The term political correctness has outlived any usefulness it may ever have had, and it’s time for it to be relegated to obsolescence. It’s not just that society doesn’t need it any more; in my view, the phrase is harmful. Why might that be?
Language conveys messages, implicit and explicit, intentional and unintentional.
Society’s understanding of the power of language to enhance or demean has grown alongside its awareness of the effect of longstanding terms on the people they designate. To reflect that growing consciousness of the power of language, society has chosen different words to reflect common realities. The expresson “political correctness” has been used to designate this paradigm shift in the use of some words.
“Political correctness,” then, has come to mean a change in speech patterns out of respect for people. Some of these changes have cultural origins. For example, First Nations would be the words used today in reference to a person who might have been described as native or Indian ten years ago. Other expressions have origins in gender equity. Society now refers to the chair of a meeting (rather than a chairman), to flight attendants, fire fighters, police officers and letter carriers (rather than stewardesses, firemen, policemen, and mailmen). These words communicate that the occupation includes both women and men. In yet another context, some turns of phrase emphasize capacity, such as physically challenged or mentally challenged as opposed to handicapped. Patterns of speech such as these are now commonplace.
Let’s be clear. Political correctness is not euphemism. Euphemisms sugar coat or camouflage a negative trait to hide a harsh reality from others. Saying that someone has “passed away” instead of “died” would be one example of a euphemistic expression, as would calling civilian casualties of war “collateral damage” or pornography “adult entertainment.” Phrases that might fall under the umbrella of political correctness, on the other hand, reflect a changed awareness in various contexts, especially culture, gender, and ability. They are not euphemisms because:
· they do not seek to mask an unpleasant reality;
· they are oriented toward capacity;
· they evoke a positive view;
· they respond to an expanded understanding of the impact of language on people.
So, if the phrases and expressions that have come to be labelled as political correctness are helpful, why would the term itself need to be eradicated? There’s a belief among some, I think, that these words have been imposed on society by a nebulous, undefined authority to pander to special interest groups. A deep-seated resentment seems to be sometimes attached to their use. Instead, let’s accept that respect for ourselves and others is the great motivator in changes to expressions that might be deeply rooted in our experience.
That’s why the term “political correctness” needs to fade in to obsolescence, to be replaced with respect. Anyone whose words reach a wide audience, such as broadcasters, writers, politicians, and teachers, need to stop using “political correctness”. We change terms that could be offensive because we know that language can affect how individuals perceive themsleves and others. When we use words that reflect a growing sensitivity for the implicit messages in language, let’s do it not out of correctness, but out of respect for each other and for the inclusive, empowering society in which we live. Let’s discard the term “political correctness” and speak instead of respect.