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Political Correctness: Censorship or Common Courtesy?

CHLÖE SHEPHERD discusses whether it's political correctness gone mad, or time to stop and reflect before you speak!

“It’s political correctness gone mad!” you hear your racist aunt exclaim as she’s being called out for her derogatory language. But what actually is political correctness? It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves, so does anyone have the answer?

What is Political Correctness, Exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, “originally U.S. advocacy of or conformity to politically correct views; politically correct language or behaviour” (OED online, 2021), is arguably unhelpful, especially since Hughes claims that political correctness does not involve itself with neither “politics nor correctness” (2010, p. 3). To the majority, political correctness is a way of being respectful and inclusive through language and avoiding terms which could be viewed as derogatory (Hughes, 2010, p. 8). To some, however, it places limitation on freedom of speech; Cardiff Metropolitan University was accused of doing as such when they suggested a list of gender-neutral terms to use instead of gendered ones, BBC News reports (BBC News, 2017).

The suggestions include using ‘headteacher’ in place of ‘headmaster/mistress’, ‘police officer’ in place of ‘policeman/woman’, and using the substitute ‘person’ in noun phrases such as ‘best person for the job’, where otherwise the noun ‘man’ may have been used (Cardiff Metropolitan University, n.d.) In layman’s terms – nay, lay person’s terms – Cardiff Met encourages the use of inclusive language so as not to create a hostile environment for those who may feel their identity is unrepresented through gendered language (Cardiff Metropolitan University, n.d.)

Does Political Correctness Stifle Free Speech?

Not everyone agrees with the university though; Dr Joanna Williams of University of Kent reported to The Telegraph that “these words have evolved over a long period of time and they don’t have sexist associations” (Turner, 2017). She criticised the University for dictating the way staff and students can use their language, adding how it is “insulting to students” to assume the need for this ‘censorship’ (Turner, 2017). Even the Prime Minister of the time, Theresa May, feared for the negative social impact that regulating individuals’ freedom of speech would have on the country (Turner, 2017). Despite these critiques, the University stood their ground with the claim “the Code […] sets out a broad approach to promoting fairness and equality” (Turner, 2017), indicating they have no intention of removing these guidelines.

If In Doubt, Be Kind

Singer (2017) puts forth the idea that political correctness is nothing but kindness, and that we should be respectful of the individual identities each person has. He claims that some small-minded people believe concepts such as gender, race, or sexuality can only be portrayed in a certain way (Singer, 2017). This is to say that for some, a man is a person born with XY chromosomes only, and someone born with XX chromosomes would be a woman. Of course, this is not true as someone who biologically has XX chromosomes may identify as male and vice versa. In these instances, the kind thing to do would be to address the person or people with their preferred pronouns, rather than discrediting their identity by wrongly using “he” or “she”.

Someone who has come into fire recently because of the aforementioned misgendering is the author J.K. Rowling. She retweeted an article addressing “people who menstruate” with the caption “I’m sure there used to be a term for those people. […] Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”, assuming that only women menstruate (Petter, 2020). Rowling took umbrage (or Umbridge?) with the fact that Twitter users were calling her “transphobic” (Petter, 2020) and backed up her claim that only women menstruate by tweeting “[…] it isn’t hate to speak the truth” (Petter, 2020). Hardly PC, wouldn’t you say?

It Goes Both Ways… Or Does It?

Hughes posits that political correctness is no longer a blanket term and the context behind each situation is essential in determining whether political correctness was present or not (2010, p. 286). He provides the examples of Joseph Sykes, a barrister disbarred for using a derogatory slur towards a black colleague, and John Hlophe, a judge who received minimal to no consequences for calling an advocate “a piece of white shit” (Hughes, 2010, p. 286). The former was an excruciatingly clear example of racism, the latter is more difficult to determine due to the common conception that if “you are a person of colour” therefore “you cannot be racist” (D’Souza, 1991, p. xii). This does not mean that the judge wasn’t being racist though, as Hughes says, people have started to “reject such double standards” (2010, p. 287). As a white person, I did not immediately think Hlophe’s comment towards Mr. Greeff was of racist intent, but I was definitely shocked by the racial slur used by the barrister – is this un-politically correct of me to think?

Does It Really Help?

Another issue Hughes brings to light is the question of whether changing the words you use actually changes your attitudes (2010, p. 289). That is to say, would a misogynistic man still view his female colleague as a “girl” despite being urged to use the term “woman”? Unfortunately, it is likely the case, as Hughes points out that it would be “unrealistic to expect politically correct language to replace […] natural language” (2010, p. 293) meaning no matter the language used in a workplace, or an official setting, it is impossible to censor the words and phrases people will be using at home.

Engage Brain Before Putting Mouth in Gear!

Ultimately, we live in a society that allows each of us to make our own choices, including the choice to “challenge what is termed ‘unacceptable’ or ‘inappropriate” (Hughes, 2010, p. 297). While it would be kinder to use politically correct language, no one can control the words you choose to use. However, they do reserve the right to judge you, and in certain cases sanction you, based on those words. So, if you are a person who struggles with politically correct language, maybe stop to think about who you are talking to for a second before opening your mouth!

Written by Chlöe Shepherd


D’Souza, D. (1991). Illiberal education: The politics of race and sex on campus. New York: Macmillan.

Hughes, G. (2010). Political correctness: A history of semantics and culture. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

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