. (2006) [Accessed 6  December 2014]. 

Hodari, D. (2012) Jimmy Carr: five most controversial incidents. The Telegraph [online], 19 June     [Accessed 9 December 2014].

Klotz, P. (1999) Politeness and Political Correctness: Ideological Implications. International Pragmatics Association, 9 (1), [Accessed 6 December 2014], pp. 155-161.

Lampanelli, L. (2013) How Political Correctness is Killing Comedy (Guest Column). The Hollywood Reporter [online], 15 February [Accessed 10 December 2014]. 

Muir, H. (2009) In Defence of Political Correctness. The Guardian [Online], 21 December [Accessed 6 December 2014]. 

Rose,D. (2004) Don’t Call Me Handicapped! BBC News [Online], 4 October [Accessed 6 December 2014]. 






14 thoughts on “Political Correctness or freedom of expression – a conflict? NATALIE MOORE investigates

  1. Jessica Metcalfe says:

    What is your view on political politeness? Do you believe in freedom of speech, or think there should be a level of restiction to what we say?

  2. Jessica Metcalfe says:

    What is your view on political correctness? Do you believe in freedom of speech, or think there should be a level of restriction to what we say?

    • Natalie says:

      Personally, I think what once started as an honourable prospect has now over stepped the mark. I think this is evident in people’s attitudes towards PC. The extremity to which political correctness has now moved towards results in many rebelling to the ‘rules’ and ‘control’ imposed upon their language use. I do believe in freedom of speech and I think it’s a shame that PC is attempting to control our language to the point where some question the use of words such as ‘blackboard’ and ‘manhole cover’. There obviously needs to be some restrictions to our language use as some derogatory terms have now adopted extremely negative connotations to which society recognise as particularly offensive. It is virtually impossible to filter every phrase, word, concept that could be potentially offensive to an individual. So, I think we should be entitled to our freedom of speech and merely apply common politeness strategies and self-censorship to our language.

  3. What is your personal view on political correctness?
    Also do you believe that comedy would be virtually non existent if comedians didn’t ‘take it too far at times’, or can we have comedy without offending anybody? I personally don’t believe we can. I agree with Lampanelli (2013), I do believe people have become too sensitive to jokes, and that comedians are constantly in competition with each other to come up with material, and when they test the boundaries slightly and get a laugh, this almost makes the material acceptable as people are enjoying it. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Natalie says:

      I do think that this is the case. Comedy strives on controversial comments, language use and taboo subjects it’s what often gets the comedian recognised! There are three different approaches towards humour as discussed by Ross (1998) two of these; the superiority theory and the relief theory, link in some way to controversy in language use and taboo subjects. So, the laughter is generated either as a psychic relief or at the misfortune of others. I think considering this, it is fair to suggest that humour would be significantly limited if comedians did not incorporate taboo subjects and controversial language into their material.

      Ross, A. (1998) The Language of Humour. Oxon: Routledge.

  4. Matt Davies says:

    Hi Natalie. I really enjoyed your blog. Lots of food for thought here. I was just wondering if you could explain exactly what you mean by ‘meaning is arbitrary’?
    Thanks, Matt.

  5. Natalie says:

    In terms of arbitrariness I think it is worth considering the relationship between language and thought and how this links to Political correctness. For the majority of words there is no relationship between the sounds that construct the word and the meaning. For example the construction of the word ‘bottle’. Here, there is no association between the phonological structure of the word and the meaning behind it, therefore the meaning can be described as arbitrary.

  6. Matt Davies says:

    Thanks Natalie. I think that has clarified it. So does that mean I can use any word to mean anything I want? So if I want to use the word ‘bottle’ to refer, for instance of the concept of a MUSHROOM, then I can make it so?
    That’s great! I can invent my own language?!

  7. Natalie says:

    I’m sure the English department would be very intrigued by a new language Matt. However, as new concepts derive new labels are assigned to them and whilst these are arbitrary society creates connotations surrounding these words and we become accustom to these. As language evolves and societal connotations derive it means that it would be very difficult to invent a new language in a way that uses existing words with certain connotations and assign them to new entities.

  8. Olivia Windmill says:

    Do you not think it is important to respect the roots and origins of our language? Although in theory we can use words for whatever concept we like, I think we should take notice of the fact that these words have been around for many years, and as we have this understanding of them in certain contexts to change anything now might be a little tricky!

  9. Lucy Allen says:

    At what point (what generation) do you think that people will start to change their use of language? Will people try and change the older generations language use or start to use neologisms with the younger generation’s to avoid offending as many people as possible.

    • Natalie says:

      With the emergence of new interpretations of language constantly being presented it is virtually impossible to answer this. I think people will frequently correct older generations but many are often set in their ways. If you are used to uttering a specific label for something, would you find it difficult to change your language use? I know I would. As generations change new ‘politically incorrect’ terms will arise and I think it is fair to suggest that its very difficult to keep up with what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. With regards to neologisms, it would be just a matter of time before people start to associate negative connotations with the newly created word and this is because of the topics underlying the neologisms.

  10. kedwa30 says:

    Politics is a game of making as many people happy as possible most of the time. Being politically correct is simply trying not to be offensive. Just as it is impolite to discuss unappetizing topics over dinner, it is also impolite to say anything publicly that may inflame a group, such as hate speech and the use of unfair stereotypes.
    At the same time, humor is often meant to be a jab at a group.
    It’s ironic that certain types of humor, when done in the workplace, are now treated as terrorist acts. Men cannot poke fun at single women approaching thirty and say “When are you going to get married?” without those women being able to have the men reprimanded for ‘sexual harassment’ even though it is meant in good humor. When did a good natured ribbing become tantamount to a criminal molestation? It seems overnight the extremist feminists have gained control and are using their influence to demonize all men.

  11. kedwa30 says:

    By the way, I found this article while searching for the word that means a word or phrase invented as an alternative to a word or phrase with negative connotations. For example, saying he has a screw loose instead of saying he is crazy.

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