Eye-rolling or head-nodding? KATE MUNSCH discusses how seriously we should take ‘political correctness’

Do you roll your eyes, or do you nod your head in agreement when someone says they’re ‘politically correct’? Do you take the stance that ‘political correctness’ restricts your freedom of speech? Or that being ‘politically correct’ is simply just kindness and being considerate of other’s views.

Political correctness has always been a controversial phrase, ever since it started to fully emerge in the early 80s. The general acceptance of these new words and behaviours is still a matter of debate. Because of this, people define ‘political correctness’ differently. Nyguyen (2008, p. 5) believes that political correctness “refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups and aims at giving special treatment to members of those social groups”. The main aim of political correctness is to challenge offensive words/expressions either by rules that restrict them known as ‘speech codes’, or by replacing words completely with new ones (Nyguyen, 2008, p. 5). Here, Nyguyen (2008) appears quite neutral on this topic. But others, like Hughes (2010, p. 1) believe that ‘political correctness’ “instructs a sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice”.

Some people feel that political correctness is responsible for the corruption of our ‘sacred’ language and how it replaces the more important issues at hand, concerning language matters (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 93). However, I agree with people like Singer (2017) who believe that using politically correct language leads us to a much more tolerant society. So surely if language can influence people to be more accepting and understanding, it should be regarded as an important language matter.

Cardiff Metropolitan University has been in the limelight recently for adhering to political correctness. The university has introduced a language policy, where both students and staff will be disciplined if they do not comply to it. Words such as ‘right-hand man’, ‘waitress’ and ‘forefathers’ have been banned on campus in order to “crackdown on gendered language” (Gray, 2017). Cardiff Metropolitan University offers a checklist of politically correct terms to use, rather than politically incorrect terms, for students and staff to follow whilst on campus. Instead of ‘best man for the job’, its politically correct alternative is ‘best person for job’. Also, it asks to say ‘women’ instead of ‘girls’ when addressing an adult female. This seems quite logical to me. I am a woman and I would prefer to be addressed as an adult rather than patronizingly addressed as a ‘girl’. The university believes that by doing this, they are making everyone on campus feel welcome and valued (Gray, 2017). Implementing this new language policy has riled some people, as they feel that the university are “attacking free speech and patronizing students and staff” (Gray, 2017). Views such as “these words have evolved over a long period of time and they don’t have sexist associations” and “the idea that in a university, people need to be dictated to in this way is really insulting to students and academics, we should be able to cope with words” were expressed about this new language policy (Gray, 2017). How would you react? Do you agree with the university banning certain words? Or do you think it is ridiculous?

Nanjiani (2013) expresses his view on using the ‘p-word’ – a word nowadays which is generally not acceptable in today’s society, but there are still people who use it. He describes his disappointment when the ‘p-word’ is thrown around carelessly (Nanjiani, 2013). It was a word that was often used to insult him when he was a child. He speaks of the dread he felt going into school when a new racist phrase was doing the rounds on the playground (Nanjiani, 2013). These racist catchphrases typically came from the popular TV shows at the time. Thankfully now, it is pretty much unthinkable that any pop culture references could include such offensive language, regardless of context. However, there are people who think that they can use these words and still not be a racist. But as Nanjiani (2013) explains “it gives permission to those who are racist to use it as a term of abuse” and when the ‘p-word’ is used as banter or in a non-racist way, it is still offensive. This takes me to my final questions. Is it pure ignorance that people use these offensive terms, or do they actually want to cause offence?

Words possess a power that can permanently alter how people see themselves. Once they are heard, they cannot be unheard. This demands a level of responsibility (Diaz, 2016). This responsibility should start with accepting and following language regulation and rules.

KATE MUNSCH, 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.

Diaz, M. (2016, 23 September). It isn’t ‘political correctness’ to as you not to be a dick. Ravishly.

Gray, J. (2013, 3 March). Cardiff Metropolitan University accused of censorship over ‘gender neutral’ language policy. Huffington Post.

Hughes, G. (2010). Political Correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nanjiani, S. (2013, 14 April). P-word isn’t ‘banter’…it’s a harmful jibe. The Sun.

Nguyen, T. (2008). Political correctness in the English language. München: Grin.

Singer, S. (2017, 4 April). Political correctness isn’t about censorship – it’s about decency. Huffington Post.

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2 thoughts on “Eye-rolling or head-nodding? KATE MUNSCH discusses how seriously we should take ‘political correctness’

  1. Jake Parry says:

    Hi Kate,

    I enjoyed reading your blog very much! This is a discussion I’ve been really engaged in even outside of studies, but it’s often a topic that quite quickly devolves into argument rather than productive discussion, so it’s nice to see well-researched arguments presented here.

    As someone who has classical liberal leanings, I tend toward wanting to allow people to speak for themselves as opposed to compelling certain types of speech by rule or by law, and so I disagree with Cardiff Met’s enforcing of politically correct speech. I think there’s a difference between enforcing political correctness and, say, encouraging people to treat others how they’d want to be treated themselves, and so I think the intent behind lexical choice is quite important too.

    I think Steven Pinker hits the nail on the head when he says that if the voices of harmful beliefs, like sexists or racists, are suppressed by society, then there’s no opportunity to discuss and present reasonable arguments against them to convince them otherwise, and people instead “descend into the most toxic interpretations” of these beliefs.

    I agree with you that words can certainly harm people, but I think there comes a certain point where any meaningful argument or statement presented to a large enough audience will inevitably offend at least one person. I was reading an article in the Standard yesterday about Lionel Shriver’s (the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin) opinion on writers offending readers. She says that she never sets out to offend people, but also that she doesn’t want to feel obligated to “pull back from a subject because it has the potential to ruffle feathers.” I thought that was really quite pertinent, as it relates to this idea of the intent behind words, and I think, possibly, that’s what Cardiff Met is failing to take into account.

  2. CATHERINE TEASDALE says:

    Hello Kate,
    I find it interesting that possibly political correctness is deteriorating our language as we are having to make so many cut backs to the expressions and colloquialisms that we use day to day. As you put forward, you agree with Singer (2017) that being politically correct with create a more tolerant society, however could it not be argued that maybe people find it intolerable that we have to continue making these changes, as sometimes we have our own ways of expressing our opinions and thoughts and free speech allows us to do this, therefore is political correctness not limiting our use of language rather than making us tolerable human beings as discussed in The Independent ‘Humour is a vital part of our psychological self-defence mechanism: it’s how most of us process and deal with a world that can turn perverse and cruel in a heartbeat. A release of tension that allows us to live knowing we’re all under a hail of deadly arrows that can hit any of us at any time’. C Wales is suggesting that we turn to humour in times of difficulty and this is our way of coping regardless of whether the offending nature of the comments.
    As shown in the Cardiff Metropolitan University case study, introducing these policies are restricting people’s speech and this then makes it difficult for them to feel comfortable expressing themselves. I believe that being politically correct is neither ignorant or offensive when used in the correct manner, there should be some restrictions of course when it does come to race, religion, gender, sexuality etc, however I do think that people should be allowed to express themselves in a way they deem appropriate.

    C. Wales https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/i-won-t-apologise-for-joking-about-serious-topics-and-neither-should-you-a7037521.html accessed 07/11/2018

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