DOMINIQUE HITCHEN asks: ‘Has political correctness taken a word too far?’

Political correctness is, and probably always will be, a contested issue. For a long time now, political correctness has been considered by many as a restriction of speech, a control mechanism and a total waste of time. But to what extent are these views entirely true?

Political correctness (PC) is defined by the OED as “[t]he avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against” (The Oxford Dictionary of English, 2015). Nothing wrong here. It can just be summarized as being nice to each other.

There are many views that support this definition. Yes, they were much harder to find but I found them… eventually.

Hugh Muir (The Guardian, 2009) describes PC as “a good thing” and continues to explain reasons for using PC – “[…] to have respect, to be civil, to be inclusive, to avoid unnecessary offence, to try to act to give the various sections of society equal opportunities”. Sounds great! Views like this are also linked with the discussions about the relationship between language and thought. Hughes (2010, pp. 62) portrays the idea that PC is “[…] not just doing the right thing but thinking the right thoughts”, suggesting that by using PC language it will encourage the users to construct better thoughts. Okay… somehow I don’t believe this. We still think the ‘politically incorrect’ terms, we just try and figure out a better way to say it. So is it just me that thinks thoughts don’t change with language?

Anyway, on the other side of the fence, some views about PC contradict and disagree with all of the above. Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail (2012) points out that political correctness is not a fair system; it is one rule for one and one rule for another; “[…] others manage to get away with vile remarks — while still others are attacked for the use of words whose meaning has been wrenched out of context”. Other remarks range from PC limiting our human right to freedom of speech to PC acting as a control mechanism (debate.org, 2015). Ally Ross in The Sun (2012) simply states “[t]here is…no limit to the stupidity or madness of…political correctness”. Very emotive – but how have we got to this point in the debate?

Political correctness has changed as regards to meaning, relation and interpretation. In earlier years, PC was consider to consist of strict guidelines that were believed to be important and universal; “[…] in the 1980s, PC was very serious. It didn’t do jokes” (Sawyer, 2012), whereas, today people tend not to be so ‘serious’ about it. Sawyer (2012) later explains a bus journey where she hears teenagers calling each other ‘politically incorrect’ labels. In the defence of political correctness, I think it is much more effective within professions and in the public eye; teachers, tutors, presenters, comedians and many more, have to be extra careful in what they say as it could offend pupils and listeners and cause various disputes. However, as regards non-professional people, PC is a broad term which doesn’t really mean as much to us. Without us knowing, I think we are ‘politically correct’. We try and say things in different ways to try not to cause offence. Basically political correctness, right? Political correctness and its meaning changes from person to person, from generation to generation and will continue to change throughout the years. There will be no regularity regarding political correctness nor two views that are the same. The opinions that relate to PC create anxieties about language. People will begin to say not what they want but what they believe people want to hear. What kind of society is that?

As a generation, there will always be a divide between those who believe political correctness is what shapes our thought and creates a harmonious society and those that see PC as a restriction of our human rights. It is not what we say, it is what people infer from what we say The connotations that relate to what has been said. How far people take what is said out of context to be offensive. Are we being too sensitive? Has political correctness gone that word, phrase, sentence too far? Maybe PC is just infinity….

DOMINIQUE HITCHEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Debate.Org. (2015). Is political correctness a good thing? 

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

Muir, H. (2009, December 21). In defence of political correctness. 

Phillips, M. (2012, January 9). Tourettes and how David Cameron fell victim to the ‘sensitivity police’. Retrieved from Daily Mail.

Ross, A. (2012, January 11). Premier Bin, Len.  Retrieved from The Sun

Sawyer, M. (2012, January 8). Your Mum is so fat: when she fell in love she broke it. Retrieved from Observer Magazine.

The Oxford Dictionary of English. (2015). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

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2 thoughts on “DOMINIQUE HITCHEN asks: ‘Has political correctness taken a word too far?’

  1. Matthew Kitchen says:

    Excellent analysis of the political correctness debate, Dominique! As you suggested, political correctness relates directly to the context in which we are interacting. Therefore, I completely understand the logic in the debate of whether political correctness is necessary or not. However, I do have conflicting views with those proposed by the likes of Hughes (2010), as I feel that the restrictions on the means of expression of our language should not expand to a restriction on thought. Everyone should be entitled to their own ways of thinking, so long as these thoughts don’t venture into the lives of others, and ultimately upset them.
    I have gathered from the information in your blog that the key factor in political correctness is perception. The problems that arise do not necessarily stem from the production of an individual’s speech, but more from what is inferred from it. In essence, the perception of the word or phrase itself creates the meaning.
    As mentioned in the opening paragraph of your blog post, the fact that political correctness can be used as a control mechanism can be viewed in a number of different lights. I personally think that having it as a controlling mechanism on language output is a positive thing as it generates a collective norm that society as a whole can adhere to. However, it should not be used to objectively influence the thought processes of people. As long as no offence is being caused, freedom of thought, and speech alike, is evidently a good thing.

  2. Matthew Kitchen says:

    Excellent analysis of the political correctness debate, Dominique! For me, political correctness relates directly to the context in which we are interacting. Therefore, I completely understand the logic in the debate of whether political correctness is necessary or not. However, I do have conflicting views with those proposed by the likes of Hughes (2010), as I feel that the restrictions on the means of expression of our language should not expand to a restriction on thought. Everyone should be entitled to their own ways of thinking, so long as these thoughts don’t venture into the lives of others, and ultimately offend anyone concerned.
    I have gathered from the information in your blog that the key factor in political correctness is perception. The problems that arise do not necessarily stem from the production of an individual’s speech, but more from what is inferred from it. In essence, the perception of the word or phrase itself creates the meaning.
    As mentioned in the opening paragraph of your blog post, the fact that political correctness can be used as a control mechanism can be viewed in a number of different lights. I personally think that having it as a controlling mechanism on language output is a positive thing as it generates a collective norm that society as a whole can adhere to. However, it should not be used to objectively influence thought processes of a particular individual. As long as no offence is being caused, freedom of thought, and speech alike, is evidently a good thing.

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