So, what is ‘political correctness’? Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky labels it as a “healthy expansion of moral concern”, while Michael Barnard calls it an “ideological virus” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). The Urban Dictionary even defines it as “an inverted fascist philosophy that absolutely no-one should conform to unless they are an ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal idiot” (Urban Dictionary, 2004), so it’s already clear that there’s a lot of debate around the subject.
One of the most pertinent issues surrounding the minefield of political correctness is that of race. Allan and Burridge suggest that moving forward with our language in a way which mirrors our progressive social change is to “[call] groups by the names they prefer” (2006, p.96). They provide the example of members of the black community wishing to be called “African Americans […] to emphasise not genetics or colour, but [their] historical roots” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.97). This development perhaps helps to embrace and create the identities of minority groups, rather than focusing merely on physical differences which set them apart. Surely moves such as these should be seen as a positive thing, rather than a “fascist philosophy”, as it’s designed to create a more inclusive and welcoming society? It has also been suggested that “political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo” (West, 2015). Calling minority groups by the names they prefer may be a step in the right direction – it gives them a voice and seeks to even out the inequalities they face in today’s society.
Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and former politician, recently wrote and produced a documentary for Channel 4 entitled ‘Has political correctness gone mad’? As a member of the black community himself, Phillips discusses his attitudes towards the word ‘n*****’, reminiscing about how his grandmother used it throughout his childhood simply as a way to refer to other black people. Phillips then debates whether or not anyone should be allowed to use the word at all nowadays, given the derogatory connotations it has taken on. On the view that white people should never use it, but that black people can, Phillips has this to say: “that’s one rule for white people and another for black people, and there’s a word for that beginning with R”. Perhaps he’s right. People have already lived through years of racial segregation with certain words used as terms of abuse and as a way to oppress minorities. Allowing certain groups to continue utilising these words in their everyday speech, while prohibiting others from doing the same, does not exactly send out a message of equality.
This brings us to the point: is it politically incorrect to sing the children’s choosing rhyme ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’? Although it is perhaps not common knowledge, the rhyme originally contained the line “catch a n***** by his toe” (Opie & Opie, 1951, pp.156-158). In more recent versions, ‘piggy’ or ‘tiger’ commonly replace the racial term, and it’s these animal-related versions which appear in popular culture today (Boult, A., 2017). An example of this is the television show, The Walking Dead, in which a character sings the “eeny meeny” rhyme featuring the word ‘tiger’ before murdering two other characters. This graphic scene has become iconic among fans of The Walking Dead, so much so that fashion retailer Primark created a t-shirt featuring the words “eeny meeny miny moe” alongside a picture of the murder weapon. For members of the public who were not aware of the garment’s association with the television show, the t-shirt was seen as “fantastically offensive”, and even as a “direct [reference] to the practice of assaulting black people in America” (Boult, 2017). These accusations stem from the fact that the rhyme once had racist connotations and, while the offending word has been replaced today, its history hasn’t been forgotten. This raises the question of how much the past should influence the type of language we use today. Are idioms and rhymes, such as “eeny meeny”, still considered offensive and politically incorrect if the history behind them isn’t common knowledge anymore?
“The path to real progress may be learning to live with offence” is the line with which Trevor Phillips chose to end his Channel 4 documentary. But it’s important to remember that perhaps one’s linguistic choices can have a greater impact on minority groups than realised, and that a bit of “moral concern” can contribute to a more inclusive, “politically correct” society.
KATE GREEN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK