Political Correctness: Words as Weapons

Article excerpt

This essay discusses the dynamics of battles around Political Correctness. These are defined as episodes in which using a particular word comes to stand for group membership about a controversial issue. When this happens, the issue at stake tends to be reduced to a ritual fight around the contested word, with detrimental effects on the case at stake. The paper introduces the roles of protagonist, fan, spectator and arbiter. It then shows how basic values in a society alter the desirability and success of these roles. And it gives three golden rules for getting rid of political correctness battles.

Introduction

What's in a name? In 1976, having graduated from high school in the Netherlands, I did some statistics for my father which he rewarded me for by paying my air fare to the US. This afforded me my first experiences with US mentality. On departure, I had to fill in a form on which I was to declare that I was not a member of a Communist party. Was that such a big, bad thing? I recall feeling simultaneously intimidated by the implicit threat should I turn out to be a Communist, offended at this irrelevant prying question, and amused at its silliness. Upon reflection, this was my first encounter with Political Correctness US style.

During my stay, I met with a wonderful country and with many memorable and friendly people - but that's not my point right now. I noticed that news about the world outside the US was scarce. Newspapers would have the odd item about some act of moral baseness performed in the Soviet Union, though. Compared to my own native country the Netherlands, things were bigger, and people more outspoken about issues of good and evil. People, or countries, tended to fall in either of two camps based on a moral criterion. In public perception, there tend to be bad guys and good guys without in-betweens. In the US in 1976, by and large a Communist was a Bad Guy and the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire.

Political correctness today

Thirty years on, political correctness has become a big issue in the UK and in the US. What is it? Wikipedia provides a useful summary, see Appendix 1. In this essay I shall use political correctness, or PC, in the generic sense of using words to establish camp membership during a controversy. This usage is not self-evident in the US, since as the Wikipedia definition clearly shows 'Political Correctness' itself is the bone of contention in a political fight between liberals and conservatives in politics. The definition also shows how the liberals' declared 'Good Guy' intention of not hurting minorities is seen by conservatives as part of a 'Bad Guy' agenda for social change. For instance, progressive think tank PRA member Chip Berlet (Awehali 2005) says: « If people accuse me of being PC, I say, 'If, by "PC", you mean I seek to be courteous and not offend people intentionally, then of course I'm PC' ». Conservative spokesman Bill Lind (Lind 2005), on the contrary, asserts "It [PC] is the great disease of our century (...) PC is cultural Marxism. (...) America today is in the throes of the greatest and direst transformation in its history." It is hard to see how these two views can ever be reconciled: PC as Polite Conduct versus PC as Pivotal Conflict.

I shall not take sides in this debate, but I wish to explore the dynamics of this kind of fight. Many other PC issues exist in various parts of the world. For instance, in mainland China the word 'Taiwan' has strong political connotations. One current subject of PC that strikes me as particularly silly and that started in the UK is the use of the term 'deferred success' instead of 'failure', in education. The suggestion is that this euphemism will enhance the self-esteem of students who failed their exam. Many older examples are concerned with gender roles, e.g. 'spokesperson' instead of 'spokesman', 'firefighter' instead of 'fireman'. Another classical area of PC concerns race: in the US, 'African American' is the PC version of 'negro', 'colored' or 'black'. …