Should we ever call women ‘girls’? CASSANDRA-RAE JONES explores whether this is respect or political correctness gone mad

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

References

Andrews, E. (1996). Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming. American Speech, vol. 71 (no. 4), pp. 389-404.

Berman, Paul (ed.). (1992). Debating PC: The Controversy Over Political Correctness on College Campuses. New York: Laurel Press.

Browne, A. (2006). The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd edition). London: Civitas.

Hughes, G. (2010).  Political CorrectnessA History of Semantics and Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oppressive thought control or controlling oppressive thoughts? EMMA ALDINGTON debates the pros and cons of political correctness

It’s no secret that people today are increasingly concerned about the rise of political correctness, fuelled particularly by newspapers and posts on social media. We hear that political correctness is ‘thought control’ or disregarding the ‘free speech’ that we so often take for granted in this country. There is a mass of polarised views when it comes to academics and PC. Michael Barnard describes the issue as “a new strain of ideological virus”, but Chomsky calls it “a healthy expansion of moral concern” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p. 90). It can be understood why those who have researched the history of political correctness might be troubled by the obsession the UK has with being ‘PC’. Its roots are embedded in Chinese communism and the dictatorship of it former leader Mao Tse-tung, but it’s important to remember that the term has since been revived by slightly different groups such as the American New Left and the feminist movement (Hughes, 2010, p. 60-69).

A study by Pearson (2005) investigated students gaining their PGCE qualification to work in secondary schools, and their attitudes towards terms such as ‘special educational needs’ and ‘disability’, and their subsequent language use when presented with the terms (p. 18). Pearson (2005) found that “inclusion was rarely mentioned […] and some of the responses were exclusionary and offensive” (p. 21), and suggested that the results raised “concerns about the adequacy of current provision” (p. 17). Of course, using inclusive terms for people with disabilities is just one small part of the political correctness debate, but this study highlights that there are issues in the way people are educated on the topic.

Cardiff Metropolitan University very recently published a ‘check-list’ of words and phrases that they wanted their student body to avoid, to ultimately avoid offending oppressed or minority groups such as people with disabilities and women. Their aim in this, as reported by Gray (2017), was to “make everyone on campus feel valued”, but there has been a backlash against this and some “accused [the university] of attacking free speech”.

This really raises the question alluded to in the title of this blog. Are the ‘PC brigade’ trying to control the population’s thoughts? There are two ways of answering that question, depending on who you are and what your general beliefs are. The first is that, yes, Cardiff Metropolitan and anyone else enforcing rules on others’ language are somewhat ‘controlling’ the way we speak, and ultimately the way we think. However, it also begs the question, why should we have a problem with avoiding terms that potentially cause distress or exclusion to others? Is it oppressive ‘thought-control’, or is it controlling oppressive thoughts? Both of these justified points are often thrown up in debates on the topic, which is why it is seen as so difficult to come to a definitive answer.

There’s the age-old expression, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” that often gets brought up by the defence when talking about being PC. Whilst this can remain true in some instances, it is vital to look at real-life scenarios where being politically incorrect and using offensive terms can turn into a scenario which is physical and violent. The Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center is an American periodical which monitors activity of far-right groups across the US. They published statistics that since Donald Trump (known for his offensive language and politically incorrect phrases) announced he was running for president in 2015, there was a 14% rise in “extremist groups” (Alexandersen, 2017). That comes as no surprise. If we want to get specific, “the FBI reported that anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 67% in 2015” (Potok, 2017). Not everyone will wish to extrapolate that data to Trump’s campaign and anti-Muslim rhetoric, but it is certainly food for thought.

This is an ongoing debate that we may never get an answer to, but it is important to remember that while sticks and stones may break your bones, words can hurt too.

EMMA ALDINGTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

 

References

Alexandersen, C. (2017). Hate, extremists groups rose 3 percent in U.S. during divisive 2016: report. Pennlive.com.

Allan, K. & Burridge, K. (2006). Forbidden words: Taboo and the censoring of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gray, J. (2017). Cardiff Metropolitan University accused of censorship over ‘gender neutral’ language policy. Huff Post Young Voices

Hughes, G. (2010). Political correctness: a history of semantics and culture. Chichester, United Kingdom:Wiley-Blackwell.

Pearson, S. (2005). ‘SEN – a politically correct phrase to replace terms such as disabled?’ A study of the views of students entering a secondary PGCE course’. Support for Learning, 20(1), 17-21.

 

Has political correctness actually gone mad? KATE GREEN explores the relationship between PC and race

So, what is ‘political correctness’? Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky labels it as a “healthy expansion of moral concern”, while Michael Barnard calls it an “ideological virus” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.90). The Urban Dictionary even defines it as “an inverted fascist philosophy that absolutely no-one should conform to unless they are an ignorant, bleeding-heart liberal idiot” (Urban Dictionary, 2004), so it’s already clear that there’s a lot of debate around the subject.

One of the most pertinent issues surrounding the minefield of political correctness is that of race. Allan and Burridge suggest that moving forward with our language in a way which mirrors our progressive social change is to “[call] groups by the names they prefer” (2006, p.96). They provide the example of members of the black community wishing to be called “African Americans […] to emphasise not genetics or colour, but [their] historical roots” (Allan & Burridge, 2006, p.97). This development perhaps helps to embrace and create the identities of minority groups, rather than focusing merely on physical differences which set them apart. Surely moves such as these should be seen as a positive thing, rather than a “fascist philosophy”, as it’s designed to create a more inclusive and welcoming society? It has also been suggested that “political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo” (West, 2015). Calling minority groups by the names they prefer may be a step in the right direction – it gives them a voice and seeks to even out the inequalities they face in today’s society.

Trevor Phillips, broadcaster and former politician, recently wrote and produced a documentary for Channel 4 entitled ‘Has political correctness gone mad’? As a member of the black community himself, Phillips discusses his attitudes towards the word ‘n*****’, reminiscing about how his grandmother used it throughout his childhood simply as a way to refer to other black people. Phillips then debates whether or not anyone should be allowed to use the word at all nowadays, given the derogatory connotations it has taken on. On the view that white people should never use it, but that black people can, Phillips has this to say: “that’s one rule for white people and another for black people, and there’s a word for that beginning with R”. Perhaps he’s right. People have already lived through years of racial segregation with certain words used as terms of abuse and as a way to oppress minorities. Allowing certain groups to continue utilising these words in their everyday speech, while prohibiting others from doing the same, does not exactly send out a message of equality.

This brings us to the point: is it politically incorrect to sing the children’s choosing rhyme ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Moe’? Although it is perhaps not common knowledge, the rhyme originally contained the line “catch a n***** by his toe” (Opie & Opie, 1951, pp.156-158). In more recent versions, ‘piggy’ or ‘tiger’ commonly replace the racial term, and it’s these animal-related versions which appear in popular culture today (Boult, A., 2017). An example of this is the television show, The Walking Dead, in which a character sings the “eeny meeny” rhyme featuring the word ‘tiger’ before murdering two other characters. This graphic scene has become iconic among fans of The Walking Dead, so much so that fashion retailer Primark created a t-shirt featuring the words “eeny meeny miny moe” alongside a picture of the murder weapon. For members of the public who were not aware of the garment’s association with the television show, the t-shirt was seen as “fantastically offensive”, and even as a “direct [reference] to the practice of assaulting black people in America” (Boult, 2017). These accusations stem from the fact that the rhyme once had racist connotations and, while the offending word has been replaced today, its history hasn’t been forgotten. This raises the question of how much the past should influence the type of language we use today. Are idioms and rhymes, such as “eeny meeny”, still considered offensive and politically incorrect if the history behind them isn’t common knowledge anymore?

“The path to real progress may be learning to live with offence” is the line with which Trevor Phillips chose to end his Channel 4 documentary. But it’s important to remember that perhaps one’s linguistic choices can have a greater impact on minority groups than realised, and that a bit of “moral concern” can contribute to a more inclusive, “politically correct” society.

KATE GREEN, 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.

Boult, A. (2017). Is this Walking Dead t-shirt racist? Primark pulls item following complaint. The Telegraph Online. 

Opie, I., & Opie, P. (1951). The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, T. (2017). Has political correctness gone mad? For Channel 4, originally aired on 22/02/2017. 

Urban Dictionary. (2004). Political correctness definition.

West, L. (2015). Political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. The Guardian Online.

What is, and how desirable is political correctness? VICKI TOON gets out her red pen…..

In recent years, political correctness (PC) has seen a massive rise in popularity, (if I am even allowed to call it that!) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, the OED online defines it as the “advocacy of or conformity to politically correct views; politically correct language or behaviour” (2017). This seems a rather simplistic view, however, as the modern meaning of the term covers a whole range of connotations.

For many, PC has acted as an uplifting source of equality and relieves those who have fallen victim to insults because of race, gender, physical ability etc. For example, O’Neill (2011) points out that some years ago, ‘handicapped’ used to be the PC term to describe people with disabilities. This grew to have negative connotations and was replaced by a more modern PC term, ‘disabled’. ‘Disabled’ at present, causes less offence than ‘handicapped’ and most people see this as a good thing. But don’t use ‘disabled’ as the collective term, as in ‘the disabled’. It should be used as a description, not a label, as the Government website (Gov.uk) kindly points out for us. There is however, growing frustration around the word ‘disabled’, with some speculation that it is being replaced with new terms such as ‘differently abled’.

Supporters of PC are quick to point out that it has “a civilizing influence on society, that it discourages the use of words that have negative or offensive connotations and thereby grants respect to people who are the victims of unfair stereotypes” (O’Neill, 2011, p. 279). Naturally, it is in most people’s best interests to not purposefully offend someone or to cause them harm, but unfortunately in the past, some words have gained negative connotations and have become subject to O’Neill’s (2011) ‘euphemism treadmill’. This is a rather undeserved fate, and some words such as ‘spastic’, which was originally used in the medical sense to refer to someone with cerebral palsy, gradually grew to be used as an insult and is now seen as being politically incorrect.

You might be wondering, “a euphemism treadmill? Is this all just an elaborate metaphor?” Well the simple answer is ‘no’! O’Neill’s (2011) euphemism treadmill refers to the idea that, for example, ‘toilet’ used to be the PC term but was quickly replaced by other euphemisms such as ‘loo’, ‘W.C.’ and ‘lavatory’. O’Neill claims that we are constantly participating in this cycle of replacing words which is entirely pointless. Words themselves never have an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning. A word’s meaning often changes over time through use. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to someone with dwarfism as being a ‘midget’ or even a ‘dwarf’ (according to Gov.uk anyway!) The PC phrase would be to describe someone with dwarfism as someone “with restricted growth”, did you know that? No, neither did I.

It’s all very well explaining how words move from being PC to becoming politically incorrect, but where do we draw the line? When is it acceptable for us to be told what we can and can’t say, do and even think? Many sources have tried to prescribe what they think should and shouldn’t be used with varying degrees of success. With this, there are those who strongly oppose PC equating it with thought control. Browne (2006) points out that p.c. has managed to creep its way into several areas including hospitals, local as well as central Government and schools. My own recent experience within a primary school revealed that it is now seen as inappropriate to use red pen to mark a child’s piece of work because the colour red has negative connotations. Instead, a purple pen should be used. This to me, does seem to be PC gone mad because only a relatively short time ago, I was of primary school age and never thought of the colour red as having such connotations.

So, what does this mean for people? Ordinary people, who aren’t familiar with euphemism treadmills and constantly changing Government guidelines. Is it that bad? Well, ultimately it means that English speakers are discouraged to use language which is deemed offensive and insensitive to others, which can only be a positive thing to most rational minded people. Vague, I know. But this only reflects current definitions of those who are ‘experts’ in the field, and until someone comes up with a better, more concrete answer, then this is what we have to live by.

VICKI TOON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Browne, A. (2006). The retreat of reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd Ed.). London, United Kingdom: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Department for Work & Pensions & Department for Disability Issues. (2014). Inclusive language: Words to use and avoid when writing about disability. Gov.uk. 

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press. 

O’Neill, B. (2011). A Critique of Politically Correct Language. The Independent Review, 16(2), 279–291.