Has political correctness actually gone mad? KATE GREEN explores the relationship between PC and race

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

References

Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boult, A. (2017). Is this Walking Dead t-shirt racist? Primark pulls item following complaint. The Telegraph Online. 

Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1951). The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, T. (2017). Has political correctness gone mad? For Channel 4, originally aired on 22/02/2017. 

Urban Dictionary. (2004). Political correctness definition.

West, L. (2015). Political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. The Guardian Online.

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3 thoughts on “Has political correctness actually gone mad? KATE GREEN explores the relationship between PC and race

  1. Nathan Durrington says:

    An enlightening blog post Kate. I really like the way the blog has maintained an academic focus, in way of including the opinions of key theorists, whilst using both real life and topical examples to keep the piece relatable, including the documentary and the nursery rhyme.

    In terms of the connotations of traditional rhymes such as ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’, I do believe that through the replacement of the racist word (Opie & Opie, 1951, pp.156-158), the connotations should no longer necessarily be negative as the rhyme has in fact adapted itself to the expectations of modern culture.

    Within the blog, you have focussed wholly upon political correctness in reference to race. I fully agree that this is a very important aspect. I also respect that there is a limit to how much you can include in the blog whilst ensuring the topic is discussed thoroughly. However, through the opportunity to comment further, do you believe that there are any equally important themes in addition to race? Public speakers on the issue, such as Lindy West, seem to be of the opinion that sexism should be considered on an equal footing to racism, both historically and in the present day. West is of the opinion that in “the American university system… blackface and casual misogyny were just as corrosive to black and female humanity in 1998 as they are in 2015” (2015).

    With examples, such as ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’, it is clear that in terms of racism, society is now significantly more politically correct. However, political correctness in terms of gender and sexism is arguably still inherent in the 21st century culture. Many job titles, such as ‘policeman’, feature subtle political incorrectness. You quoted Allan and Burridge who feel that it is important that “groups [are called] by the names they prefer” (2006, p.96). How would a female police officer feel if she were to be called a ‘policeman’? I believe that the equal capability of females is still not fully reflected in our language.

    I do not agree with the opinion expressed by Trevor Phillips – “The path to real progress may be learning to live with offence”. Echoing your thoughts, I feel that there must be a universally accepted line at which a linguistic choice becomes offensive. This line should not be crossed, nor should anybody be forced to accept linguistic indicators that address them as the minority.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful insight.

    References:
    Allan, K., & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1951). The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    West, L. (2015). Political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. The Guardian Online.

  2. Alice Fox says:

    This blog explains political correctness and its weaknesses really well, really highlighting the importance of avoiding creating a divide between races. If things are changed in order to prevent offence then surely that is good enough to keep using? Agreeing with the comment above, political correctness is an issue in women’s rights and it is growing further into other groups of people. There is a growing concern regarding political correctness surrounding the LGBTQ societies that is sparking a lot of debate recently, particularly the label of “mother” to a pregnant woman who identifies as a man. This blog shines a light on the importance of political correctness but also shows that it could be considered to go too far. Surely the label a group of people want should be the label they are given? Not a label that is thought up for them.

  3. Amy Mudd says:

    An interesting post that really explores the relationship between political correctness and race. Suggesting that “the path to real progress may be learning to live with offence” is a really interesting quote- should people really have to live with feeling offended in order for us to progress as a society? Or has the real problem arose due to the increased awareness of political correctness? Have we become more offensive, or more sensitive?

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