‘Thought crime’: Has political correctness gone too far? CHARLOTTE HILL investigates

Political correctness remains, and has done for some time, subject to a large amount of debate. A focus of this debate is the suggestion that political correctness is limiting our freedom of speech. But to what extent is this statement accurate?

Political correctness (or PC) has been likened to that of the fictional language ‘Newspeak’ featured in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘Newspeak’ refers to the specific lexis used by citizens of the dystopian world Oceania, to ensure conformity to the rules imposed by the government. Hughes (2010: p. 62) states that political correctness, as a result of its ties to Communist ideology, is concerned with not just doing the right thing, but thinking the right thoughts. This is synonymous with the primary aim of ‘Newspeak’, which in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, concerned itself with ensuring that citizens of Oceania could only think what the Government wanted them to think.

Allan and Burridge suggest that the aim of Newspeak was to “reduce the number of words in the English Language to eliminate ideas deemed dangerous to Big Brother and the Party” (2006, p. 93). The idea is that if certain words, such as ‘bad’ or those related to liberty, are removed from the lexicon, they are no longer thought of, therefore the individual is unable to commit ‘thought crime’.

As demonstrated by Allan and Burridge (2006) the Orwellian view of euphemism came to dominate public discussion, and it is through this that parallels have been drawn between PC and Newspeak.

In some cases the comparison is accurate. For example, words are discouraged (or even banned – in severe cases) in similar ways. Terms are removed from our lexicon, in much the same way that words are reduced from ‘Newspeak’. Whilst racist and sexist terms tend to be the first examples that come to mind when thinking of political correctness, Allan and Burridge (2006) highlight that this censorship can extend far beyond this. They provide the example of a childcare centre in Australia which banned about twenty words that they considered offensive, including terms such as girl and boy (p.92).

Hughes (2010) suggests that new words formed around PC, for example ‘multicultural’, ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘Afrocentric’ are similar to Orwell’s constructions of ‘thought crime’ and ‘doublethink’ (p. 5).

Chilton describes ‘Newspeak’ as Orwell’s illuminating, if imprecise, notion of making oneself conscious of the deliberate deceptions of language, specifically its role in the maintaining of structures of power (1983, p. 5). Language is used in many instances to highlight, and to strengthen an individual’s / group of individuals’ power. But how does this relate to political correctness? Power (2009) suggests that anyone familiar with the language of government, business and academia would be hard-pressed to deny that ‘Newspeak’ lives today in the “icy banality of bureaucratic language”. She argues that this language serves to confuse individuals with a lexicon that makes all modes of thought, bar the reigning ideology, impossible (Power: 2009).

There are, however, many differences between PC and Orwell’s concept of ‘Newspeak’. For example, when looking at dictionary definitions, PC is represented in a much more positive light than that of ‘Newspeak’. Whilst the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘Newspeak’ as “Propagandistic language”, PC is defined as “conforming to the belief that language and actions which could offend […] should be eliminated”. The primary aim of political correctness appears to be avoiding of offence, regardless of those who feel it has ‘gone mad’. Contrary to that, ‘Newspeak’ concerns itself with control, with no consideration to the feelings of the individual. In this sense, PC allows for a larger scope of freedom to the individual, critiques against the party are allowed, and in this way political opinion is not repressed as it would be for the characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Furthermore, the aim of ‘Newspeak’ is to narrow the lexicon to reduce the number of thoughts possible, in contrast, PC is continuously generating a large number of neologisms (See Hughes, 2010).

Intrinsic to this debate is whether language does actually control thought, as is depicted in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. According to Crick (2007, p. 158) a combination of colloquial language, the common people and common-sense will survive unwavering attempts at total control. In that case, maybe we have nothing to worry about…..

CHARLOTTE HILL, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

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

Aubrey, C.  Chilton, P. (1983) Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984: Autonomy, Control and Communication. London: Comedia Publishing Group.

Crick, B. (2007) ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four: Context and Controversy’ in Ed. Rodden, J. The Cambridge Companion to George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition : Political Correctness

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition: Newspeak

Power, N. (28 May 2009) Bamboozle, Baffle and Blindside. New Statesman.

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6 thoughts on “‘Thought crime’: Has political correctness gone too far? CHARLOTTE HILL investigates

  1. Laura Taylor says:

    Do you think that some people have more authority to demand/request political correctness than others? For example, if a person of colour uses the ‘N’ word, does a white person have the right/authority to ask them not to use the word because they think it is offensive? Or does the right to demand political correctness only apply to the group of people the word/term applies to?

  2. Charlotte Hill says:

    I would argue that there are already established rules as to what conforms to political correctness, for example the ‘N’ word is deemed not politically correct through general consensus/ common sense.
    As political correctness centres around the avoidance of offence, anyone could, in theory, appose to words they deem inappropriate/ offensive. Although it tends to have more weight when coming from the minority or victim group that it insults.
    I’d offer the example of public radio, songs that include the ‘N’ word are censored, in this case the broadcasters have the power to censor words they view as potentially offensive.
    Therefore I’d suggest that the power to deem words as offensive falls to both the immediate group/ person to whom the term applies, and to those with the power control censorship.

  3. Sam Copson says:

    I think your critique of Allan and Burridge was very fair and thorough, but I would add that comparing ‘political correctness’ to Newspeak fundementally misrepresents the power dynamics of both scenarios. When a white person uses the N word against a black person, or an abled person uses r*tard or sp*z against a disabled person, that is a member of a more powerful social group asserting power against a member of a marginalised group. So when members of marginalised groups object to these words, they are attempting to level the playing field. Newspeak, on the other hand, is used by a hugely powerful and oppressive group, Ingsoc, in an attempt to increase their power over everyone else even further. In other words, PC is a ‘bottom-up’ attempt at reform, where Newspeak is very much ‘top-down’. Ingsoc also have the ability to punish people who break their linguistic rules, which people who attempt to promote political correctness rarely do.

  4. I really like how you have compared and contrasted ‘political correctness’ with Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, as I do think there is a minor element of Newspeak found in our lexis today. I believe your example of Alan and Burridge supports this idea to a smaller extent in terms of ‘political correctness’ , because we are made to think certain words are bad and that we should not say them, and that in effectively makes us eliminate them from our vocabulary.

    Take the ‘N’ word mentioned previously as an example, in the 1800’s it was acceptable to say and call people this word, because it was never thought of any differently. However now it is deemed as ‘racist’ and has been banned in certain parts of the world, more recently by New York’s City Council, who have banned the word in an attempt to discourage hip hop artists from using it in their music.

    I also completely agree with the point you have made about there being significant differences between Newspeak and political correctness. We do have more freedom with political correctness, but I do believe it has in a way, ‘gone mad’. I find this particularly when it comes to comedy and the jokes comedians put out there to gauge a reaction, the more shocking the more they are noticed. For example at the beginning of Jimmy Carr’s DVD it does say that if you do not like his sort of comedy, then do not watch his stand up. What do you think about political correctness in terms of its affect on comedy? Do you think some comedians take it too far?

    Your final point about Crick’s (2007) theory that colloquial language, people and common sense will not make us completely conform to total control, is particularly interesting. I agree that we are not under total control and don’t think we ever will be, as you say political correctness gives us the opportunity to critique the offending party, not control them. What is your personal opinion on Cricks point? Do you believe we will ever be totally controlled by what people in power want us to think/say?

  5. Charlotte Hill says:

    Hi Sam, thanks for your comment!

    I do agree that there are many differences between political correctness and newspeak, and I am in no way attempting to assert that they are paralleled in terms of the power relationships which they reflect.

    I would, however, argue that there is more to newspeak than power dimensions. I was focusing more in terms of the limitations imposed on language in both newspeak and political correctness, and to what extent these similarities can be justified.

    Hi Sophie,

    I think that in regards to comedy, political correctness provides something for comedians to ‘rebel against’ so to speak. I believe that the reason that comedians, such as Jimmy Carr, get such a rise from their stand up is because they attempt to push established boundaries for a level of shock factor, they aim to take things too far to get a reaction – which does in many cases work. I’m thinking of Jeremy Clarkson currently, I think he says things that he knows are out of line because ‘any publicity is good publicity’.

    I agree with you in that I don’t think we will ever be fully controlled by the language that we use. However, I suppose it depends on the link between language and thought and whether you believe that by controlling language, you can control an individuals thoughts.

    Thanks for your comment 🙂

  6. Joey says:

    This is a nice perspective of it that has given my pause for thought. On thinking about it, there’s a few analytical enhancements I can make.

    PC manipulated language in a way that is a superset to newspeak. It’s not a matter of is PC newspeak but does PC utilise as a method to achieve its goals. The answer is yes. It has not reached the same extreme extent as in fiction which is where it goes if allowed to continue. It is gaining ground though. Newspeak prohibits words inconvenient to the cause. PC goes the extra step of also creating words to achieve it’s goals. The latter isn’t so bad. Going so far in objecting to it would be the same as newpeak! Stopping the newspeak however is worth dying for if it really goes half as far in reality as it does in fiction. Figuratively speaking PC’s newspeak campaign has gone from a toe in the water to an entire foot. It becomes seriously dangerous if society goes in knee deep.

    In some ways the consequences are mildly amusing. I still call people spastics. The word war erased so strongly from the mind that few people now know of it to object to it. I now can’t call people or things gay even though I have no problem with homosexuality and am mildly bi-sexual myself. Yet I can still say bugger or sod because people have forgotten that those refer to once forbidden and much detested homosexual sexual acts.

    PC really falls under an umbrella of interconnected ideological obsessions that essentially lead to extremism. For some people for example, they might be obsessively against sexism, not causing offense, to the extent of wanting thought to be prohibited towards eliminating all possible forms of sexism. The bar never lowers. It is the arrow problem. Some of these people operate this way and the arrow never meets its target. It’s always half way to and from the target. You essentially have lots of people working towards the same thing for different reasons. Many people join the PC parade to support one of their specific fields of concern or for mutual support. I’ve observed that humans while humans have an impressive capacity to reason among many individuals, first and foremost they are social animals acting on social instinct or emotion before thought. There are a great many aspects of this I could list such as that emotion is faster than thought and initially has a lower cognitive load but I’ve written an essay already and I’m only half done. Sociologically and psychologically it’s a moderately complex phenomena.

    People have a choice whether or not to be offended and what to be offended about so that is incredibly empowering. There’s a lack of clarification on what constitutes legitimate “offence”.

    You separate the goals of control and “not causing offense” entirely but I personally don’t see separation. Lets rephrase it:

    In 1984 the government seeks control.
    In PC adherents seek control to prevent offence.

    You seem to have presented a false equivalency. Both examples use this form of control to achieve something. In 1984 I have no idea what it’s for and it probably doesn’t even matter for the message 1984 is trying to portray. Realistically, truly for the sake of it is unrealistic. There’s some kind of political rivalry there so you’ve already hinted at that. You’ve presented it as the means for one and the ends for the other. It’s actually the same means, different ends. I can’t say for PC that I really think the ends justify the means in this case.

    Language controls thought, thought controls language. However it’s not an easy argument to pin down exactly how or to what extent. It’s really similar to the nature nurture problem where the two can become inseparable at points, entirely separate at others with the two feeding back into each other.

    “Words have meaning and names have power. The universe begun with a word, you know. But which came first: the word or the thought behind the word? You can’t create language without thought .. and you can’t conceive a thought without language. So which created the other and, thus, created the universe?”
    — Lorien in Babylon 5:”Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi?”

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