‘Mankind’ or ‘humankind’? ‘Man-made’ or ‘artificial’? Should we adjust our language to avoid causing offence? FRANCESCA WILLIAMS discusses the pros and cons of so-called ‘political correctness’

Where does political correctness (PC) come from? It can be traced back to the feminist movement in the 1970s (Hughes, 2010, p.64) and this has further changed and developed to what is perceived to be ‘political correctness’ today. The overall idea of having a “healthy expansion for moral concern” (Allan and Burridge, 2006, p.90) still stands. Put simply, PC today involves changing or modifying our behaviour in order not to offend others. This may seem like a simplistic definition, but the modern meaning of the term today covers a whole range of connotations and versions.

More increasingly we are told there are words we should and should not use – those deemed ‘politically incorrect’ – and therefore we must exercise the correct versions. However, who has decided we are not to use such words? Who has the power to enforce this? What happens if you don’t comply and use ‘correct’ terms? In one case at least we can identify who is trying to regulate language use. Cardiff Metropolitan University has compiled a check-list of 34 gender-neutral terms that it advises it staff to use, and their offensive equivalents be dropped. For the everyday person, if we use a politically incorrect term we don’t face jail or face a fine, nothing happens. However, according to Gray (2017), at Cardiff Metropolitan University “[s]tudents and staff […] could face “disciplinary procedures” if they fail to adhere to the institution’s language policy”. The university state that its aim is to make everyone feel valued and create a “positive working environment, free from discrimination, harassment and victimisation” (Gray, 2017). To them, language should always be gender inclusive. The list includes swapping ‘chairman’/’chairwoman’ for ‘chair’/’chairperson’, ‘mankind’ for ‘humankind’, ‘taxman’ for ‘tax office’. Surely this isn’t hard to do, and if using this language promotes fairness and equality then people surely cannot complain?

The term ‘political correctness’ itself holds negative connotations nowadays. In red top tabloid papers the term is often accompanied by the phrase ‘gone mad’. These arguments against the regulation of language use suggest that PC is creating a world that restricts free speech. For instance, according to Delingpole in the Sunday Express, “[t]hey want to create a world where none of us can open our mouths without first mentally censoring ourselves. They want us all to think like politically correct lefties” (Delingpole, 2013). This bold statement is mirrored by Browne (2006) who claims that “the pervasiveness of political correctness is closing down freedom of speech and open debate” (p.5). He also states “rather than say:… I would like to hear your side, the politically correct insist: ‘you can’t say that’” (Browne, 2006, p.7). This alleges that PC people are only bothered by what is PC and not what is necessarily correct.

Supporters of PC are quick to point out that political correctness isn’t about suppression and having to control your thoughts, it’s about courtesy. Singer (2017) highlights this with the example of the gender neutral pronoun “they” and respecting peoples wishes not to be labelled as ‘he’ or ‘she’. He explains if you were to introduce yourself to someone and say your name was ‘Steve’, if they didn’t get that right and called you ‘Steven’, you would correct them and say “please call me Steve”. People often respect this and almost always call you by your preferred name, so if this happens with name labels then why can’t the same be said for the gender neutral pronoun. If people are respectful enough to call someone their preferred name, why can’t this be done for the labels ‘he’ or ‘she’?

Valenti (2016) argues that “[o]ur language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated attitudes towards women”. Although feminism has been around for a long time, biased sexist words still seem to exist. Words such as ‘mistress’, ‘diva’ and ‘slut’ are inherently negative terms that refer specifically to women. Even an unmarried man is a ‘bachelor’, compared with the female equivalent ‘spinster’. A male who has been in lots of relationships is a ‘stud’, compared with the woman, a ‘slut’.

But what does all of this mean to the everyday person? We are told not to use language that is inherently offensive to others, which seems vague. But when it’s broken down so simply like that, is it really so hard? We are asked to change the way we speak and self-censor, but we do this anyway without moaning that we have lost our right to free speech.

FRANCESCA WILLIAMS, 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.
Browne, A. (2006). The retreat of reason: Political correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain. Citvitas: Institute for the study of Civil Society.
Delingpole, J. (2013, 16 April). We must not allow the Left to take over our language. Sunday Express
Gray, J. (2017, March 3). Cardiff Metropolitan University Accused Of Censorship Over ‘Gender Neutral’ Language Policy. Huffington Post.
Hughes, G. (2009). Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture. Sussex, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.
Singer, S. (2017, 4 April). Political correctness isn’t about censorship – it’s about decency. Huffington Post.
Valenti, J. (2016, June 2). Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good. The Guardian. 

 

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2 thoughts on “‘Mankind’ or ‘humankind’? ‘Man-made’ or ‘artificial’? Should we adjust our language to avoid causing offence? FRANCESCA WILLIAMS discusses the pros and cons of so-called ‘political correctness’

  1. Aimee Kerr says:

    This was a nice and interesting read Fran. I enjoyed how you started off with a brief explanation of where the concept of political correctness came from to where it is now. I did not realise that it started with the feminist movement in the 1970s.

    In regards to Cardiff Metropolitan University introducing a list of gender-neutral words, I can see where they are coming from in wanting everybody to be included. However, introducing disciplinary action I feel is going too far. Also, political correctness does not just mean having equality for genders; do you think they should have introduced a list that included words for all walks of life?

    It was interesting to read about the term ‘PC’ being used in newspapers, and especially the red-top tabloids. You do not really realise that it is very often paired with “gone mad” until you start truly thinking about it. After a quick think, I found it quite funny how this phrase seems to be said by those who feel their freedom of speech is being taken from them. However, it seems these people feel ‘freedom of speech’ equates to ‘I can say what I want’.

    I agree with Steven Singer and think the idea expressed is such a simple way to understand somebody asking to be called by a particular pronoun. It makes you wonder why some people find it so difficult (or why they do not want to) to do this.

    This was a nicely balanced post and I enjoyed reading it!

  2. charlie leadbeatter says:

    Hi Francesca, political correctness is a hot topic and this blog post is a fascinating read. I do believe that political correctness is progress and has changed a patriarchal society into a more egalitarian society. However there is a limit when political correctness stops being progress and starts to become a nuisance. I do agree with Delingpole to a certain extent, as I do believe people are scared to voice their opinions without being persecuted for potentially offending someone. I am not in favour of outright offensive speech and hiding behind free speech, like that would be acceptable. Hughes (1993, p.21) makes an interesting statement that “no shifting of words is going to reduce the amount of bigotry in this or any other society”, do you agree?

    There have been some ridiculous cases of political correctness being taken too far, for example, in some US states instead of Christmas tree it’s now celebration tree in case it causes offense to those who don’t celebrate Christmas. Keeping on the Christmas theme, Santa’s in an Australian mall were banned from saying ‘ho ho ho’ as it may scare children and be derogatory to women as it sounds too similar to the homophone ‘hoe’ (cited by HITC.com) This is where political correctness starts to undermine all the progress it has achieved by taking it too far. What seems to be the case is that the people who may be offended by a particular term see no harm in it, so why are we changing the language? Who are we accommodating for if nobody is taking offense? Personally if people are taking offense by terms such as ‘man-hole’ instead of the PC term ‘maintenance hole’ then we have an issue and the English Language will suffer. Scott (2016) provides an approach which I think is beneficial to all parties, he states “[t]he best approach is a pragmatic one, to balance free expression with mutual respect case-by-case. [t]he one depends on the other; these are not contrary principles.” Would you agree with Scott’s outlook on political correctness?

    References:

    Hughes, R. (1993). The Fraying of America: Culture of Complaint. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Hughes, R. (2001, July 10th). 11 examples of political correctness gone mad. Retrieved from: https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2011/10/07/11-cases-of-political-correctness-gone-mad/page/1/.

    Scott, P. (2016) ‘Free speech’ and ‘political correctness’, European Journal of Higher Education, 6:4, 417-420, DOI: 10.1080/21568235.2016.1227666

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