Has political correctness gone too far or have we simply reached a higher level of sensitivity and awareness about what discriminates, stereotypes and insults others? Whilst we have become more aware, as well as more critical, about what can and cannot be expressed, does being politically correct necessarily make you ‘correct’?
Have you ever heard of the childhood phrase: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never harm me”? It turns out, that nowadays, words can be especially harmful.
Have we become more open as a society or more limited due to political correctness?
I, even, find myself tripping on my tongue and thinking twice before I open my mouth; in addition to always being alert for when someone makes a sweeping generalisation or a disrespectful claim. What you say and how you say it have become increasingly important questions in people’s minds today and more or so, in our contemporary discourse. Political correctness has affected the way that comedy and humour are both expressed and received today, for example, and it has even allowed for certain individuals belonging to certain social groups to re-claim or eradicate specific words and phrases. For instance, the LGBTQ+ community has reclaimed the word ‘queer,’ when some years ago, ‘queer’ was deemed disrespectful and derogatory. Whereas, the word ‘coloured’, used in the past to describe ethnic minorities in the Western world, has now died out and is deemed as politically incorrect.
Is political correctness more of a generational issue particularly concerning millennials? Even though activists, the intelligentsia, and most liberal individuals have been striving for a freer and fairer world for decades, being PC has become a 21st century trend.
Millennials have been characterised as over-sensitive and arrogant ‘know-it-alls.’ Just scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter news-feed nowadays, one may notice how outspoken people have become. However, whilst this is an immensely positive feat for free speech and activism, it is also a major indicator of how our modern society and modern speech forms are developed and shaped. The truth is, that as the years go by, the closer we get to a more equal society. Inequalities will always exist, sure, because there will always be individuals that will ‘other’ and single out social groups or genders or races. Even if it may not seem so, we are more free today than we were yesterday; and we have more access to knowledge of the world we live in than ever before. Political correctness aims to eliminate language practices which could potentially offend a particular group of people. And yes, we would like to believe, that if we change our words, we can change our actions; but ultimately, political correctness is useless if the social stigmas still survive.
Political correctness, in many scenarios, seems pretentious and a way of simply brushing issues under the rug by avoiding them or using vague terminology to describe something or someone in a different way (i.e. ‘disabled’ is now referred to as ‘physically challenged’). Nonetheless, political correctness is a step in the right direction. People have become more aware of what is right to say because people have become more vocal about what it is that offends them. However, many argue that political correctness is actually just a tool used to indulge in moral self-licensing, while others believe that political correctness changes the philosophy of language and thereby alters our perceived realities about ourselves and others. It may be that political correctness is merely a psychological phenomenon; a way to either continue being a bigot or a method of becoming more accepting and respectful.
In any case, political correctness and political incorrectness both fall under the category of free speech. What is free speech though? Free speech isn’t even itself a free concept. It is a concept and a right that has been abused throughout time. There are all sorts of unspoken rules when it comes to speaking freely. If we all were educated to the same level and all spoke eloquently as well as being readily patient to hear the opinions of others, equally (whatever those opinions may be), then perhaps free speech would be a clearer, effective and more democratic concept. In actuality, it should be a clear concept, but in practice, it appears to be flawed and can sometimes be exercised in a rather corrupt manner.
Free speech can become dangerous when that which is freely expressed (for instance, Donald Trump’s near-daily racist, sexist, xenophobic insults) becomes understood, acceptable, and normalised in society. It seems that trends are easy to set when that trend has enough of a following. In light of the recent US presidential election, it is clear that racism, sexism and downright ignorance are more prevalent ideals than ever before. And this is where political correctness steps in; to shed light on and denounce harmful and disturbing behaviours. One of the rules of free speech is obtaining and respecting the etiquette of political correctness. But we find ourselves at a crossroads every time we go to open our mouths. On one hand, we are encouraged to freely express our opinions, thoughts and feelings towards practically anything, and on the other hand, we are reprimanded and criticised if what we express doesn’t pass the PC test.
I cannot answer whether or not political correctness works or doesn’t work, because ultimately, being politically correct is a personal choice. Perhaps using the term ‘politically-correct’ is part of the problem. It shouldn’t be a political issue nor should certain people feel more entitled if they are more ‘correct’. Being politically correct might be a form of self-censorship or it might be a way to avoid using hurtful language; and, it may or may not change the way we view the world or treat each other. But what we should recognise is that language does have the potential to harm the world, whilst it also has the power to build a stronger, fairer one.
It’s up to you to choose what world you live in. What do you think?
Dominic is a Greek/American writer & editor; English and Theatre Studies Graduate