Many people in the world view political correctness as a new form of tyranny in disguise. “People are just way too sensitive these days. We can’t say anything without liberals screaming that you’re racist or sexist or homophobic. Really, whatever happened to free speech?” These are often the lines of defence for many of those who reject the use of political correct language. Here are some of my responses to these sentiments…
Before I respond to direct statements that people make about political correctness, I want to clarify some things about the functions and importance of language. While language has many functions, the two important functions I want to draw attention to are the descriptive and prescriptive ones.
Language is descriptive in the sense that it expresses what is in the world – what we see. smell, taste, feel and experience. When one says “it is cold” or “the United States of America is the most powerful country in the world”, one is describing the state of affairs in the world. These descriptions can either be true or false because we describe things based on our perceptions. These individual perceptions differ because they are informed by the various experiences, values and norms into which we are socialised.
The second function which is prescriptive is one through which underlying assumptions imply the normative nature of certain things and the foreignness of others and the same goes for prescribing what is acceptable or not. An example where language does this is when one says “The dean of students will be coming by tomorrow to address you, so make sure you look presentable and that you’re in top form.” Automatically, people will know to dress formally, to not be intoxicated, to turn their phones off. While no specific instructions were given, the words “presentable” meant formal wear and not jeans or leggings; by coming sober and turning phones off this implies that these are actions which are associated with being in “top form” aka respectful and so without saying so explicitly, there were already underlying assumptions which came up.
1. What’s the point of substituting one word for another. If one hates black people and gays then changing the word for them doesn’t change the feeling towards them?
As indicated above, the words we use for certain things reflect the attitudes we have about them. The words we use publically and freely, without fear of being reprimanded, reflect that the attitudes that underly those subjects of those words are acceptable. Those words come with assumptions which the general public views as justified, which is the reason that there will be no backlash for using them publically. So words which have been given a derrogatory status, are words whose underlying assumptions are rejected or shunned by the society or people to which they are directed.
In other words, to permit the usage of particular words is to imply a level of acceptability of the undertones they carry and in the case of derrogatory terms, to permit them is to sanction those “othering” and degrading undertones. Lanaguage directly gives those sentiments legitimacy. One probably feels its okay to say a particular word because those feelings are shared or unchallenged, which allows those feelings to exist unchecked.
2. Political correctness is one of the symptoms of the ever-increasing intolerence. Freedom of expression is blatantly stifled by political correctness.
If we buy the argument that language is reflective of the common/ dominant values we have in society e.g. when we say “Look respectable” and the response is to wear less revealing clothing, we accept that that reflects the dominant belief that nudity shows lack of respect either for oneself or for others and to cover oneself makes one respect-worthy (respectability politics post coming soon). The key phrase here is ‘dominant values and beliefs’. With anything that is dominant there are outliers, the inferior and/or marginalised… In a world where there is a dominant religion, race, nationality, sex, gender, conformity to gender constructs, ideal of beauty etc. there is bound to be outliers and often these outliers are treated as unfamiliar and therefore undesirable. This is how derrogatory words come into existence. The negative connotations and demeaning assumptions of words are santioned by the acceptance of those feelings which are shared by the dominant groups.
Within the dominant group however, because these words represent shared preceptions about the subjects, they are normalised and made acceptable. The acceptibilty of these words to describe outliers relies in the consensus of the dominant group who give the words their legitimacy. Ultimately, words are dependent on the power of the dominant group. Once this power dynamic shifts – which is what is happening in society with the quest and attainment of equal rights – the unanimous consensus declines because there are people who do not accept those assumptions and underlying values.
This reclamation of agency by people who previously did not have it means that certain privileges from the previous dominant group (which existed at the expense of the minority/marginalised) will be challenged, and as we know it, the loss of unrightful privilege is often equated to the loss of rights or freedoms of previously dominants, since the concept of restrictions is unfamiliar to them.
And this is why you can’t say the words you feel you should have the right to offend people with.