Freedom of Speech vs. Politically Correct Language

By Spring, Natasha | Communication World, April 1992 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech vs. Politically Correct Language


Spring, Natasha, Communication World


Recently, we received a call at IABC world headquarters asking whether we knew of a "politically correct" substitute for the term 'third world." After checking, we found that seemingly the only alternatives available "developing" and underdeveloped," could be construed as even more offensive. Independently, we came up with "economically disenfranchised," but that seemed awkward. And who would really know what was meant by this ?

Increasing respect for diversity

We compiled some of the research findings for this article and attempted to achieve a survey of viewpoints. Those in favor of PCL view it as a tool for using language which is more sensitive and respectful to differences in people such as age, sexual preference, race and gender. By omitting from language those words considered pejorative and phrases viewed as stereotypical, proponents of PCL consider it one step toward an enhancement and acceptance of diversity among people.

To help define "politically correct," the University of Missouri's Multicultural Program developed the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases (see excerpt in sidebar) - In defense of this project, Ben Johnson, Ph.D., a major participant in the development of the dictionary, wrote the following letter in the March 3, 1991, New York Times:

"There has been considerable discussion, most of it naysaying, since the publication of a multicultural dictionary of cautionary words and phrases in 1989. That dictionary was part of an effort I headed while working as a professor and a newspaper editor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Much of that commentary is insensitive at best, racist at worst. What was missing in the columns was an understanding of the dictionary's true purpose: analyzing the multicultural content of the news media. It was an effort to have the media be more sensitive in covering minorities. Who is to say what will be the message the media provide? And through whose eyes will that message be conveyed?

"If the images and words we see are those viewed by middle-class, middleaged, middle-of-the-road white male journalists, how accurate is the picture we paint of the world? Not very.

"What we need is a more complete, more sensitive portrayal of world, national and local events. That can't be had without a representative news staff and news management. That can't be had if the media continue to use words that denigrate the experiences and perspectives of minorities. What picture comes to mind when you hear the term 'public housing project'? For too many, it's a pejorative term that conjures up mental images of crack cocaine, drug dealers, poor people, ne'er-do-wells. But call that same structure a public housing development and see how the image changes.

"In [the U.S.], the language is a party to the class and race distinctions that doom so many to second-class existences. We are what we say we are. Others are what we say they are. And not one of us is immune."

In Folio magazine's March 1991 issue, Yves Colon, the interim director for the multicultural program, also addressed the debate regarding the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases. The purpose of the dictionary he said, is simply to make journalists think twice before using a particular word or phrase in a certain context. "I would be the first to raise a red flag and say, 'Hey, we are not the thought police here,'" Colon asserted. "But this dictionary can be a very valuable tool. I can see the arguments on both sides. We want to be strong when we use language; it should breathe life. But we also have to live with other people's feelings."

One Canadian writer shared his view on why there appears to be such a strong opposition to political correctness in a February 1991 issue of the Toronto Star.

"When the voices of the dominant culture fulminate against 'political correctness,' they're bemoaning the erosion of their ascendancy. …

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