Oppressive thought control or controlling oppressive thoughts? EMMA ALDINGTON debates the pros and cons of political correctness

It’s no secret that people today are increasingly concerned about the rise of political correctness, fuelled particularly by newspapers and posts on social media. We hear that political correctness is ‘thought control’ or disregarding the ‘free speech’ that we so often take for granted in this country. There is a mass of polarised views when it comes to academics and PC. Michael Barnard describes the issue as “a new strain of ideological virus”, but Chomsky calls it “a healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 90). It can be understood why those who have researched the history of political correctness might be troubled by the obsession the UK has with being ‘PC’. Its roots are embedded in Chinese communism and the dictatorship of it former leader Mao Tse-tung, but it’s important to remember that the term has since been revived by slightly different groups such as the American New Left and the feminist movement (Hughes, 2010, p. 60-69).

A study by Pearson (2005) investigated students gaining their PGCE qualification to work in secondary schools, and their attitudes towards terms such as ‘special educational needs’ and ‘disability’, and their subsequent language use when presented with the terms (p. 18). Pearson (2005) found that “inclusion was rarely mentioned […] and some of the responses were exclusionary and offensive” (p. 21), and suggested that the results raised “concerns about the adequacy of current provision” (p. 17). Of course, using inclusive terms for people with disabilities is just one small part of the political correctness debate, but this study highlights that there are issues in the way people are educated on the topic.

Cardiff Metropolitan University very recently published a ‘check-list’ of words and phrases that they wanted their student body to avoid, to ultimately avoid offending oppressed or minority groups such as people with disabilities and women. Their aim in this, as reported by Gray (2017), was to “make everyone on campus feel valued”, but there has been a backlash against this and some “accused [the university] of attacking free speech”.

This really raises the question alluded to in the title of this blog. Are the ‘PC brigade’ trying to control the population’s thoughts? There are two ways of answering that question, depending on who you are and what your general beliefs are. The first is that, yes, Cardiff Metropolitan and anyone else enforcing rules on others’ language are somewhat ‘controlling’ the way we speak, and ultimately the way we think. However, it also begs the question, why should we have a problem with avoiding terms that potentially cause distress or exclusion to others? Is it oppressive ‘thought-control’, or is it controlling oppressive thoughts? Both of these justified points are often thrown up in debates on the topic, which is why it is seen as so difficult to come to a definitive answer.

There’s the age-old expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” that often gets brought up by the defence when talking about being PC. Whilst this can remain true in some instances, it is vital to look at real-life scenarios where being politically incorrect and using offensive terms can turn into a scenario which is physical and violent. The Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an American periodical which monitors activity of far-right groups across the US. They published statistics that since Donald Trump (known for his offensive language and politically incorrect phrases) announced he was running for president in 2015, there was a 14% rise in “extremist groups” (Alexandersen, 2017). That comes as no surprise. If we want to get specific, “the FBI reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 67% in 2015” (Potok, 2017). Not everyone will wish to extrapolate that data to Trump’s campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but it is certainly food for thought.

This is an ongoing debate that we may never get an answer to, but it is important to remember that while sticks and stones may break your bones, words can hurt too.

EMMA ALDINGTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

References

Alexandersen, C. (2017). Hate, extremists groups rose 3 percent in U.S. during divisive 2016: report. Pennlive.com.

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

Gray, J. (2017). Cardiff Metropolitan University accused of censorship over ‘gender neutral’ language policy. Huff Post Young Voices

Hughes, G. (2010). Political correctness: a history of semantics and culture. Chichester, United Kingdom:Wiley-Blackwell.

Pearson, S. (2005). ‘SEN – a politically correct phrase to replace terms such as disabled?’ A study of the views of students entering a secondary PGCE course’. Support for Learning, 20(1), 17-21.

 

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2 thoughts on “Oppressive thought control or controlling oppressive thoughts? EMMA ALDINGTON debates the pros and cons of political correctness

  1. Lucy Hancock says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, Emma! Some really interesting points were made that I had perhaps not thought about before and I found it really easy to read, considering this is a topic I sometimes find difficult to engage with due to the controversial nature.

    I liked the brief mention of the origin of ‘political correctness’ and would be interested to find out more about the roots of the concept. Perhaps this could help us understand the term more?

    I agree with your point about people potentially trying to control other’s thoughts but I also think you make a valid point with the counter argument – avoiding offence is important. The responses to the actions of the Cardiff Metropolitan University were understandable and unsurprising – students should watch their language but should not feel that they cannot speak freely.

    I was surprised by the statistics mentioned in the penultimate paragraph and I certainly agree that, although words may not initially cause any physical harm, they can have a very damaging effect on the recipient in some instances.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Emily Silvester says:

    Hello Emma.
    I found the findings in this blog to be rather thought provoking and the evidence came as a quite a huge shock regarding the speculation with the oppression caused with PC.

    As somebody who wishes to be involved with a PGCE course next year, I found Person’s study alarming and unbelievable. I was first bewildered as you claim students were offensive in their responses, however having researched disability further I came to grips that I might also be someone within this category. The Gov.uk website points out that, ‘suffers from’ is to be avoided which I had no idea was deemed offensive. You have highlighted that it is the lack of education on these terms which is to blame, but don’t you believe it could be a case of changing attitudes coming into play? Another example is, ‘diabetic’ which has now been labelled as exclusionary, in more recent check-lists. This could support your findings on Barnard’s beliefs that PC is an ‘ideological virus’ which will continue to spread until everyone feels valued.

    The argument against PC baffles me as you’ve noted the ‘thought-control’ as a negative. Do you not also think it is a positive to reinforce the restriction of words which are offensive and causing harm to others? I have stumbled upon theorist Burridge who takes it further and claims PC is a means of ‘brainwashing’, however you have stated at the end of your blog words can hurt. My sister tells me the word ‘gay’ is now banned and must instead be replaced with ‘homosexual’ which I personally think is a step forwards. The only issue is where we draw and the line and who decides what is offensive in my opinion.

    Thank you for the post, I feel i’ll be speaking more carefully in the future.

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