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