The writer penned the article on the complex business of political correctness. A phenomenon that has implications on speech, free expression, argumentative discourse and nuances in identity, culture and politics. This commentary terrains itself to explain the capitalisation on language by the proponents of political correctness and seeks to bring out the inherent fault lines in the process of altering the semantic playground.
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Political morality has taken infinitely large leaps as manifested in academic pedagogy, political discourse, mobilisation, university education and even commonplace routine conversations. Operating in the larger paradigm of Huntington’s Clash Of Civilisations, which one is tempted to call Huntington’s disease of our age, effectively supplying an antidote to Fukuyama’s end of history and ideology with the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy over other ideological manifestations of socio-political order, there has been a vibrant rise of a phenomenon called political correctness which is deeply rooted in both the above larger paradigms reflecting ideology and its fundamental relation with culture. Political correctness as an ideological construct of postmodern phenomenology occupies spaces in academia, political discussion and even everyday private speech and has its implications on language, morality and the attempts to think independently.
The following article is devoted to delineating the nature of political correctness, its association with language and whether it serves the goal which it manifestly claims to do.
Who decides what is offensive?
Oxford Dictionary defines political correctness as “the principle of avoiding language and behaviour that may offend particular groups of people.The online Cambridge Dictionary considers it to be “the act of avoiding language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially those relating to sex and race”. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines being politically correct as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated”. There are numerous additional definitions that, in my opinion, pose the same complications as the ones I have already stated. The use of the passive voice ('considered,' 'perceived,' ‘could’ etc.) and the lack of a coherent subject first beg the following query: Who decides what is offensive?
Prevailing attitudes are more than enough to reflect the absolute authority of the offended party to decide the offence. This further begs the indispensable yet ignored question - Is the intention of discourse always equivalent to its perception? Considering rhetorical or lexical uncertainties, the answer is - ‘not always’. Whether a person’s remark about someone else is intended to be offensive can be deciphered by three discernable factors: the language chosen, the context of the remarks or comments made and the tone or inflection in which the remark is delivered.This background highlights the fundamental presupposition of the political correctness proponents who ignore the context and tone of the comment or discourse and singularly concentrate on the language used by the speaker. This leap is a serious error, for a person who tends to offend and abuse others, essentially does so through tone of voice and requires no particular abusive or offensive language to do so (although they may use abusive words). This is reflected adequately in University Campuses where the use of certain language and words is ‘deemed’ to be offensive without even considering the context in which they might be used in substantially different ways. A simple example might delineate it ‘correctly’ - the journey of the use of the word ‘mentally retarded’ to ‘specially challenged’ to ‘differently abled’. The word's lexicology does not indicate a hostile meaning. To "retard" something means to hinder or impede it, to make it slower or diminish its development or progress in some other way. Similarly, when we refer to an individual as "mentally retarded," we are essentially highlighting that their cognitive processes experience hindrance, delay, reduction, or deceleration. This definition is undeniably precise and devoid of any inherent bias, as the terminology itself refrains from insinuating any evaluative perspective regarding diminished cognitive functioning. But the purported rudeness of the word comes from the delivery - the tone and context in which it is disseminated. The same is unquestionably possible for newer ‘politically correct’ terms like specially challenged and differently-abled.
If someone continues to use the term mentally retarded it shall invite charges of intolerance, insensitivity or bullying because, in some people’s verbal conversations, this term is used as an insult. To the advocates of political correctness, if anyone uses the word retarded in an offensive way, everyone who uses the word does so in an offensive manner.
The Euphemism Treadmill
Inextricably networked with this remarkable emphasis on language is the problem which is often called the ‘euphemism treadmill’. The radical defenders of political correctness fail to perceive or acknowledge that the word reinstatement or replacement manoeuvring cannot resolve itself in a single iteration as the nature of the process of linguistic change is inseparably attached to the tone and context of the remarks in question. This effectually means that the adoption of a new, politically correct term for something like mental retardation has no impact on the underlying realities or social dynamics related to the topic because the new term can be used in the same context and manner as the one it had before it was deemed offensive and urgently imperative to be changed. The word replacement strategy of political correctness is therefore a cyclical one and gives rise to this endless treadmill. Word substitution alone is not the correct strategy for addressing the issue of negative semantic change. When words are employed as insults, they gradually take on the intended negative connotation, which is the reason for this semantic change. Therefore, maintaining the use of the current terminology in contexts where it is obvious that no pejorative connotation is intended is the main need for preventing this form of semantic change.
On a theoretical foundation, the word political correctness and its extravagant usage by the proponents of postmodernism theory seem to be an irony in itself. The postmodernists challenge the existence of absolute truth or metanarrative, the finiteness of any conceptual schemata and argue for the multiplicity of truths. But the inherent notion of exactitude or definiteness in the word ‘correctness’ reflects the unwillingness of the proponents of PC to engage or accept any other method of interpreting truth than that which is their own.
A leading journalist of a media platform asks a student of IIT in a jovial manner - Is bhari javani me paise ke peeche kyu bhaag rahe ho ? ( why are you pursuing money in this youthful stage of your life ). The student answers in a carefree comical manner - Baniye hai sir kya karen? The journalist then asks seriously what is the relation of this with his caste and starts lecturing him and explaining how his tenacity and proclivity for money has not an iota to do with his caste. This is precisely the problem of political correctness. When the student referred to his being a baniya his statement was underpinned by his family background - a family of businesspeople, naturally reflecting his inclination for money as he has been raised in such an environment. And because in Northern and Northwestern India, baniya is a caste traditionally associated with moneylenders and merchants and he was born into it, he made the aforementioned claim. His fundamental inherent motive was to pinpoint that his family had a certain predilection towards business (money) and he inherited it from them and he merely used the word baniye hai to reflect it. But the journalist immediately claimed it to be wrong although the student in this short conversation also expressed his caste blindness in making relationships and friendships and sharing food with his mates. The context and tone of the statement were completely ignored, and the only focus was placed on the use of the word baniya which now needed to be corrected.
As it is now understood, political correctness aims to abolish societal bias by prohibiting offensive language and behaviour towards underprivileged groups of people. Political Correctness relentlessly endeavours to articulate a strong inclusive stance and create ‘safe spaces’ where individuals are not ostracised on the basis of their religion, race, ethnicity, sex, gender etc. PC proponents may employ affirmative action, speech codes, and anti-discrimination laws to impose such an attitude or choose to censor free speech in other ways. Social theorists like Glenn Loury ( an American academic) argue that PC also implies conformity to a desired opinion on socio-political matters, which proliferates via social pressure.
“The more subtle threat is the voluntary limitation of speech that a climate of social conformity encourages. It is not the iron fist of repression, but the velvet glove of seduction that is the real problem. Accordingly, (…) the PC phenomenon [can be treated] as an implicit social convention of restraint on public expression, operating within a given community. (…) Members whose beliefs are sound but who nevertheless differ from some aspect of communal wisdom are compelled by a fear of ostracism to avoid the candid expression of their opinions.”
Also, a crystallised distinction should be made between PC and politeness. The stick of PC does not just intrude in those predicaments where certain individuals are plainly unpleasant and intentionally hurtful, but also where people have alternate opinions and perspectives, which might unintentionally offend the interlocutor. The problem with this attitude and social censorship is self-evident. By censoring speech on account of it being imaginably objectionable, we are denigrating the likelihood of the survival or continuation of a real engaging argumentative discourse. Jordan Peterson, an eminent psychologist of Canada voices eloquently - ‘In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.' Progress even in the Hegelian sense of the term cannot take place in the absence of contradictions, conflict and debate. Honest dialogue and the possibility of critical thinking are seriously damaged which tends to have bigger societal implications and can lead to some tendencies no less totalitarian.
However, there is another issue that needs to be addressed in this situation: does linguistic intervention, such as lexical substitution, resolve extralinguistic issues in our society or even make them easier to resolve in the future? One answer to this topic inevitably leads to a consideration of how language and thought interact. Does lexical usage influence or shape how a speaker perceives the world outside of language? Does language dictate or control thought? Although language does determine our contemplation about reality, radical proponents of PC argue that offensive attitudes and behaviours can disappear by effacing certain ‘potentially’ offensive words (although what constitutes an offence and who decides it still remains an exceptional quandary). Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek argues, “Politically correct language can actually be better at maintaining old systems of oppression than at fixing them since now you’re talking about them in cleaned up language rather than the direct, blunt language that makes the issue plain.”
In the few years, Political Correctness has led to a stifling of opinions on a variety of sensitive notions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc on college campuses, academic discourse and group settings. Therein lies another exceptional enigma - the professed attitude of inclusion propounded by the exponents of PC tends to exclude and cancel anyone who has a different point of view. This further transcends to labelling and diminishes spaces for real creative expressions, arguments and disagreements, which are the foundations of effective and rational discursive practice. The philosophical underpinnings of PC and its roots in multiculturalism and the idea of ‘tolerance’ operating in the yet liberal framework, and its extraordinary alliance with postmodernism requires further deliberation. This article tends to confine its expression to the attitude of objection to language by the proponents of PC.
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By - Vikas Singh Panwar
Vikas Singh Panwar is a student of Political Science at Hindu College. His creative predilections are a synthesis of reading Dostoyevsky, Dushyant Kumar and listening to Jagjit Singh's blues. He loves political theories, and philosophy and is a student of the art of rhetoric but does not want to be a politician.
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Dzenis, Sandra, and Filipe Nobre Faria. “Political Correctness: the Twofold Protection of Liberalism.” Philosophia 48.1 (2019): 95–114. Web.