“But, MUM!! You can’t say that!”
If you’ve never had to say that phrase, either your mum is an angel… or she’s not on Twitter.
The language we use in our day to day life is consistently evolving and adapting to the social constructs we tend to – or hope to – abide by. Terms are coined for actions previously deemed insignificant, or not possible, like “selfie” or “manspreading”. Equally, terms now considered offensive or abusive are thrown out, like “insane” or “crazy”.
This is why certain words and phrases your dad and his mates said in 1982 might not be as readily accepted in 2020. This isn’t new information, but for some reason, each time someone is called out for using discriminatory or non-inclusive language, the term political correctness appears just about everywhere. This time? It was J.K. Rowling’s dismissal of the phrase “people who menstruate”, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement gaining another wave of momentum during lockdown, following the tragic death of George Floyd.
“Politically correct” has become something of a buzzword over the last few decades. Mostly, it is used to dismiss the left’s push for more inclusive, less discriminatory language. Associated with trends such as “no platforming” and, lest we forget, “cancel culture”, critics of the “political correctness movement” dismiss it as an infringement on their human rights; their freedom of speech. These critics have been out in full force of late, with comedians, journalists, fans of old, British sitcoms and those against the removal of statues desperately denouncing a restriction on their language and actions.
“It’s PC gone mad!” they cry, as a decades-old sitcom gets cancelled for using blackface as a comedic tool and perpetuating destructive stereotypes of the working class (Little Britain, in this instance). “We’re just not allowed to be funny anymore,” the male comedian sighs, after finding out that jokes about sexual assault don’t land quite as well in a post Me Too era. “They’re taking away my freedom of speech. It’s just not fair!” sulks the multimillionaire writer, after being told that gender-neutral language is a means to acceptance, and that publicly rejecting it is transphobic in nature.
It’s easy to get lost in the so-called culture war, most of which, by the way, is either fabricated or an attempt to get out of jail free, without having to face up to one’s past actions.
But political correctness is not about infringing on anyone’s rights. In fact, it’s the opposite. And framing it as otherwise is extremely short sighted and ignorant. That we, in this country, are able to even debate language to begin with is a blatant example of our freedom of speech.
To take this stance now, as China enforces draconian measures allowing Hong Kong to censor, block and erase online content, is ruthlessly ignorant. The law, which came into effect this month, is seen to be targeting and imprisoning anti-government demonstrators. At least nine people in china were arrested on suspicion of breaching the new law, after thousands of protesters defied a police-ban to take part in an annual pro-democracy march on Wednesday. Anyone, engaging in anti-communism, or anti-government discourse can, and likely will, be punished.
In light of this, it’s inconceivable that anyone could consider an attempt to shift away from discriminatory uses of language to be anything other than what it is: compassionate.
Actually, I’d go as far as to say that these people don’t really believe their human rights are being snatched away from them. What they’re really afraid of isn’t censorship at all. What they don’t like – and listen closely – is that they feel like their character is being attacked. But I’ll let you in to a little secret: using a term you didn’t know was offensive does not make you a bigot, it’s what comes next that matters.
It’s okay to admit to your wrongdoings. No one will judge you for genuinely apologising and committing to change – look at Jenna Marbles, for instance, who apologised for her past discriminatory content and deleted her channel.
Political correctness is not something to shy away from. Without it, the working class would still be openly demonised, words like slut and bitch would still be used to deny women’s right to sexual pleasure and racial and homophobic slurs would still contribute to the oppression of those they denote. Language reform is a huge step in changing attitudes, which leads to basic rights and privileges for those marginalised in society.
Political correctness is not censorship; it’s human rights.
Ella Glover is a freelance journalist.