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
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.