Language and Political Correctness: ‘Verbal Hygiene’, Deborah Cameron, 1995

Main Points

  • the negative portrayal of political correctness in the mass media has shaped society’s views on political correctness.
  • Introduces the idea of verbal hygiene, which is ‘the urge to meddle in matters of language’, and argues that it is an attempt to impose order on the social world and a way to make sense of language. (or Allyson Jule said that according to http://grammar.about.com/od/tz/g/verbalhygieneterm.htm)

Throughout the entirety of her essay, Cameron takes a fairly neutral stance regarding the idea of political correctness; she appears to take several arguments into account, weighs them analytically, yet never takes a distinctive side herself. She considers the effect that political correctness has in relation to differing political parties (and their supporters), as well as political movements (such as feminism), and recipients of such parties/movements: the civilians. This leads her into taking the idiosyncratic (at least, at the time of publication) stance that political correctness is not a threat to our freedom of expression as language users, but rather something that “threatens only our freedom to imagine that our linguistic choices are inconsequential” – or, in other words, that we can say whatever we want, but we must be prepared to face the consequences, something which she is attempting to convey to the reader.

This is because a user of the English language can no longer use said language without revealing their own political stance, to some degree, as language choice has “altered the value of terms and removed the option of political neutrality.” If one were to refer to refer to a “chairman” as opposed to a “chairperson”, for instance, they could be said to be discrediting women as equal to men, and in doing so demonstrating an indifference to the feminist movement. While not exactly to be seen as misogyny, this does belittle the feminist movement, and hold it back in doing so. Cameron says that this politicizing of their own words, against their will, is “what people dislike” about political correctness.

Cameron states that, “considered in its totality”, political correctness is a debate about how “democracies made up of diverse populations subscribing to a variety of beliefs and customs are to preserve a common culture.” Here, she is effectively saying that when considering political correctness as a whole, it becomes a means of preserving social solidarity amongst people of differing social, ethnic, and political backgrounds. In trying to form a common language in society, it is hoped that a common culture will follow – since language is said to be reflective of society. The opposite of this would be a society without a common language, and thus a society of fragmentation between different people, be it on account of race, gender, social, political, or ethnic backgrounds.

Cameron explains how the media can prevent this from happening, on account of the “discursive drift”. As interest has grown in political correctness, the debate has been taken up in the mass media, where certain keywords have undergone this discursive drift. With political correctness comes a range of neologisms (newly-created words), and the media can reference these words far quicker than other forms of communication (such as word-of-mouth, face-to-face communication), but the words are often not met with sufficient context, and so their meaning must be inferred by the recipient. This can often lead to misunderstandings, where the words are taken to mean different things by different people, and so it begins to “drift” away from its intended meaning. This means that these neologisms can begin to “lose their precision, acquire connotations they did not have before, and start to overlap with other forms from which they were once distinguished.” As Cameron goes on to explain, the word “gender” is now used as a polite way of saying “sex”, a synonym, but when feminists first put the word “into circulation”, their intention was to use it as a technical term taking its meaning as a contrast with “sex” and meant to show the contrast between the biological and the social, not the more and less polite usage.

With regards to other theorists, Cameron writes that many linguists did not feel the need to put their own views across, while those who did offered only “contradictory and simplistic statements.” David Crystal is one such linguist, as he notes that the feminist campaign against sexist language was among the most successful instances of prescriptivism (1984). By this, we can assume that Crystal is simply saying that said feminists have successfully managed to elevate their idea of language as superior to other forms – probably on account of the fear of sounding sexist. Cameron herself is not supportive of Crystal’s stance, and says that his view on the matter “glosses over” the subject, and results in this being infrequently discussed, on account of an “over simple assumption.”

Overall, I find that Cameron’s argument is not particularly convincing: the topics that she touches upon are interesting and well-explained, but she fails to offer much in way of her own opinions regarding the matters; her essay lacks substance. Her part on the discursive drift is very well put, and I agree with her saying that the mass media can sometimes be held accountable for confusion regarding the meaning of a neologism, in that it does not always offer sufficient context. However, the fact that she argues that some theorists such as David Crystal simply gloss over the subject of increasing feminist neologisms is fairly hypercritical, in that she barely goes on to elaborate on this, herself.

Examples

  • A typo in an American newspaper read “back in the African American” instead of “back in the black” This suggests a find and replace tool has been used to remove the deemed unpolitically correct ‘black’ and replace it with ‘african-american’. The story of the newpapers error made bigger news than the original story which shows how negativity surround PC is a big focus for the media.
  • She uses an analogy of Humpty Dumpty and Alice, where Humpty claims that when he uses a word, it means whatever he chooses it to mean. This means Alic must infer meanings and this may result in miscommunication. Cameron asks the question “how would we communicate if everyone acted like Humpty Dumpty?” This shows that without some form of restriction and control we would struggle to make sense of language.
  • She suggests the phrase “politically correct” has undergone discursive drift, meaning that since it has been taken up in mass media it’s meaning has began to drift away from it’s original one. Cameron argues that it’s portrayal in the media is very detached from its present context and thus the public have developed a very general idea of the term PC.
  • Cameron also uses the example of sexism and the debate on use of non-inclusive job titles as one of the less radical sides of PC. She suggests that there is need for it to be equal to both male and female sexes and there are many persuasive arguments for and against this issue, which relates to the bigger issue as this is also the case with PC.

Theorists

Cameron quotes Abraham H Miller when discussing the fact that the discourse around political correctness comes from those who oppose it. Cameron discusses this, saying that people who do not understand verbal hygiene should not oppose it. This supports the larger argument that the media has portrayed PC wrongly in the media causing people to be confused about what it is and see only the fact that it is almost ‘policing our langauge’. This causes them to fear and oppose PC.

Important Quotations

“It pushes to the limit established belief about what a language is, or ideally should be and therefore it causes considerable anxiety.”

Here Cameron is explaining the effect verbal hygiene has on language and that this can provoke fear upon the language users causing them to dislike it. This raises one of the reasons there are such negative connotations surrounding PC.

How would we communicate if everyone acted like Humpty Dumpty”

—Cameron argues that if everyone chooses what they mean when using a term, ie have a less controlled language, it would be very difficult for us to communicate effectively as everyone infers things in different ways and wrong assumptions can be made. This is one reason why having some sort of code of conduct with language can help it function better as well as stop perpetuating negative stereotypes.

“Do we control language or does it control us?”

—Cameron uses this rhetorical question to make readers question this fact as on the one hand, we could control the language and communicate easily and effectively without shaping society’s views, or we could use language freely and consequently perpetuate negative stereotypes and in a sense be controlled by language.

“Getting rid of this mystification does not magically produce consensus, but it clears the ground for more focused arguments about what (and whose) restrictions on our linguistic practice were are or are not willing to accept. “

—Cameron argues for verbal hygiene as it identifies linguistic practices that perpetuate stereotypes highlighting larger issues in society, and that it is a way of controlling and understanding the language we use in a very critical way. This is persuasive as it makes the reader feel as though they are able to have an input into language.

Conclusion

I agree that PC has had a very harsh and trivial portrayal in the mass media resulting in a negative reputation, and for this reason the values of today are to be against verbal hygiene.

When discussing the positive impact PC has, she explains how it addresses issues in society rather than supressing them and helpt to make sense of and control our language. I agree with these points to an extent as language change is fundamental in society, and it is important to stop perpetuating negative stereotypes. However, new words always come about, for example the term ‘spastic’ was deemed offensive so changed to ‘retarded’, which now also has negative connotations. I also think that some views are instilled into society through morals and not just language so the negative connotations will always manifest themselves in the language as long as people still have those views.

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