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