You wouldn’t have to travel far to find someone with views on political correctness, or at the very least have some idea of what political correctness is. Some would argue that it is basic good manners, such as Steven Singer who wrote in The Huffington Post that “we are asked to change the way we speak. We’re asked to self-censor but we already do this frequently without wailing against a loss of free speech”. Others would argue that it is at the least, a silly form of censorship and at the most, anti-democratic. Espinoza and Rayner (The Telegraph, 2015, 18 December) argued that political correctness is affecting university students and the way universities operate in comparison to the past. They claim that “British universities have become too politically correct and are stifling free speech”. Defining political correctness is not an easy task. Noam Chomsky described political correctness as a “healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). On the other hand, Morris Dickstein sees political correctness as a “dictatorship of the well-meaning and pure of heart” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). So this begs the question, what is ‘political correctness’ and why has it become such a bitter debate.
The origins of political correctness are thought to be in the USA during the Black Power Movement and the New Left (Battistella, 2005, p.90). In Britain, Crystal describes the change of language following the Feminist Movement in the early 20th century as one of biggest cases of prescriptivism in recent history (Crystal, 1984) with Cheshire (1984) stating she believes the change of language against sexism is a natural process occurring with social change. The positive nature of the origins of political correctness are hard to argue against. The idea that political correctness has ‘gone mad’ is where the arguments lie.
By the definitions and the early effects of political correctness, it can be puzzling to understand why people are so against PC-culture. The President of the USA, Donald Trump, has publically spoken out against political correctness and used language that most of us would deem politically incorrect and very offensive, such as stating that Mexicans are rapists (Weigel, The Guardian, 30 November 2016). It could be suggested that his intention of building a wall between the USA and Mexico is a type of political incorrectness, with a large number of people rejecting this type of behaviour and classifying it as discriminatory and offensive. On the other hand, according to Lee (2014) in The Daily Mail, the lyrics of Baa Baa Black Sheep caused a debate in a school in Melbourne, Australia in 2014 over the word ‘black’ and the sexist connotations of the line “one for the little boy who lives down the lane”. This could be argued by those against anti-PC to be ridiculous, as the nursery rhyme was first published in 1744 and has been a very popular rhyme for children for generations with no problem, or offence, as a result of teaching it. One comment on the article says “I always thought that the “Thought Police” were a silly myth….. I stand corrected”. Are people now causing a political correctness storm just in case it may offend someone, somewhere, someday?
Many examples of politically correct replacements have been praised and accepted by the public today. The term ‘Paki’ is no longer acceptable when describing someone from Pakistan, as it caused offence and is now completely frowned upon. Although not frowned upon, the word ‘humanity’ is becoming a popular replacement of the word ‘mankind’ because of the presence of the word ‘man’ making it appear unbalanced and not an accurate description of the human race. However, if the term ‘mankind’ is politically incorrect and offensive, and the precedent is followed, then so is ‘manhole’ and occupational labels such as ‘fireman’, ‘policeman’, ‘chairman’ etc.
The origins of political correctness clearly started as a positive idea, a positive movement of language change with social and cultural change. It is clear to see that some of the language that is being labelled ‘politically incorrect’ is done so because of the small chance it may offend someone at some point and not because it is offensive to those they wish to not offend.
ALICE FOX, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Lee, S. (2014, 16 October). Is this the moment the world officially went mad? Lyrics of Baa Baa Black Sheep have been BANNED by kindergarten teachers because the nursery rhyme is ‘racist’. The Daily Mail.