When discussing the modern-day phenomena of PC-culture it is important to first look at the foundations this concept is built upon. Hughes (2010) traces its emergence to the communist doctrine and how the Communist Party focused on “doing the right thing” and “thinking the right thoughts”. He uses quotes from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung when demonstrating the initial meaning of ‘Political Correctness’. For example, the title of Mao’s 1929 edict “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in The Party”, the verb phrase ‘Correcting Mistaken Ideas’ plainly claims that there are right and wrong opinions and the wrong opinions need ‘correcting’. This elucidates the context of Political Correctness and that its emergence is linked with controlling the Communist Party line, Hughes (2010).
Political Correctness is, as defined by Hughes (2010), a “sense of obligation or conformity in areas which should be (or are) matters of choice. Nevertheless, it has had a major influence on what is regarded as ‘acceptable’ or ‘appropriate’ in language, ideas, behavioural norms and values”. As well as this, Hughes notes the relationship Political Correctness has with offensive language when he states that “[m]ost people would frame answers along the lines of ‘It means not using words like n*gger, q*eer or c*ipple,’ or ‘It means showing respect to all,’ or ‘It means accepting and promoting diversity’”. However due to its controversial nature, definitions vary from author to author. As an example, Browne (2006) describes political correctness as a “system of beliefs and pattern of thoughts that permeates many aspects of modern life, holding a vice-like grip over public debate, deciding what can be debated and what the terms of debate are, and which government policies are acceptable and which aren’t”. These contrasting definitions and opinions show how polarising the concept of PC is.
Now that we have seen some definitions of Political Correctness, we can look at the connection between language and thought and how PC culture may or may not affect the two. Edna Andrews (1996) discusses a theory relating to language and thought, the well-known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. She describes this theory as a “linguistic theory that claims each language creates a grid of reality that impresses some restrictions on the speaker’s perception of external (…) reality. The restrictions in perception by the speaker are defined by those linguistic categories that are nondistinctive in the speaker’s language”.
This theory suggests that language and thought are connected and that modifying language directly affects the way in which we think. Andrews (1996) uses an example to demonstrate this, claiming that if a male co-worker refers to a female co-worker by the noun ‘girl’ he is less likely to view her as equal to him. This is because the connotations associated with this noun implies that the male co-worker views her more like a young child than an adult. However if he is forced to replace ‘girl’ with the noun ‘woman’ he is more likely to view her as equal because of the use of his linguistic counterpart ‘woman’, which suggests he views her as an adult and hence his equal. She adds to this by saying that this change in language could be passed on to the younger generation and that “[t]he strong connection between language and thought is absolutely central to this line of reasoning, which holds that changing linguistic behaviour will lead to reducing social inequality”. Andrews highlights this as a positive way in which Political Correctness can be utilised. Alternatively, Browne (2006) claims that PC culture could lead to accusing people with differing opinions of “hidden and malign motives avoids the often intellectually and emotionally difficult task of engaging with their actual arguments”.
After researching this topic and reading a wide range of source material I would agree that altering someone’s language with ‘Politically Correct’ terms can alter the way in which people think about certain subjects. However, when looking at the history of PC culture I can understand the worry and concern about Political Correctness muting opinions and debate.
CASSANDRA-RAE JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Andrews, E. (1996). Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming. American Speech, vol. 71 (no. 4), pp. 389-404.