Thursday, April 20, 2006

Political correctness gone mad?

It’s taken me a while to come around to this, but Tiger Woods’ comment last week got me thinking (in case you didn’t hear about this, when his game went badly he referred to himself as ‘a spaz’). There is some interesting discussion about this at http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/ including a vote on the worst disability related words (http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/yourspace/worstwords/). Some have tried to excuse this use of language by claiming that ‘spaz’ does not have the same link with disability in America as it does in the UK. They may not be aware of the link but the etymology is undisputable – a medical condition known as spasticity commonly associated with cerebral palsy. In addition the Daily Mail crowd had another field day over ‘political correctness gone mad’, but has PC really gone too far?

It is easy to feel uncomfortable with political correctness. It is a form of self-censorship and jars for those who advocate free speech. Furthermore the term has become prey to the same problem it aims to avoid. Intended simply to denote a form of expression that avoids offence, it has now become laden with negative meanings, and people often shy away from using it. It can also feel uncomfortable to discover a term that one has used frequently is considered offensive or derogatory and it is easier to be offended than to reconsider one’s own language use.

I like political correctness. It doesn’t hurt me to change my vocabulary, and I empathise with those who wish to be known by a certain name or term. I am a Ms. Nothing frustrates me as much as when it is automatically assumed that I am a Miss or a Mrs. Actually, one thing does, and that is when I receive mail addressed to Mr. It seems that some companies are incapable of understanding the term ‘Ms’, and interpret it as Mr. Why? I will never understand this but it is so irritating. For me Miss and Mrs denote ownership. The connotations of these terms are distasteful (and being called Mr is just downright insulting). I choose to be a Ms. and I want those around me to respect this.

The Daily Mail is right – some terms are not politically correct, they are simply euphemistic, patronising and farcical. In particular the plan to replace ‘failure’ with ‘deferred success’ announced at a teacher’s conference last year was ridiculous. However political correctness as it is intended to be can only be a beneficial concept. An awareness of the implications of language, and empathy for those around us is important. Language is a tool of power. It is for this reason that PC can feel uncomfortable, and for this reason that it inspires fear in some sectors of the community. Reclaiming language is a liberating experience and gives power back to the groups who are now naming themselves. How can this anything but a good thing?

6 Comments:

At 7:47 pm, Blogger TP said...

I support personally addressing our own language use to remove stigmatizing and offensive words. I try myself not to call people 'mad' or 'crazy' because I know of the damage that this can do others.

In relation to the se of the term deferred success instead of failure in school testing i can see the benefit. Failure is such a strong and labelling word - it could be read and internalised as you are a failure. Deferred success does give the impressio that success can be achieved at a later date. This is much more hopeful and open for the student.

When I did a recent counselling course we looked at the impact of specific words/phrases such as ths, and addresses in particular the question 'why?'. It's advised to use this question very sparingly in counselling because of the accusatory tone in which is it often asked. One word can closed down a conversation and cause a client to withdraw - that is just one of the may powers a single word possesses. It's amazing really.

ps - I love language and studied discourse, sorry for rambling up your comments!

 
At 8:21 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

No - I think it's fascinating too! I studied literature which focuses on language in a different way, and I'm working towards being a solicitor so I tend to use language in quite a direct way (perhaps explaining my dislike of 'deferred success').

But I volunteer with Victim Support and during a week long course with them I learned more about the real impact of language than I ever thought I would. Like you we are advised not to ask why - in fact not to ask any questions at all because we have a supportive role and they have probably heard as many questions as they can cope with at the police station. This was something I had never even thought about before doing the course and I have discovered the practical benefits of it.

I think considering the impact your choice of words has on those around you is really important. I also love the idea of social groups taking control of their own language, deciding on how they wish to be known. And knowing how to use language to its best effect is a very powerful tool and one I want to be in control of!

 
At 1:51 pm, Blogger Fox VS Hedgehog said...

I think the most interesting aspect of language is its ability to evolve, and the constant shifting in definitions. Although I see the benefit of changing your language to make others more comfortable, I also think it's important that we don't become overly sensitive about certain words. The damage they do is only increased by the sense of taboo around them.

 
At 3:33 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

I agree that it is important to avoid censorship as a society but I don't think it is possible to be too sensitive to the impact your language can have on those around you on an individual basis.

In terms of developing a taboo - I can kind of see what you mean. Perhaps if a word is seen as one that shouldn't be used this may be exploited to damaging effect. Nevertheless I don't think this is a reason to avoid PC. The benefits of using respectful language are enormous and being aware of the etymology and implications of words and phrases shouldn't create taboos - rather it leads to a more open and understanding mode of expression.

 
At 10:01 pm, Blogger asdgasdfaserwe said...

Many people just don't get political correctness. This is something I've given a lot of thought myself. Derogatory names and expressions are not accidental (bar the odd example). The failure vs. deferred success example is interesing because not only is the word failure very negative for anyone that gets labelled with it, but one also needs to ask: failure according to who?

 
At 4:25 pm, Anonymous madBoP said...

Ms., Mrs., Miss, Misses, Missez, Ms-s... - Sexually explicit language?
I am really confused by the fact that Americans/British call it politically correct when there is a distinction between a married or unmarried woman. (please correct me if I am wrong, but I always assumed that this is the difference).
In German however the "Fraeulein" (→Miss) =small "Frau" (→woman/Mrs.) is politically incorrect. So I wonder why the English speaking countries, that are so proud of their political correctness need to distinguish these.
In the end of the story using the Mr., Mrs., Mrs., Dr. etc. is complete nonsense since this titles seem to be a relict of the common (patriarchal) dual gender language where it is necessary to differentiate between people that one can copulate with, those who are "protected/owned" by someone else, those who are -sexually speaking- enemies and the uninteresting neutral rest.
Especially in a world where contacts are seldom physical and anyone can take on any identity and sexuality (while still a strong motivating factor for quite some) is artificial, this titles should and are omitted.
On the other hand these "signs" are used to categorize people fast (that's how our brains work) and they have proven to be valid markers to forecast the behavior in the past.
Actually what we humans would like to get is complete profile, but in this form of limited conversation the number of markers was boiled down to that what obviously counts: sexual content.
Funny - why are conservatives not banning this extreme sexually explicit language, but almost point it out in any sentence of their own?
The whole thing is weird...
... if you really are interested in ones personality you should not use any titles at all.

 

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