Emotions have always run high in the debate surrounding ‘Political Correctness’, ever since its rise from an American culture obsessed with freedom of speech in the 1980s. Let’s first consider the positive motive behind the idea. ‘PC’ is a phenomenon which seeks to demonstrate “progressive ideals, esp by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, esp concerning race and gender” as defined in the Collins Dictionary. However, from a philosophical perspective, how do we actually place a restrictive boundary on what we can and can’t say in language?
In recent years, stand-up comedians are just one group to have suffered in an age of sensitive language. A few days ago, Newsweek reported the views of comedian Jim Norton from a documentary issuing concern about stand-up comedy and the policing of speech. Norton sensitively regards this hot topic as no laughing matter, claiming the offence taken from those labelled ‘PC zealots’ to be ridiculous. Norton claims: “If you think you have the right not to be offended, either change the parameters of what offends you or realize you’re wrong. Those are your two choices.”
There is a sense of emotive hyperbole in his words, but how annoying must it be when people are oversensitive and can’t take mere jokes? However, you could say Norton is playing with fire drawing material from topics areas such as ‘transsexuality’ and ‘body dysmorphia’. Although, aside from Norton who seems to embrace offensive comedy, other comedians are ever more conscious of crossing such boundaries, concerned that with the technology available to audiences today, they will be publically shamed in doing so.
Along with stand-up comedians, many other groups find themselves at the centre of a war with ‘PC’, particularly within the social network Twitter. In April 2013, American football quarterback Robert Griffin tweeted “[i]n a land of freedom we are held hostage by the tyranny of political correctness”. Subsequently, the tweet went viral and has over 13,000 retweets and almost 6000 likes, displaying the sheer number of support for the claim that ‘PC’ is suppressing free speech which should be a given right. Additionally, there is an emotional, personified notion that ‘PC’ binds language use against our will. Politician Donald Trump has also been criticised for a number of tweets in the media, and is openly averse to ‘PC’ conformity. For instance, he tweeted “[s]o many ‘politically correct’ fools in our country. We have to all get back to work and stop wasting time and energy on nonsense”, supporting the pejorative mood surrounding ‘PC’, and disregarding it as human oversensitivity.
To flip the coin, Lindy West reported last month in the Guardian, that “Political Correctness doesn’t hinder free speech [but] expands it”. The article instantly attracted public attention with almost 12,500 shares to date on various social networks, due to the presentation of ‘PC’ in a completely opposite light. Details of the report claim ‘PC’ enhances free speech for ‘marginalised groups’ rather than ‘the status quo’. For example, Lindy sheds light on the culture war within the American university system when she claims that “[i]f you’re genuinely concerned about ‘free speech’, take a step back and look at what’s actually happening here: a bunch of college students, on the cusp of finding their voices, being publicly berated by high-profile writers in national publications because they don’t like what they have to say. Are you sure you know who’s silencing whom?”
Instances of journalists and right wing elites exercising their power over the speech used from students have made campuses a hostile environment. For example, ‘silencing tactics’ used against American students have triggered backlashes. Lindy questions how ‘PC’ is suppressing speech as evident protests show they know their given right in the first amendment permitting them to exercise their voices.
The past few decades can be characterised by Western society’s ever growing concern in a number of sensitive areas. However, to stay neutral, isn’t it time we accept that the control and conformity ‘PC’ enforces is essential to keep order in language, and suppress anarchy across highly sensitive domains? Let’s think rationally, open up to understanding different cultural and social relationships, and in turn consider ‘PC’ in specific contexts to channel our language more positively for others. With this in mind, let’s not naively dismiss the concept comprehensively, screaming the wild claim… ‘PC has gone mad!’ We should assess each case individually, and attempt to stay neutral on a unique phenomenon. ‘Political Correctness’ draws so much pejorative attention due to sensitive propagandists abusing the system, that we quickly overlook the positive intention at its core, and its essential presence embedded within a language which would run far too freely without it.
RICHARD STOTT, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK