On Political Correctness

Political correctness is probably one of the most fiercely lamented issues of modern-day language use, and has come to carry so much more ideological weight than any other piece of linguistic terminology. But what exactly is political correctness? What impact does it have on the language choices which are available to us? Should we be squirming under its tight grip, or welcoming its values in theory and execution?

It’s easier to start with what PC isn’t. Besides the misinformed conflation of PC with health and safety, or any kind of change which is a little inconvenient, the chief narrative amongst PC dissenters is that it aims to control and restrict us. Those battling the movement tend to paint a picture of a shadowy ‘PC brigade’. The precise headquarters of this insidious organisation are yet to be found, but what’s certain is that they’re out to engineer language and, alongside it, thought. No sooner is Orwell cited, a parallel with 1984 drawn, and the argument against PC is clinched.

Political correctness is, technically, defined as ‘the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’. (I’ll be narrowing my focus to its purely linguistic side, so ‘forms of expression’). As such, by definition, it has little to do with manipulation, and more to do with individual’s choices to select certain varieties of language (or pursue certain courses of behaviour). More importantly, though, the collective movement which seeks to encourage use of such language is just that: collective. It isn’t controlled by a shady language mafia, and it doesn’t stop those who would rather express opposing sentiments from doing so.

Renowned linguist Deborah Cameron draws a parallel with democracy: just as we all buy into a political system which chimes with our shared values and belief systems, so too can we all participate in a system of language which showcases our shared values of equality and tolerance.

As far as control goes, Cameron acknowledges that PC seems to push to the very limit what we believe a language to be: the idea that language ‘is what it is’, that words exist and mean what they mean, and it’s not for us to engineer that. But, in reality, we manipulate our language all the time. The word ‘nice’ has changed its meaning at least five times since its first use from the Old French term meaning ‘ignorant’, and that’s only been possible because we as speakers approved the changes through our evolving usage. Language is a social contract of meaning between people; just as we all agree what words mean, we can also agree how we use them.

So if we can agree that political correctness is a collective, voluntary movement of language choices, the next question is: why? A frequent assumption is that supporters of PC are idealistic, mumsy characters who want to avoid causing anybody unnecessary offence. “Our choices are being restricted simply to protect delicate ‘snowflake’ students who just need to suck it up and learn that people don’t always say things we like,” and so on.

Well, I hate to break it to the remarkable number of enraged commentators who’ve “just about had it with all this PC nonsense”: using politically correct language has very little to do with the person to whom you’re addressing it. It’s not really about the recipient, and it’s not really about offence. Note that ‘insult’ is one of three verbs in the dictionary definition of PC. Of course, one category of ‘banned’ words is those that are deeply and blatantly offensive, such as ‘bitch’ or ‘nigger’, which can be nasty and destructive tools in the wrong hands. But the theory which underlines the PC movement goes much deeper: there’s nothing inherent in the word ‘actress’ which is offensive, so why do PC advocates favour ‘actor’ for both male and female?

The idea has its foundations in the theory of linguistic determinism. Otherwise known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, this is the notion that our language determines the way we think: that we ‘dissect nature’ and the world around us ‘along the lines laid down by our native language’. Largely dispelled in linguistic circles, and rejected by modern linguists from Guy Deutscher to Stephen Pinker, this idea that language is a prison-house of thought seems to fall apart as soon as we cite the example of the German Schadenfreude (pleasure in other people’s pain), which people across the world have no problem feeling, despite the lack of a definite term for it in their own language.

But the idea of a fundamental link between language and thought isn’t budging that easily. Of course we’re not imprisoned by our native language, but there’s a good chance that we’re influenced by it. One linguist comments that there’s certainly ‘something chicken-and-eggy’ going on. This idea, which most modern linguists buy into today, is known as linguistic relativity : the language we use shapes our thoughts and interpretation of reality. Take the example of a remote indigenous community, whose language has only one word for the nouns ‘aeroplane’, ‘aviator’, and ‘insect’. Of course, speakers of this language can tell the difference as readily as an English speaker, but aren’t they more likely to be quickly attuned to the similarities between the three things than a speaker whose language has never prompted them to make the link before?

Likewise, with PC language. The fact that my language offers me over 200 options for describing a sexually promiscuous woman, and around 20 for a male equivalent (none with the implied contempt of ‘whore’ or ‘slut’), doesn’t mean that I can’t identify a ‘fuckboy’ when I see one. But it does, perhaps, influence the way I’m likely to think about male and female sexuality, if I’m not careful to avoid the ‘language trap’ which feminist linguist Dale Spender points out.

A language which has been constructed by dominant groups inevitably has its categories, its ways of referring to different types of people, which help to ‘other’ and exclude muted groups (to use Spender’s terminology). Non-PC language perpetuates negative stereotypes and entrenches power dynamics. To return to the example of ‘actress’, compare the image of Hollywood glamour and cleavage which this term conjures up with the almost noble, thespian connotations of an ‘actor’. ‘Whore’, ‘bitch’, ‘hag’, ‘nag’ all reinforce generalised images of women which are already too pervasive in the cultural consciousness. Such language also facilitates and encourages othering, easy classification of certain groups into categories which can be dismissed, held at a distance, or ridiculed. The sweeping use of ‘African American’ to describe any person of colour (regardless of whether they have African heritage or consider it to be an important part of their identity) shows just how easily our language allows us to ‘box off’ groups of people who aren’t like us.

This is why, too, the language used by opponents of PC is both so interesting and so dangerous. Coinage of terms like ‘snowflake’ and ‘feminazi’ simultaneously capture the shared values of a group which feels its power threatened, and allow its opponents to be reduced to a cliché and dismissed with scorn.

There’s a lot to be said for the idea that racists will be racists, sexists, sexists, and so on – and that PC language can do nothing to stop them. But the linguistic reflectionism argument (the idea that our language simply reflects our thoughts and values) can only go so far when we consider the profound impact which our word choices can have to influence people, and to evoke certain images. Even that starch opponent to control and the ‘thought police’, George Orwell, acknowledges the circularity of language which linguists such as Marian Schulz have pointed out: ‘if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The words which we use matter. Language can’t solve all the problems, but it can certainly hide, and even perpetuate them – if we don’t acknowledge its power.

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