Nonsexist Language Reform and "Political Correctness."

By Peterson, Eric E. | Women and Language, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Nonsexist Language Reform and "Political Correctness."


Peterson, Eric E., Women and Language


One element in the current controversy over "political correctness" concerns the use of nonsexist language and policies promoting such practices. Conservative commentators dismiss the use of such words as "chair" or "chairperson," ridicule women who prefer not to be addressed as "girls," and challenge the overall concern with language as illustrations of "thought surveillance." These criticisms of nonsexist language are hardly new, as conservatives have resisted contemporary reform attempts for the past two decades. Nor is criticism of nonsexist language reform unique to conservatives. Some feminists also express criticism of reform attempts, although such criticism typically focuses upon language reform as superfacial or misguided in its approach to linguistic theory and women's oppression.

Feminist critiques of language reform, as well as the renewed attack posed by conservatives in the "PC debate," raise questions about the nonsexist language policies we utilize in communication research and teaching. These policies range from research guidelines and publication style requirements (for example, those published by APA, MLA, and OSCLG) to suggestions for curriculum development and classroom practices (for example, those suggested by Jenkins, 1983). Despite a common concern with language reform, however, feminists and conservatives differ in their understanding of discourse and the strategic function of criticism.

Feminist critiques of language typically locate sexist language in relation to the oppression of women. In this sense, feminism assumes that the reduction of oppression requires envisioning a "utopian" component to what constitutes the "good life." Young (1990) identifies self-expression and self-determination as two values necessary for justice or the "good life." Self-expression, Young states, includes "developing and exercising one's capacities and expressing one's experience" while self-determination includes "participating in determining one's action and the conditions of one's action". Young continues by arguing that "these are universalist values, in the sense that they assume the equal moral worth of all persons, and thus justice requires their promotion for everyone". Sexist language, from this perspective, functions as a disabling constraint on women to the extent that language--as an institution--trivializes, insults, and excludes women in ways it does not trivialize, insult, or exclude men. The point here is not that sexist language prevents an individual from developing her capabilities and expressing her experiences (which it may well do), but that sexist language is an institutional condition of society which does not treat women and men as being of "equal moral worth."

Cameron (1992) argues that while feminists typically unite in their condemnation of sexist language, they do so for different reasons. Cameron distinguishes between those who assume that sexist language causes women's oppression and those who assume that sexist language is a symptom of women's oppression. The causal approach, illustrated by writers such as Spender (1980) and Penelope (1990), argues that language determines how speakers perceive, categorize, and think about the world. The causal approach is critiqued for its determinism by writers such as Graddol and Swann (1989) and Cameron (1992). The symptomatic approach is the focus of this essay because it is the most common application of nonsexist language reform in communication research and teaching and the approach most often cited as illustrative of "political correctness."

The use of a symptomatic approach to language reform in the area of research is illustrated by the statement on "Avoiding Sexism in Communication Research" (1989) adopted by the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender. Another example, provided by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (1983), warns that "language that reinforces sexism can spring from subtle errors in research design, inaccurate interpretation, or imprecise word choices". …

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