Politically Correct Language

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The attitudes and opinions associated with “Politically Correct” (PC) language are widely varied, but in general, there are three main categories into which people fall: those for the PC movement; those against the PC movement; and those indifferent, adapting or ignorant to the PC movement. PC stemmed from an increasing number of people in the 1980s wanting to eradicate what they saw to be prejudice through the use of euphemisms and alternative terms.

This built up momentum with the formation of progressive and activist groups (who were advocates of minority rights), which attracted extremists alongside moderates, and by the 1990s the movement was widely referred to as Political Correctness. Though some critics of PC may disagree, a role does exist for non-discriminatory language in the 21st Century, though the line-drawing is often controversial. According to the proponents of “Politically Correct” language, there definitely exists a role for non-discriminatory language in the 21st century.

In a time rife with racism, sexism, ageism, religious intolerance and xenophobia, the impacts of discrimination in language are clearer than ever before. They therefore state that non-discriminatory is needed to serve as a means to help minimise the potential for misunderstandings, offence and discrimination. The word ‘help’ is the crucial part of that sentence, as a change in language is only a small step toward equality.

However, there is a valid point in pro-PC arguments: discriminatory language perpetuates inequalities. But how far should one take this non-discriminatory concept and how should one apply it? Where does one stop in the march against discrimination and prejudice? Though PC activists may still be unwilling to admit, it would be utterly futile to modify the language and its lexicon when the underlying inequalities still exist and the discrimination and prejudice still permeate society.

An excellent example of this is the way in which society has tainted the meanings of so many words which started life as a ‘polite’ alternative It has fruitlessly moved from one ‘polite’ term to another (where the black population in American have been termed “Negro” which then turned to “coloured” to “black” to “Afro-American” and then to “African-American”), but never able to rid each new term of the negative connotations which would quickly be attracted to it. This happens due to the underlying discrimination still existing – the very thing which this anguage is trying to avoid.

This all revolves around the idea that PC supporters have: if we can change the way people use language, in this case to ‘remove’ offensive pejoratives from the lexicon, we can help stop prejudice and discrimination, which are fuelled by such offensive language. On the other side of the fence stand ready the critics of PC. They believe that, although it is good and well to make language non-discriminatory, a mere change in the words used to describe the discriminated is not enough.

They believe that the search for a “caring” lexicon is pointless, as long as the inequalities which the language reflects do not change. This is again shown in how a new ‘polite’ form of a word quickly has its meaning affected by the negative connotations its predecessor had. Examples include a shift from ‘mentally handicapped’ to ‘people with learning difficulties’ or ‘disabled’ to ‘differently-abled’. Even though the older terms are not at all intrinsically offensive, they have been semantically contaminated by that which they are already euphemising, just like their predecessors.

Those against the PC movement argue, just like A. Robinson of SCOPE, that “Words make a difference, but what is more important is the work ahead to end discrimination”. Thus they see the work of PC activists as simply superficial and an act to appease themselves and temporarily placate everyone else around them. Critics of PC also believe that PC has a darker side to it. Anti-PC activists argue that PC is censorship and endangers free speech by limiting acceptable public discourse, especially in university and political forums.

This is supported by the fact that, in many cases, the “correctness” of a term is purely subjective and corresponds to the views and opinions of certain governments, minority or special interest groups. This has, in fact, been seen as a form of coercion and an attempt to control or limit the free speech of more radical parts of society. A New York Times writer even states that PC is “a lethal weapon for silencing anyone whose ideas you don’t like” – (NYT Jul 1991). An example includes how the nursery rhyme “Baa-Baa Black Sheep” was falsely reported to have been renamed to “Baa-Baa Rainbow Sheep” by a school.

In this case, the media and press coverage of this spurious report further propagated the excessive PC language used and has helped PC activists to remove as much reference to ‘black’ or any other ‘discriminatory’ word from the lexicon as possible – much to the PC critics’ dislike. Stuck between the extremes of PC opinions are the vast majority of the public and many enterprises and institutions. They have either had to adopt the notion of PC into certain parts of their language or have simply been brought up in a society of political correctness; and hence, for them, there also exists a role for non-discriminatory language.

Businesses and organisations in particular have had to make their language as politically correct as possible as they are fearful of public criticism and litigation. Thus, they go out of their way to avoid using language that might be construed as offensive or discriminatory. Interestingly, many institutions and politicians also exploit PC language, using it to suck out all meaning from their language and to shroud themselves in a protective fog of linguistic trickery. The term ‘negative patient outcome’, used in a medical report, for example, is able to refer to symptoms ranging from a sprained ankle to death.

The general public, however, have undergone a much subtler change in lexicon. Many people do not even realise their language is being manipulated. As terms like ‘blackboard’ or ‘whiteboard’ have been phased out to be replaced by ‘marker board’, many have simply carried on in their lives, either indifferent, ignorant or simply acceptant of the changes around them. Within all three main groups of opinion toward PC language, there definitely exists a role for non-discriminatory language, regardless of how large or small that role may be.

Though certain actions of pro-PC activist may seem like an attack on free speech and reminiscent of the ‘Thought Police’ of Orwell’s 1984, we are reminded that our society deems the use of PC language necessary as it is a step forward to equality in all parts of life (be it race, sex, religion or age). However, as rightly pointed out by anti-PC activists, we need to do more than change our language: we must change our underlying attitudes to truly combat discrimination in this 21st Century world in which we all reside.

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