Issue 3 |

Political correctness as a panacea?

by on June 2, 2015

“Expect an exciting, uncensored show!”

“A no-holds-barred debate!”

“The most controversial and hot button issues of today!”

Such statements are often made by news networks to promote their broadcasts of panel discussions and talk shows. We buy into the hype, sitting in front of the television with bated breath and a bag of nachos in hand, prepared to be blown away by a stellar show. Instead, we walk away disappointed, complaining that the whole speech was “cheesy” and filled with “politically correct statements”. We still feel that something was missing; a certain tension under the surface has been left undealt with, as if the speakers were holding back despite the amount of material presented.

But what does it mean to be “politically correct”? We often freely throw the term around when we criticise someone for deliberately phrasing his opinion in an overly elaborate and careful manner to avoid offending others. In this article, we’ll take a look at the origins and features of political correctness, as well as the functions and flaws of using politically correct language. I’ll be focusing my analysis and case studies on descriptions of disadvantaged groups within society.

Features of politically correct language

To begin with, let’s define political correctness. In general, speakers seek to avoid causing offence toward any particular individual or social group. Politically correct language may be characterised by the following features:

  • Inclusivity – The speaker chooses language that he or she believes shows empathy with people of different races, genders, physical abilities, ethnicities, sexual orientation, religious belief, and ideology etc. This may be achieved by emphasising an individual’s humanity.
  • Non-pejorative Terms – Avoiding words or phrases which has unpleasant associations or which belittles an individual.
  • Indirect Expressions – Figures of speech, euphemisms, or circumlocutions (circling around an idea with multiple words rather than concisely expressing it in fewer words) are commonly used.

Origins of politically correct language

The phrase “politically correct” was first used in the late 1940s in political debates between socialists and communists. The term was used by the socialists to mock the communists who would follow the “correct” party line regardless of its moral implications. For instance, communists would support Stalin’s decision to ally with Hitler in World War II while socialists found that decision to be immoral, given Hitler’s horrific discrimination against the Jews. Socialists believed that the “politically correct” communists allowed their loyalty to the communist party to override their sense of compassion, therefore leading to bad politics.

In the 1990s, the debate surrounding the political correctness reignited along similar ideological lines, this time round, within the classroom context. Liberals advocated promoting the ideals of cultural diversity, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and anti-homophobia in classroom teaching. They believed that promoting the usage of politically correct language in schools would make students more open-minded and tolerant. On the other end of the ideological spectrum, however, conservatives complained that forcing such ideals to be adopted in classrooms actually goes against an individual’s freedom of speech and right to be racist, sexist and homophobic.

In essence, the framing of language as “politically correct” is part of the larger picture featuring a tug-of-war between ideologies. It would probably be difficult to talk about political correctness without talking about its associated ideas and ideals.

The debates over whether politically correct language promotes social equality or whether it overly restricts one’s freedom of expression are based on the assumption that language has a causal influence on how and what we think. The effect of language on perception could never be concretely proven throughout most of the twentieth century despite the fact that many believed that such an influence exists.

There was, however, very little literature on the relationship between language use and thinking until the late twentieth to twenty-first century, when linguists began to pay more attention to how the unique constructions of different languages may affect the worldviews of different people.

For instance, in 2010, a team led by linguist Caitlin M. Fausey conducted a study where English and Japanese speakers were asked to describe two kinds of events:

  • Events that occurred out of deliberate action, and
  • Events that occurred as a result of an accident.

Speakers of both languages described intentional actions with similar use of agentive language, meaning that they ascribed action to the individual who performed it, as in:

“She broke the vase.”

However, when the event was an accident, English speakers used more agentive language than Japanese speakers. The latter tended to place a greater emphasis on the event itself, as in:

“The vase broke, unfortunately.”

Subsequently, it was shown that speakers of English tended to remember agents of events better than Japanese speakers. This led Fausey’s team to argue that differences in language influence how people construe the happening of an event and affect recollection and memory [1].

Functions of politically correct language – reducing discrimination

The study done by Fausey’s team sheds some light on how the language we use in describing events affects our mental processes. If language is capable of affecting our thinking in an unconscious manner, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are people who strongly advocate that the general public use politically correct language in describing individuals with disabilities. In fact, such thinking led the government of the United Kingdom to publish a guide advising the public to use inclusive language when describing disabilities, promoting the use of phrases such as “people with a mental health condition” over ”mental patient”, ”insane” or ”mad”.

What is the difference? Well, terms such as “person with a mental health condition” distance the individual from the condition with which he is afflicted, thus emphasising the humanity of disabled persons. It’s like political correctness is holding a large banner that screams “I am a human being first, and shall be recognised as such before factoring in my illness” in bolded size-72 font. Meanwhile, insensitive labelling of someone as being “insane” or “a mental patient” directly ascribes the condition to the individual’s identity, thus defining his sense of self solely by his condition.

Moreover, words such as “insane” and “mad” may be considered offensive because they carry negative associations of complete loss of control over one’s mental processes, emotional instability, and uncontrollable behaviour. Advocates of political correctness may claim that the repeated use of such adjectives creates an undesirable association between the disability of handicapped individuals and these negative traits. It is similar to insulting someone as being “retarded” every day until, one day, you think of the word “retarded” and immediately picture that person in your mind. Over time, this worsens social stigmatisation for the entire community of disabled persons. Hence, it can be said that the primary function of political correctness is to be respectful and sensitive to how linguistic expressions affect thought, while reducing discrimination stemming from careless use of language. A kinder society can be forged if we watch our mouths, just like how our parents used to tell us when we were growing up (and sometimes still do).

Functions of politically correct language – establishing positivity

Positivity refers to the act of establishing commonality in opinion and making a collective interest apparent across different social groups, such that a united front is presented. Advocates of political correctness believe that politically correct language can perform that function, thereby promoting inclusivity within society.

Recently, you may have watched Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations (UN) promoting gender equality in a campaign titled “HeForShe”[2]. In her speech, Watson focused on the harmful nature of prevailing gender stereotypes, and the importance of the role of men in supporting gender equality. She mentioned that, for men, gender equality could help their “daughters, sisters, and mothers… be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

The audience can readily identify with and relate to the multiple nouns that identify familial relations, such as “daughters, sisters, and mothers.” Such statements are politically correct because they are inclusive and generate empathy, carrying the implicit message that gender equality benefits everyone regardless of age or sex. This reduces the potential sensitivity of the issue, making the message more agreeable, especially to an audience on a global scale, many of whose members may have grown up in conservative and patriarchal societies. Hence, we see the importance of politically correct language in establishing positivity in the context of granting power to sections of society that are disadvantaged or discriminated against.

Politically correct language thus helps Watson promote feminism as a natural part of gender equality, rather than a liberal ideological construct that the West seeks to impose upon the world. It is less reminiscent of “Supreme America wants you backward countries to be enlightened”, and more of creating the appeal for supporting feminism, inspiring social change in the long run.

Flaws of politically correct language

In itself, though, political correctness is not entirely without its flaws. For instance, the emphasis on being sensitive towards the disadvantaged in society through the use of politically correct language may help reduce discrimination and misinformed perceptions. However, excessive political correctness can also be undesirable. Some consider the repeated use of euphemisms such as “special” and “handicapable” to be patronising and condescending, especially when describing children or young people with disabilities. It is almost like equating such an affliction to a talent or blessing. Nobody buys into this empty pretty picture of sunshine and puppies – neither the speaker nor the handicapped individual rolling his eyes in disgust.

In her book Ability Speaks: Talking with a Person with Disability (2009), Professor Emeritus Ellen Ryan of McMaster University asserts that true acceptance of individuals with disabilities does not necessarily come about with a change in terminology used. She notes that politically correct phrases relating to disabilities may merely reflect an increased sensitivity to language use without changing deep-seated attitudes. There will still be underlying discrimination if racists talk about “those people of colour” in the same belittling tone as bluntly calling them “Black people” outright.

In addition, speakers of politically correct language may be criticised for being insufficiently effectual in their desire to avoid causing offence. In the case of Watson’s speech, she ignores how patriarchal social constructs have let men benefit from and continuously perpetuate the distortion of power in gender inequality. For instance, workplace discrimination or sexual harassment by male colleagues or discrimination in educational opportunities in favour of boys are some issues which she hinted at, but mostly skirted around, never really pinpointing the root cause as patriarchy and male dominance. Additionally, she has been criticised for using terms of expressions that may be seen as too weak, not matching with the urgency of the issue at hand. Thus, as a trade-off for appealing to a broad audience, speakers of politically correct language may find their message being diluted, or suffer from the lack of forcefulness in tone.

A final verdict

In the end, is political correctness a good or bad thing? As we say in Singapore, political correctness may just be another manifestation of wayang (Malay for ‘theatre performance’, used in Singaporean slang to describe an act of pretense), exchanging niceties on the surface in the name of diplomacy, without changing underlying attitudes. However, if used appropriately and sparingly by someone of charisma and influence, political correctness could help bring people together and inspire social change.

Hence, don’t be so quick to strike out at a speaker who “beats around the bush” or never gets straight to the point. Sometimes, a little tact can go a long way.


[1] ‘Constructing Agency: The Role of Language’ (Fausey, Long, Inamori, Boroditksy; 2010)

[2] A full transcript of the speech may be found here: http://sociology.about.com/od/Current-Events-in-Sociological-Context/fl/Full-Transcript-of-Emma-Watsons-Speech-on-Gender-Equality-at-the-UN.htm

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