The Language of Our Age- Political Correctness or Factual Correctness
The language of our age- political correctness or factual correctness The basic wants in any social interaction are the two aspects of face. According to Brown and Levinson face is the public self image that every adult tries to project, and positive and negative face exist universally in human culture. Positive face is the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others and refers to one’s self esteem, whereas negative face is the freedom of action or freedom from imposition. In order to avoid face threatening acts our society has come up with the phenomenon of political correctness.
The term ‘political correctness’ refers to a powerful political movement located on university campuses and in ‘alternative’ political or cultural institutions—for example, leftist, feminist, anti-racist or green organizations, and public service professions whose ethos reflects these ‘alternative’ ideologies. The most general aim of this ‘political correctness’ movement is to enforce a set of orthodox (‘politically correct’) views on class, race, gender and other forms of socio-cultural diversity. The movement’s specific objectives include giving preferential treatment to members of certain social groups (e. g. omen, ethnic minorities) in schools and universities; constructing educational curricula in which the traditional ideas of cultural heritage and artistic excellence are replaced with an emphasis on non-western, non-white and female cultural contributions; and prescribing the kind of language that may or may not be used to talk about the differences between humans, especially gender and racial/ethnic differences. According to Ruth Perry in a 1992 article entitled A short history of the term politically correct, the source from which these groups adopted the phrase was probably the English translation of Mao’s Little Red Book.
Alternatively, Barbara Epstein (1992) has suggested a connection with ‘correct lineism’, a term used in the Communist Party. The earliest print citation Perry reports for ‘politically correct’ occurs in a 1970 article by the African-American feminist Toni Cade (later Toni Cade Bambara), which included the statement ‘a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too’. Although here the term is used straightforwardly to argue that sexism has no place in radical black politics, Perry points out that this was not the only way it was used, and as time went on it became less and less the dominant way of using it.
The most common use of ‘politically correct’ was ironic—to quote Maurice Isserman (1991:82), ‘it was always used in a tone mocking the pieties of our own insular political counterculture, as in “we could stop at McDonald’s down the road if you’re hungry…but it wouldn’t be “politically correct”’. In 1991 the University of Strathclyde’s Programme of Opportunities for Women Committee (POWC) published a leaflet ‘Gender free language: guidelines for the use of staff and students’.
POWC knew that any guidelines they might issue would be essentially voluntary, and they therefore designed the guidelines to be maximally persuasive to their intended audience. The arguments they chose to emphasize have certain characteristics in common. Politically, they are moderate and not radical—their underlying philosophy is a liberal one of equal opportunities, and it is taken for granted that a basic concern to ensure equal treatment of men and women is axiomatic within the institution. The first of these beliefs is that public language should be civil, i. e. it should not give offence to actual and potential addressees.
But, according to David Conway and Anthony Brown is a system of beliefs and patterns of thoughts that permeates many aspects of modern life, holding a vice-like grip over a public debate, deciding what can be debated and what the terms of debate are, and which government policies are acceptable and which are not. It has grown an influence over the last few decades to the extent that has now become one of the most dominant features of public discourse. The irony of political correctness is that it is itself almost politically incorrect. The Politically Correct are more intolerant of dissent than traditional Liberals or even Conservatives.
Liberals of earlier generations accepted orthodoxy as normal. Indeed the right to differ was a datum of classical liberalism. The politically correct don’t give that right a high priority. It distresses their programmed minds. Those who don’t conform should be ignored, silenced or vilified. The second commonplace belief about language on which the Strathclyde guidelines draw for their persuasive power is one we have had occasion to notice elsewhere: a belief that the highest value to which language-users can aspire is accuracy (also known as ‘clarity’ or ‘transparency’) in communicating meanings from one person to another.
It is therefore pointed out in the leaflet that sexist language can (unintentionally) mislead, and so obscure a speaker’s meaning. Citing ‘empirical research’ on the interpretation of generic masculine pronouns, the guidelines assert: ‘there is clearly a disparity between the way generics are intended to be used and the way in which they are commonly understood. ’ The message is that if speakers and writers do not want at least some people to misunderstand them they should not use generic masculine terms.
But we may also say that politically correct language, though it is semantically precise, can be misleading, since it is used for purposes of politics of denial. According to Conway and Brown there is a conspiracy of denial stretching over media and government from the lowest civil servants and reporters to the highest ministers and interviewers. There is an endemic dishonesty towards the public, but because everyone is in denial to each other few realize it, because their virtual reality became the widely acknowledged truth.
In the media-political elite, people are mostly intolerant and intellectually dishonest and prefer political correctness over factual correctness. Whenever culture is at issue, language is also likely to be at issue, and the debate on ‘political correctness’ is most obviously a debate about how democracies made up of diverse populations subscribing to a variety of beliefs and customs are to preserve a common culture. It is typical, for example, for anxieties about cultural difference and fragmentation to be paralleled by anxieties about multilingualism as a threat to unity.
So-called ‘politically correct’ language may not be as overt a threat to the project of cultural unity as the existence of militant minority language groups, but the idea that there is some analogy is not without foundation. Endless bickering over what to call things (and people) draws attention to a lack of social consensus. Furthermore, whereas language has traditionally been the privileged symbol of one kind of social identity—ethnicity—the ‘PC’ phenomenon makes it symbolic of a bewildering range of affiliations: gender, race, sexual preference, region, subculture, generation, (dis)ability, appearance, and so on.
This is exactly what the opponents of political correctness tend to oversee. Politically correct language doesn’t try to find a common language with which to bridge the differences between people, it denies that such language ever existed or could exist. As the postmodernist theorist Donna Haraway has written, the ‘dream of a common language…is a totalizing and imperialist one’ (1991:173). It is ‘totalizing and imperialist’ because it casts all experience in the verbal image of the dominant group’s experience.
From the dominant group’s perspective, it is ‘obvious’, for instance, that African-American is a pompous euphemism, that no one should shrink from a good plain word like cripple, that man includes women, that water buffalo is not a racist epithet, that describing prostitutes as sex workers is an abdication of our moral responsibility. Still it is hard to believe those facts when we keep in mind the things we see in our everyday life.
Perhaps the main idea of political correctness was to point out to the differences that exist among us, but by silencing debate and curbing objective analyses, it can harm those that it is intended to help. The victims are taught to blame others for their vulnerability, discouraging them from taking responsibility for improving their own rights if their problems are self inflicted. Black communities are encouraged to blame racist teachers for their children’s failure at school, rather than reexamine their own culture and attitudes to culture that may be the main reason.
The unemployed are encouraged to languish on benefits blaming others for their faith. Political correctness once had a purpose, but now it does more harm than good. Perhaps the best way to conclude this argument would be through examination of politically correct language in the media. According to the proponents of the political correctness the degree of faith in the power of language is as irrational as the belief in spells that it resembles. Not that linguistic manipulation doesn’t work at all but it is not nearly as powerful as Orwellians would like us to believe.
In one sense, it is undeniable that the design of a linguistic act is meant to have an effect on the thoughts of the recipient. When columnist Anthony Everitt warns us (apropos, needless to say, of ‘political correctness’) that ‘control of language covers an intention to manage thought’ (Guardian, 9 May 1994), the obvious retort is ‘well of course it does’. When I choose some words in preference to others I am axiomatically hoping to influence the thinking of the person or persons to whom my words are addressed, if only by getting them to focus on the topic at hand.
But far from being a sinister threat to human communication, this ‘intention to manage thought’ is necessary by definition to the communicative enterprise. As sociolinguists and philosophers long ago pointed out, a speaker who uttered sentences at random, without the intention to direct the thoughts of an addressee to her meaning or purpose in uttering them, would be communicatively incompetent. However—and this is a crucial qualification—the relationship between what I say and the effect I obtain is far from straightforward; neither my intentions nor my words can determine it absolutely.
The relationship that holds between medium and message is inevitably subject to inferencing on the part of the audience. There is thus no automatic, cause-and-effect relationship between, for example, saying ‘collateral damage’ and blocking the concept ‘death’ from the hearer’s mind, or between speaking directly in ‘I’ language and magically gaining, or persuading others to attribute to you, particular qualities like competence and authority. So, from this we may say that the use of politically correct language in media doesn’t have the power to shape our worldview.
On the other hand, we have to admit that public and government seem to be afraid of being politically incorrect, and are in some cases this causes them to present information in a “slightly different” light. In Conway’s and Brown’s book, “The retreat of reason” we can find a good example of this. An interview about the sudden increase of HIV positive heterosexuals on the BBC radio is mentioned. In the interview it said that this sharp rise was a consequence of unsafe sex, whereas the real reason was a great number of African immigrants.
The government official’s excuse for this misinterpretation was that they thought it could have otherwise been understood as political incorrectness, or racist standpoint. Similar reasons for not presenting the true state of affairs could be found in numerous examples. The general characteristics of media should be ‘Curiosity, Persistence, Toughness . . .. Ruthlessness with fact” but the political correctness leads us to question the very idea that we can reasonably think about media as being able to represent truth at all.
Political correctness may seem to be the perfect solution for our age of multiculturalism, tolerance and globalization. Yet it seems to go much further beyond the simple language change, it changes the relationships between people, and relationship of people toward truth. The use of euphemisms makes us believe that the problem is not so bad, but when we think better is a person going to be able to get up from the wheelchair if don’t call him or her a cripple but “otherwise able”?
Though we may try to ignore it, political correctness forces us to in a way feel trapped in some story by George Orwell, in which everything appears to be in perfect order and harmony, but is in fact rotten at the very bottom. And really how many of you would consider death to be a tragic event, if a dead person was referred to as a metabolically challenged? Yes, we live in the 21 century of equality and democracy but truth still remains truth, and so the language of our age should not be POLITICAL correctness but FACTUAL correctness.