Academic journal article Independent Review

A Critique of Politically Correct Language

Academic journal article Independent Review

A Critique of Politically Correct Language

Article excerpt

Defenders of politically correct language claim that it is a civilizing influence on society, that it discourages the use of words that have negative or offensive connotations and thereby grants respect to people who are the victims of unfair stereotypes. In this view, the purpose and effect of politically correct language are to prevent bullying and offensive behavior and to replace terms loaded with offensive undertones with allegedly impartial words. So, for example, people are discouraged from referring to someone with a mental disability as "mentally retarded" and instead encouraged to refer to him as being "differently abled" or as "having special needs." Similarly, one can no longer refer to "garbagemen" or even the gender-neutral "garbage collectors"--no, they are "environmental service workers," thank you very much!

Though opposed to the term political correctness, journalist Polly Toynbee explains the drive for this kind of language: "The phrase 'political correctness' was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer, all those who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up. The politically correct society is the civilised society, however much some may squirm at the more inelegant official circumlocutions designed to avoid offence. Inelegance is better than bile" (2009).

Her fellow journalist Will Hutton offers a similar defense, saying that "it matters profoundly what we say. It is an advance that it is no longer possible to call blacks niggers and that sexist banter in the workplace is understood to be oppressive and abusive. It is right that the groups in society that used to be written off as mentally retarded are recognised as having special needs" (2001).

Though disparaging the use of words such as retarded and queer as a matter of civility and seeking to replace them with others, defenders of politically correct language allege that the very notion of political correctness is a myth--an invention of the critics of the so-called "progressive" program, designed to discredit the critics' opponents without proper argument. According to Hutton, "Political correctness is one of the brilliant tools that the American Right developed in the mid1980s as part of its demolition of American liberalism" (2001). (1) Toynbee goes further, saying, "Anyone on the left boasting of not being politically correct deserves a good kicking: the phrase is an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user" (2009).

For the advocates of politically correct language, replacement of existing terminology with politically correct terms has two purported virtues:

1. It reduces the social acceptability of using offensive terms.

2. It discourages the reflexive use of words that import a negative stereotype, thereby promoting conscious thinking about how to describe others fairly on their merits.

To test whether these alleged virtues hold, it is necessary to examine the process of semantic change, the reason that terms become offensive or inoffensive, and the effects of politically correct language on discourse.

Semantic Change and the Alleged Purpose of Politically Correct Language

To understand the drive for politically correct language, it is important to understand the problem that this language is allegedly intended to solve. To understand this problem, we need to examine the etymology of words (that is, the history of words and how their meaning changes over time). Why is mentally retarded a bad term? When and how is it offensive? Is it an inherently offensive term, or does something in the way that it is delivered make it so? Was it always this way, or was it once politically correct?

The word's lexicology does not indicate a hostile meaning. To "retard" something means to hinder or impede it, to make it slower or diminish its development or progress in some way. …

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