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Freedom of speech vs. politically correct language.

Recently, we received a call at IABC world headquarters asking whether we knew of a "politically correct" substitute for the term 'third world." After checking, we found that seemingly the only alternatives available "developing" and underdeveloped," could be construed as even more offensive. Independently, we came up with "economically disenfranchised," but that seemed awkward. And who would really know what was meant by this ?

Increasing respect for diversity

We compiled some of the research findings for this article and attempted to achieve a survey of viewpoints. Those in favor of PCL view it as a tool for using language which is more sensitive and respectful to differences in people such as age, sexual preference, race and gender. By omitting from language those words considered pejorative and phrases viewed as stereotypical, proponents of PCL consider it one step toward an enhancement and acceptance of diversity among people.

To help define "politically correct," the University of Missouri's Multicultural Program developed the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases (see excerpt in sidebar) - In defense of this project, Ben Johnson, Ph.D., a major participant in the development of the dictionary, wrote the following letter in the March 3, 1991, New York Times:

"There has been considerable discussion, most of it naysaying, since the publication of a multicultural dictionary of cautionary words and phrases in 1989. That dictionary was part of an effort I headed while working as a professor and a newspaper editor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Much of that commentary is insensitive at best, racist at worst. What was missing in the columns was an understanding of the dictionary's true purpose: analyzing the multicultural content of the news media. It was an effort to have the media be more sensitive in covering minorities. Who is to say what will be the message the media provide? And through whose eyes will that message be conveyed?

"If the images and words we see are those viewed by middle-class, middleaged, middle-of-the-road white male journalists, how accurate is the picture we paint of the world? Not very.

"What we need is a more complete, more sensitive portrayal of world, national and local events. That can't be had without a representative news staff and news management. That can't be had if the media continue to use words that denigrate the experiences and perspectives of minorities. What picture comes to mind when you hear the term 'public housing project'? For too many, it's a pejorative term that conjures up mental images of crack cocaine, drug dealers, poor people, ne'er-do-wells. But call that same structure a public housing development and see how the image changes.

"In [the U.S.], the language is a party to the class and race distinctions that doom so many to second-class existences. We are what we say we are. Others are what we say they are. And not one of us is immune."

In Folio magazine's March 1991 issue, Yves Colon, the interim director for the multicultural program, also addressed the debate regarding the Dictionary of Cautionary Words and Phrases. The purpose of the dictionary he said, is simply to make journalists think twice before using a particular word or phrase in a certain context. "I would be the first to raise a red flag and say, 'Hey, we are not the thought police here,'" Colon asserted. "But this dictionary can be a very valuable tool. I can see the arguments on both sides. We want to be strong when we use language; it should breathe life. But we also have to live with other people's feelings."

One Canadian writer shared his view on why there appears to be such a strong opposition to political correctness in a February 1991 issue of the Toronto Star.

"When the voices of the dominant culture fulminate against 'political correctness,' they're bemoaning the erosion of their ascendancy. Once, they had the undisputed authority to rule over language and interpret history their own way. Now, there are all those pesky dissenters - like natives who protest the celebration of Columbus' 'discovery' of America ....

"What really bothers the writers who are riding this band-wagon is being called racist or sexist just because they voice opinions and use language that could be called -- well, racist or sexist.

The outcry against 'political correctness' should be seen for what it is: the expression of a backlash, itself political, against all progressive causes. And when the status quo lashes back, we who are committed to social change know we're getting somewhere."

Ben Knight, of Shinshu University, Matsumoto, Japan, in a letter to the editor at the Manchester Guardian Weekly, wrote, "People across the political spectrum are interested in reducing unfair inequalities in society and in the question of whether linguistic changes can help."

Is this the Thought Police?

Some consider PCL to be a serious infringement upon freedom of expression and a grave attack on the English language. And, arbitrarily tinkering with language when someone decides a word has come to mean something less than pleasant may lead to a certain blandness, with a lack of humor, clarity and meaning.

An example of this opinion on "politically correct language" comes from Robert Walker of The Gazette (Montreal), July 22, 1991, in his review of the Canadian government's guide, "A Way with Words."

"[Politically correct language] is not so much about politics as about an iIIdefined sensitivity. It often involves replacing a short, clear, precise word with four or five fuzzy words.

"The document from Ottawa occasionally makes sense, but much of it is plain silly. My favorite piece of dubious advice from 'A Way with Words' is, 'Don't say normal. Say person who is not disabled.' Running a close second is, 'Don't say epileptic. Say person with epilepsy.' Is it still all right to talk about a diabetic?

"(Yes, I do know what they mean, that the word 'normal' implies that a person with, say, epilepsy is abnormal. An epileptic is abnormal, but simply in the sense that he or she is unlike the vast majority. The word is not pejorative and, in any case, wouldn't be used to describe an epileptic.)"...

"To be fair to the guide, it makes several worthwhile points. For example, it endorses the perfectly clear word 'disabled.' It rejects such trendy substitutes as 'physically challenged' and 'differently abled.' Apart from anything else, if we used such phrases it would take the readers months to figure out what we meant.

"Still, I doubt that Canadian news organizations were in desperate need of such guidance from Ottawa. Pierre Trudeau [former Prime Minister of Canadal said correctly that the government had no business in the bedrooms of the nation. The newsroom is another place where it doesn't belong."

The Washington Post dealt with this issue in "Terms of Abuse," a July 2, 1991 article. In it William Lutz, editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, said that the trend to make language politically correct is part of the larger, permanent trend of euphemization. Sometimes it's done out of embarrassment (i.e., in sexual and bodily contexts), sometimes sensitivity (when people stopped calling the state mental hospital "the nuthouse").

"What I object to," said Lutz, "is when it becomes an imposition of a value system that isn't discussed. 'Politically correct' implies 'politically incorrect.' People believe the right word solves the problem. But all you're doing is shuffling labels, and the language becomes so vague as to be meaningless."

Take "substance abusers," who used to be "winos." "It's been abstracted,'| says Lutz. "The whole world is composed of substance. Can you abuse a tree? If you start eating tree bark does that mean you're a substance abuser? This doesn't promote clarity of discussion."

The issue of politically correct language seems to be causing alarm in Great Britain as well as in Canada and the U.S. The London Times, on June 16, 1991, discussed "Campus Newspeak." Reporter Barbara Amial wrote:

"PC has already put down its roots in Britain. How many of us know, for example, the list of words and ideas already circulated to its members by tne British Sociological Association? Its guidelines prohibit such words as 'civilisation' because 'the word derives from a colonialist perception of the world... and is full of implicit value, assumptions and ignorance of Third World history'. The word 'primitive' is vetoed since it 'implies an ignorance of many non- industrial peoples'.

"This attitude has taken hold in many areas of British academic life. Behind it lies a deep dislike of Western institutions and values, which is a far more serious problem than the flashy manifestations of PC.

"We may call it received wisdom, dogma or orthodoxy, but some way of looking at issues always manages to catch the Zeitgeist or Weltanschauung. PC is simply a neo-totalitarian version of this and a very Orwellian idea. Re-, read '1984' with its intricately workea out 'goodthink' and 'Newspeak' and you can see exactly what PC is about. Back in 1949, Onvell's hero, poor old Winston Smith, was constantly being, lectured on his inability to doublethink.

"'You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,' Syme said almost sadly. 'Even when you write it, you're still thinking in Oldspeak. I've read some of those pieces that you write in The Times occasionally-They're good enough, but they're translations- In your hearr, you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and, useless shades of meaning. You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words .... The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will BE no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking, not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness-' Orwell, of course, was referring to the PC of the two 'isms' he knew: Nazism and communism. What is unique about today's PC is that it comes from within a liberal society rather than a totalitarian one." Bruce O. Boston, author of "Language on a Leash," a book of essays on language published by Editorial Experts, discussed his view on politically correct language and its effect, in the March 18, 1991 issue of The Editorial Eye. Boston agrees that "the roots of prejudice and oppression are powerfully nourished by language .... This insight is not new,"he says, "and it is powerfully supported by the modern study of sociolinguistics." Boston goes on to point out other aspects of politically everything, it seems, is its political content, as judged by PCL criteria, which include sensitivity to the issues of feminism, multiculturalism, and any point of view that can successfully define any negative experience as some form of 'oppression.' Academic values traditionally associated with ideas and behavior - such as their factual truth, coherence, moral content, the objective good they accomplish, or the damage they do - take a back seat.

"Naturally this drive for political correctness produces some ridiculous behaviour. It has seriously been suggested in some quarters, for instance, that students should not read the works of Shakespeare because he lacks a 'third-world consciousness.' The University of Connecticut recently banned (and made subject to disciplinary proceedings) such activities as 'inappropriately directed laughter' and 'conspicuous exclusion of students from conversations.' ...

"Is calling attention to the 'wrong' causes of problems among some groups (by some political lights) always 'blaming the victim?' If a lecturer does not use the code words vogue this semester, will the lecturer have any students the next? What value do ideas actually have when 'progress' seems to be defined simply as the succession of politically correct orthodoxies?

"Certainly it is important to be sensitive to how groups wish to be perceived; and it is only minimally polite to engage people at the level at which they wish to be engaged. By the same token, much of the thinking and activity of the PCLers begins to look and sound like what Orwell warned us against. And this situation will get worse before it get better. Jobs will be lost over this issue."

Boston goes on to say that, "The conflict that is brewing is as classic as it is basic. How, in a society where freedom of expression is a fundamental right, does one protect that right at the same time its very expression can and does inflict harm on others?"

The issue runs deep

The research we've found indicates that "politically correct language" is really the result of a desire to achieve a thoughtful understanding of people in all walks of life. But maybe the issue runs deeper than replacing one word for another. After all, one could say the most appropriate words and still remain hopelessly biased. Perhaps there is truth in the idea that our attitudes and feelings play at least as big a part in conveying our message as the actual words we choose.

Natasha Spring is manager of IABC's Communication Bank.
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Author:Spring, Natasha
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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