The debate on political correctness can be a sore subject for most, as it is such a controversial topic on which everyone seems to have a different opinion. It has been simmering away for decades, however, it seems that the debate has reached its peak in the 21st Century. Social media, online newspaper comment sections, blogs – these are all platforms for people from any background to express themselves, a modern luxury which gives everyone a voice. Of course freedom of expression isn’t a bad thing, it is our legal right after all, but the controversy lies in the way we utilise our freedom of expression. In the following, I will be addressing both sides of the argument regarding political correctness from a primarily linguistic perspective, drawing on modern topical issues to support my arguments.
Merriam-Webster.com (2015) defines political correctness as “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people” whereas Collinsdictionary.com (2015) defines it as “demonstrating progressive ideals, esp. by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgemental, esp. concerning race and gender.” Both definitions ultimately state a very similar point, however there are subtle differences between the two. Notice how Merriam-Webster.com say “to not use language or behave in a way that could offend […]”. This suggests that we should restrict our language and behaviour and eliminate words from our language that could, at any time, cause offence, even where offence wasn’t intended. Collinsdictionary.com address the definition slightly differently, as they use terms such as “demonstrating progressive ideals”, and “avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive…”. Unlike Merriam-Webster.com, Collins-dictionary.com has more of a descriptive approach, suggesting that our language should expand and adapt to our modern culture, that we should avoid certain vocabulary which is already deemed as offensive in today’s society. These two definitions represent the two main arguments I am addressing. Has political correctness gone that far that we need to eliminate words from our vocabulary and be conscious of our language at all times in case we cause offense? Or should we celebrate the positive influences and progression that political correctness has brought to our language?
The BBC caused outrage when it was revealed that they had edited out the word ‘girl’ in their coverage of the Commonwealth Games, in which Mark Beaumont said “I am not sure I can live that down – being beaten by a 19-year-old-girl” (Marsden, 2014). Some members of the public reacted, saying that it is “finding offence where none is taken” (Marsden, 2014) whereas the BBC felt that they needed to edit the word out ‘just in case’. This is where political correctness goes too far. The media have an immense privilege in that what they publish or broadcast does influence/manipulate the thoughts and behaviors of its recipients, however this time the BBC were trying too hard to remain politically correct by conjuring up an issue that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Browne (2006, p.49) summarizes this point, stating that “[o]ne tactic of political correctness is to follow the Orwellian Newspeak approach of trying to eliminate thoughts by eliminating the words, or even unintended associations.”
If we read Uuganaa Ramsay’s blog “The Meaning of Mongol” (Ramsay, 2014) we see how one word, “Mongol”, can be received so differently depending on the context. Initially, the term was used in a derogatory way to describe people with Down’s syndrome before a diagnosis had been discovered, because the physical appearances of the Down’s syndrome patients (then known simply as “idiots”) were similar to those of Mongols. Ramsay’s main point in this article is to use the term as it is intended, the name of a race, rather than as an insult. Here we see a positive use of politically correct language, as instead of blaming people for using the term or wanting the term abolished, she understands that some people are unaware of the etymology of the term and hopes that, by making them aware, the usage of the term will change over time. Hughes (2009, p.3) makes a point which summarises Ramsay’s views quite well, that political correctness is a “…slightly puritanical intervention to sanitize the language by suppressing some of its uglier prejudicial features, thereby undoing some past injustices […] with the hope of improving social relations.” The main point to take away from both arguments is that context is key. A word is just letters, it is just a signifier. The offence is caused when the word is given meaning when used in a particular context.
CHRISTINA SOMMERVILLE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Merriam-webster.com,. (2015). politically correct | agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people. Retrieved 8 December 2015.