6.2 – Political Correctness

Political correctness (PC) is a term used to describe language, ideas, policies, or behaviour seen as seeking to minimize offence to gender, racial, cultural, disabled, aged or other identity groups. Conversely, the term “politically incorrect” is used to refer to language or ideas that may cause offence or that are unconstrained by orthodoxy.

The Need for PC?

The Political Correctness movement is an intellectual effort to use language to allow and encourage social progress.  It has suffered from a great deal of ridicule and scorn, and it has also been confused by many.

The theoretical foundation of the PC movement is this: language creates categories for thought, and words can create either opportunities or boundaries.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is a widely accepted part of this theory.  All of language is a construct that attempts to signify abstract meaning, and any construct will be lacking.  The language we use affects not just the messages we communicate, but the fundamental ways that we think and act.  The problem arises when the linguistic constructs we use influence our way of thinking in negative ways.  These negative influences from language can be called politically incorrect.

The three categories of this kind of language:

  1. 1.      Subtle:  Words like policeman, mailman, fireman; referring to all people as man; referring to an androgynous individual as he.  These exclusionary words subtly influence our way of thinking.  The first three imply that these are roles for men only.  This kind of language can keep women from being comfortable aspiring to these positions.  The other general references of man and he are simply inaccurate and unnecessarily exclusionary.  They imply that masculinity is the default and superior gender trait.
  2. 2.      Offensive:  Words like gay or retarded to refer to something undesirable; words like fag or retard to refer to people.  The first set shows how these descriptions inherently link certain types of individuals to anything bad by using terms that refer to them as insults for other undesirable concepts.  The second set is offensive because of the pejorative connotations implied by these slurs.  There are appropriate ways of referring to individuals that does not unnecessarily demean them.
  3. 3.      Blatant: The n-word to refer to black people or the c-word or b-word to refer to women.  This type needs little explanation.  These words are highly offensive and indicate a great deal of disdain.  They objectify and belittle entire groups of people based on one trait.

The PC movement is widely dispersed and obviously includes many more elements than these.  However, these three are probably the most insidious and misunderstood.  Instead of lampooning the idea of PC, we should recognize its theoretical validity and usefulness in promoting social progress.

At its core, the PC movement is not about censorship.  People should be allowed to use almost any kind of language that they want to.  But the much more important question is what kind of language they should use.  The PC movement operates well within the open marketplace of ideas, as enlightened, tolerant people shoot down politically incorrect speech because of its detrimental effects.  We need to be able to recognize the kinds of language that can be subtly or openly offensive and oppose their usage.  We also need to be able to use language in precise, effective, and non-offensive ways.

“Politically Correct”?

Description of the practice of using speech that conforms to liberal opinion by avoiding language which might cause offence to or disadvantage social minorities.


The terms ‘politically correct’ and ‘political correctness’, in the sense defined above, entered the language via the U.S. feminist and other left-wing movements of the 1970s. The use of ‘PC’ language quickly spread to other parts of the industrialized world. The terms had been used previously though. The previous meaning was ‘in line with prevailing political thought or policy’. i.e. the terms previously used ‘correctness’ in its literal sense and without any particular reference to language that some might consider illiberal or discriminatory.

The earliest printed reference that is unambiguous in it’s use of ‘politically correct’ in its current commonly understood sense is Toni Cade’s The Black Woman, 1970:

“A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too.”

The use of, or even the definition of, ‘political correctness’ as seen by the liberal left is strongly disputed by those of other political views (and even by many liberals). Some view the very term ‘politically correct’ to be pejorative in that it portrays a political stance that they oppose as ‘correct’.

There are strong views on both sides. It isn’t difficult to find examples of moves to modify language that are clearly misguided. For example, the attempt by some in the UK to discourage the use of the term ‘nitty-gritty’, which was mistakenly thought to be disparaging to black people. On the other side of the coin there are many examples of gender biased language – e.g. chairman used when the person chairing a meeting is female – that are linguistically incorrect (although some would dispute that too). This topic of gender neutrality is possibly the area that is most contentious. Some would argue that any use of the word ‘man’, e.g. manhole, is biased and should be avoided. Others are quite happy with female chairmen.

The extreme polarity of views on this topic is encapsulated in the story that radical feminists lobbied the UK government to have Manchester renamed as Personchester. This is a myth and those that support the use of PC language point to it as an example of the right-wing press attempting to discredit their views by spreading false rumours.

According to the theory behind Political Corrdctness, using “inclusive” and “neutral” language is based upon the idea that “language represents thought, and may even control thought”; per the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a language’s grammatical categories shape the speaker’s ideas and actions, although moderate conceptions of the relation between language and thought are sufficient to support the “reasonable deduction” of “cultural change via linguistic change”.

Other cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics works indicate that word-choices have significant “framing effects” on the perceptions, memories, and attitudes of speakers and listeners.

The relevant empirical question is whether or not sexist language promotes sexism, i.e. sexist thought and action.

Are the rights, opportunities, and freedoms of certain people restricted because they are reduced to a stereotype?

Stereotyping largely is implicit, unconscious, and facilitated by the availability of pejorative labels and terms. Rendering the labels and terms socially unacceptable, people then must consciously think about how they describe someone unlike themselves. When labelling is a conscious activity, the described person’s individual merits become apparent, rather than his or her stereotype.

Critics argue that political correctness is censorship and endangers free speech by limiting what is considered acceptable public discourse. Other critics say that politically correct terms are awkward euphemisms for truer, original, stark language, comparing them to George Orwell’s Newspeak.

Some critics of political correctness claim that it marginalizes certain words, phrases, actions or attitudes through the instrumentation of public disesteem.

Some critics of political correctness argue that it is a form of coercion rooted in the assumption that in a political context, power refers to the dominion of some men over others, or the human control of human life; by this argument, ultimately, it means force or compulsion. This argument holds that correctness in this context is subjective, and corresponds to the sponsored view of the government, minority, or special interest group that these conservative critics oppose. They claim that by silencing contradiction, their opponents entrench their views as orthodox, and eventually cause it to be accepted as true, as freedom of thought requires the ability to choose between more than one viewpoint.

Some conservatives refer to political correctness as “The Scourge of Our Times.”

Critics of political correctness have been accused of showing the same sensitivity to choice of words they claim to be opposing, and of perceiving a political agenda where none exists. For example, a number of news outlets claimed that a school altered the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep” to read “Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep.” In fact, the nursery, run by Parents and Children Together (Pact), simply had the kids “turn the song into an action rhyme. … They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc.” The spurious claim about the nursery rhyme was widely circulated and later amplified into a suggestion that similar bans applied to the terms “black coffee” and “blackboard.” According to Private Eye magazine, similar stories, all without factual basis, have run in the British press since first appearing in The Sun in 1986.

In a different example, NRK, the largest broadcasting company in Norway, decided to alter the children’s story of Pippi Longstocking to be “less excluding”. In the original stories, the main characters father is nigh permanently absent, this is explained as being due to his being a negerkonge – negro king – on a tropical island. The NRK version has him being a sydhavskonge, roughly translated “southern sea king”, instead. A second NRK-production was also altered to remove the word neger, which is one of several hotly debated episodes in Norway where the use of certain words has been deemed inappropriate or racist, and subsequently reduced, criticized, or even outlawed.

Another criticism is that enforcers rarely consult the minorities they claim to be protecting, and controversies are therefore based on assumptions that the minorities want this, when this is often not the case, as with the Speedy Gonzales Mexican stereotypes case, and with the Mr. T allegedly homophobic Snickers ads, which most gay men did not find homophobic. Some people have accused the enforcers of supporting the stereotypes themselves. The CAPC website has branded political correctness completely intolerant of any person who does not act in a politically correct fashion, and considers it to be more divisive than harmonious. Some critics nickname enforcers the “PC brigade” or the “diversity dictators”.

How to Be Politically Correct

The expression “politically correct” came about in the 1970’s and was intended to mean “inclusive.” It referred to the use of language that would not cause an individual of any demographic (social or cultural) group to feel excluded, offended, or diminished.

It now seems to have been redefined by those who prefer an exclusive culture and dominance for themselves or their group. The distortions were made popular by comedians who observed the change in U.S. culture toward more inclusiveness and the struggle many people had in breaking exclusionary habits.

  • Be careful when addressing groups or talking about others, use language that would not make any person feel excluded, diminished or devalued.
  • Avoid language that addresses only one demographic group unless it is intended for that group only, such as using “men” when you mean “all people.” Accurate descriptions are the essence of ‘political correctness.’
  • Avoid titles that are exclusionary, such as “Chairman” (use “Chairperson”); “Fireman” (use Fire Fighter); and “Stewardess” (use “Flight Attendant”). The use of titles that exclude persons of a different gender or other social groups is usually acceptable when addressing an individual, as in a business setting, where Mr. Smith is the CEO, and you are introducing him as “Mr. Smith, our Chairman of the Board”.
  • Avoid expressions that are derogatory with regard to physical or mental abilities, such as “handicapped” or “retarded”. Instead, use person first language, such as “person with a disability” or “person with Down’s Syndrome”. People have disabilities, they are not defined by them. In many cases, simply addressing the person who has mental, physical, or other challenges in the same terms as you would address anyone else is the ideal solution.
  • Avoid overly-cautious racial descriptions that can be offensive. For example, say “African American” only when talking about Americans who have immigrated from or hold dual-citizenship in an African country. Otherwise the person is simply an American. In the case that you are unsure of a person’s citizenship, “black” and “white” are acceptable terms.
  • Avoid the use of religious terms when speaking to a group that may include people who belong to different religions (ex., saying “God Bless” at a local event). The exception here is in the context of describing either academically or referentially specific characteristics of such a group, as in “Evangelical Christians hold certain beliefs…”, or “Jewish people commonly recognize Yom Kippur…”.
  • Be sensitive to the inferences people may read in to the words you choose. Many common expressions have roots in a less inclusive social climate, and only time and education can completely eliminate them (ex., if you are asking if a girl is taken, asking “Do you have a boyfriend?” would be politically incorrect, as it makes them exclusively heterosexual. Instead ask, “Are you seeing/dating anyone?”). By the same token, each cultural group has equal protection from offensive generalizations and slurs, not just a certain ethnic group or gender.
  • Respect every individual’s right to choose the language and words that best describe their race, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability. Don’t get defensive if someone rejects language which dis-empowers, marginalizes, confines, or diminishes them. The ability to name is a daunting power; individuals should play a role in selecting words to describe themselves.

–          Is language change usually controlled?

–          Can we set up and carry through changes to the language we use? – i.e. has the political correctness movement had any quantifiable success?

–          How can we affect the ways in which language has changed, is changing and will change in the future?

–          If we can actually change language through conscious effort – should we?

–          If we can in fact change our language and control that change, can we stop other changes happening to language – changes which we dislike?

–          The descriptivist approach to language change is to simply describe the current usage and make a note of how language changes – what might the stance of Jean Aitcheson or David Crystal be to consciously changing the language we use?

–          Which politically correct terms have become established in the language we use today? What do these new words say about the PC project and about language change in general?

–          Of the prescriptivist attitude to language change – the King Canute approach – if King Canute was given the ability not only to allay the advance of the tide (the prescriptivist hope) but to make it dance to his own tune, would he have done so?

5 thoughts on “6.2 – Political Correctness

  1. Wow, you have GOT to fix the fonts and size of the fonts on this blog. OUCH!!! Make it ONE font and large enough to read w/out making the eyes want to explode! Try Arial, 12pt. Just a suggestion. Either that or let all your hard work go unseen. 🙂

  2. I enjoyed reading your article!

    Some inclusive terms that my friends/colleagues and I (middle-aged adults and younger) use in SF Bay Area:

    Person/people of color: a person who is non-white
    Queer: umbrella term for people who do not identify with heterosexual, heteronormative, or gender-binary practices
    Privilege: societal advantage (as opposed to saying something is the norm). E.g. I am able-bodied so I have a privilege as opposed to saying I am “normal”.

    And we prefer using “Hey everyone/folks/y’all” instead of “Hey guys” to be gender neutral.

    Just some random info in case anyone was curious if there are regional differences :).

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