If PEACE FAWUSI asked you not to be an a**hole and to think before you speak, what would you say?
Diaz (2016) refers to political correctness (PC) as thinking twice before “spewing […] toxic, hateful, inconsiderate bullshit for the world to see”. In response, those who take offence to such toxicity are promptly disregarded as ‘snowflakes’, a term most commonly used to “criticise younger generations […] who are perceived as thin-skinned and less resilient than their forebears” (Symons, 2018). So, if I asked you to not be an a**hole, and to consider the basic human rights and feelings of others before speaking or Tweeting, what would you say?
‘Political Correctness ‘Gone Mad’!
Simply put, PC is aimed at preventing language and actions which result in the ostracisation of particular groups and individuals for a number of reasons, including race, sexuality and disability (Cepeda-Mayorga, 2017, p.271). As a result, being PC should, technically, lessen how acceptable it is to use disparaging language in public (O’Neill, 2011, p.280). So, add in ‘freedom of speech’ and everybody goes crazy. Welcome to the debate of whether political correctness has indeed, ‘gone mad’. Whilst the initial intention is to encourage people to be decent individuals, the extreme cases call into question what exactly one can and cannot say, and why.
Take for example the ‘N-word’. Whilst coined from the Spanish and Portuguese words for black, the term was notoriously used to dehumanise black people during slavery and is still used today in a variety of contexts (Wilson, 2020). I used to defend my nonchalant attitude towards the use of the ‘N-word’ when debating said word with friends because I believed that it was the speaker’s intent that mattered and not the word itself. As you know, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. Writer Matt Diaz (2016) called it a “bullshit metaphor” and I see why. It’s not simply the intention of the speaker that matters, it’s the history of the word, what it encompasses, what it upholds. Words have power that can have an immense effect on how we view ourselves, and how others view us. According to Starkey (2017), no word has ever expressed the depth of subjugation and marginalisation of people as the ‘N-word’ has. So, for a person to ask another person to refrain from using racist slurs so as to show thoughtfulness to the history of the term is correct. For a white person to ask, “[w]hy can’t we use it if they do?” (McWhorter, 2019) is problematic.
To some extent, I was correct in believing it was the intent behind the word that mattered. O’Neill (2011, p.280) argues the offense behind “retarded” is not in the meaning, but in the “tone and context in which it is delivered”. Therefore, when used maliciously, the term comes across as offensive, although the meaning of the word as “less developed mentally” is not (OED, 2012). However, this is on a word-by-word basis.
In the same discussion, I found it odd when people who weren’t black took great offence when somebody (in song or otherwise) said the ‘N-word’. These aren’t ‘snowflakes’, they’re just overconcerned about a term that some black people have reclaimed to celebrate “black comradery” (Starkey, 2017). However, criticism suggests that the PC world (not to be confused with the electrical retailer) is extremely judgemental, opinions are attacked as xenophobic, homophobic, something-else-phobic, to which writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (2018) retorts, “everybody is judgemental these days”. Noteworthy arguments against political correctness that I can say, ‘hmm, point’ is the question of when being PC turns into censorship and cancel culture becomes a thing.
‘Political Correctness is Censorship!’
Universities have been quick to publish lists dictating what can and cannot be said in the name of being PC. Cardiff Metropolitan University were accused of censorship after warning that staff and students could face disciplinary procedures should they fail to follow the language policy (Gray, 2017). In favour of more gender-neutral language, terms such as “housewife”, “chairman” and “layman” should be replaced with their more inclusive counterparts, “shopper”, “chairperson” and “lay person”. On the one hand, this clampdown effectively combats the use of gendered language which furthers gender inequality (Gray, 2017). On the other, the threat of punitive action against those who use the banned terms has been criticised as an attack on free speech and instead patronises students and staff (Gray, 2017). The University of Manchester similarly advised against the use of the gendered terms “mother” and “father” in favour of “parent” or “guardian” (BBC, 2021). Labelled sweetly as “guidance” by the University and demonised as “language policing” by others on social media, the promotion of gender-neutral language does highlight our inclusivity-driven society (BBC, 2021). My two cents: perhaps terms should be faded out gently and without threat of repercussion if one slips up.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (2018) notes censorship as “exercised by people with immense power”. Whilst it could be argued that universities are massive organisations with exceptional influence and power, universities aren’t governments that dictate and restrict what their citizens have access to. Additionally, the obsession with calling those who are rightly offended by slurs as ‘snowflakes’ dismisses the severity of the issue. Surprisingly, television personality Piers Morgan does make a point with his dramatic “[n]o more boys, no more girls. No more men, no more women. […] The world is over” (Kinsella, 2017). However, I would label this as over-policing language, rather than censorship.
Political Correctness or ‘Cancel Culture’?
‘Cancel culture’ is defined as “the practice of publicly rejecting, boycotting, or ending support for particular people or groups because of their socially or morally unacceptable views or actions” (Dictionary.com, n.d.). 2019 was the year of constant cancel culture-ing and rightfully so because sex offender R. Kelly was convicted, and Jussie Smollet was ‘cancelled’ for staging a racial attack against himself (Bullaro, 2020). Cancel culture relies on calling people out for their wrongdoings, but can, and has, resulted in controversy. A statue of Churchill was defaced over now-socially unacceptable opinions he expressed, despite him having had a tremendous impact during the Second World War. So, some misguided comments which reflected shared attitudes during his time seemingly eclipsed his overall performance.
Political correctness is not about censoring people. It’s about making a space where everybody can feel at ease. It’s about encouraging people to be more mindful of how their words can impact others. It’s about being human. Especially recently when racism, sexism and homophobia has been rife in our society, it is important that we remember not to be assholes. We should also be careful, because sometimes, even the people directly related to the term don’t take it as offensively as those who aren’t.
Written by Peace Fawusi
Waite, M. (2012). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.