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Political Correctness – language censorship or basic decency?

University of Chester English Language graduate Laura Howarth explores the pros and cons of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, snowflakes and Morgans.

Has political correctness gone mad? Or should we all try to moderate our language?

Cardiff Metropolitan University recently banned the use of terms ‘businessman’, ‘chairman’ and ‘best man for the job’, in favour of encouraging students and staff to replace these with ‘business-person’, ‘chair-person’ and ‘best person for the job’. Gray (2017) calls this a “crackdown on gendered language” to combat gender inequality.

Despite the aim being “to provide a positive working environment free from discrimination, harassment and victimisation” (Gray, 2017), it has provoked criticisms, such as being an attack on free speech and patronising students and staff. For instance Dr Joanna Williams, ‘academic freedom expert’, said the ban was “unnecessary”, as these words “don’t have sexist associations” (Gray, 2017). What are your thoughts? Is this an unnecessary extreme example of language regulation or is it useful?

The concept of being ‘politically correct’ is controversial because, according to Hughes (2010) “there is no such thing as a ‘correct political attitude’”. Depending on who uses the term, definitions vary because of different opinions.

So how can we define political correctness? Hughes (2010) writes that, “most people would frame answers along the lines of ‘it means not using words like ‘the ‘n’ word’, ‘queer’, or ‘cripple’’ or ‘it means accepting and promoting diversity’” (p.8). But, it is also “typically associated with the censorship of policies, actions, and language seen to disadvantage or offend a particular group of people in society” (Kaufman, 2016). Some would argue the term ‘political correctness’ (PC) is only about using offensive racist, sexist or homophobic derogatory terms. Why are such terms loaded with negative meanings? For example, the term ‘mentally retarded’ has negative connotations, but O’Neill (2011) writes that the word’s lexicology is not hostile. It simply means that “their mental processes are somehow impeded, hindered, [or] diminished”. Generally, there is no reason that certain terms in the English language are deemed to be inherently offensive. O’Neill (2011) suggests that the alleged rudeness of the term ‘retarded’ only comes from the tone and context of its delivery (e.g. when used as an insult).

Gender is a prevalent domain of PC. Berry (2016) explains that “air hostesses became cabin crew, male nurses are nurses, firemen are firefighters”. This change in society should inspire us to adjust our language on how to address people. For example,

teachers in top UK schools have been told, by the government’s former children’s mental health Tsar, Natasha Devon, to use gender neutral pronouns (such as ‘pupils’ or ‘students’) to address children, instead of using the terms ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Kinsella (2017) explains that Devon said, “calling students ‘girls’ reminded them of their gender and all the stereotypes that go with it. For example, she said the word ‘boys’ encouraged students to be ‘macho’ and to not talk about their feelings”. Piers Morgan, an obvious opposer to this, described it as “utterly preposterous”. He said “it’s over. No more boys, no more girls. No more men, no more women. The world is over” (Kinsella, 2017). I agree with Piers Morgan because this is a slightly dramatic adjustment to language.

The motivations behind being ‘politically correct’ are surprisingly positive. Moosa (2018) claims that all ‘political correctness’ means is “basic decency and respect, an active effort to listen, a recognition of how our actions affect others”. Taking this into account, surely PC encourages people to be kind, so why are some so against it? Well, because they may feel it goes completely over the top. Words that have been in our language for decades have suddenly become offensive to a generation of millennial ‘snowflakes’. This is a (somewhat offensive) term that is mostly used to “criticise younger generations…those who are perceived as thin-skinned and less resilient than their forebears” (Symons, 2018). Red top UK tabloid newspapers such as The Sun, and especially the Daily Star, have recently been obsessed with any negative stories concerning so-called ‘snowflakes’. For instance, being labelled ‘cry babies’ in ‘man-size tissues blown out in snowflakes row’ (Daily Star) suggests they are unnecessarily oversensitive and petty.

The fear that PC will endanger free speech is a dominant criticism. Delingpole (2013) refers to supporters of PC as ‘the Language Nazis’, stating that the “war on freedom of expression…is getting more aggressive”. I do not think that adjusting our language around marginalised groups will completely stop people using offensive remarks. As Singer (2017) suggests, people “reserve their racist, classist, sexist language for use behind closed doors”.

So, is our society becoming blind (or ‘visually impaired’, to be politically correct) to oversensitivity? Or should we all stop and think before we speak just in case we offend someone?


NB: this blog was originally published on the Language Debates website on 19 March 2019

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