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University of Basel

Is there such a thing as politically correct language?

Text: Deborah Mühlebach

Political language criticism teaches us about the effects words actually have – and invites us to open up to other people through language.

Deborah Mühlebach
Deborah Mühlebach

Everyone seems to be talking about political correctness or “being PC”. On social media in particular, some rail against the regulation of language while others hurl torrents of abuse at a rampant “language police”. Newspapers increasingly claim that our freedom of speech is in danger. Often we are confronted by two ways of talking about the same people – the intended way and the politically correct way. In these cases, PC becomes a code for a gag order: you can no longer say what you’re thinking.

“Political correctness” means to behave in a way that rejects discriminatory speech acts and the term is mostly used as an insult. However, anyone who speaks out in favor of a political language criticism is not talking about political correctness, but rather of a heightened awareness of the effect that we have with our words. What’s the difference? The philosophy of language offers an interesting perspective on what happens when we replace a certain phrase with a so-called politically correct one.

Words and sentences are tools for understanding things in the world. The meaning of words and sentences is defined by how they are used in our language community. If we replace one word with another, it will often take on a new meaning. A simplified model of linguistic meaning is the following: The meaning of a sentence is defined by the sentences from which it can be inferred, and by the other sentences that can be inferred from it.

If I say that “Laura is older than Malek”, I must also agree with the statements, “Malek is younger than Laura”, and “Laura and Malek are not the same age”, if I am not to be accused of conceptual confusion. I have therefore committed to these additional assertions too, even if I am not conscious of this commitment. This is because our language stipulates that “older” and “younger” are used as opposite terms. The definitions that accompany one meaning are also evident in our actions. For example, it makes sense that I would congratulate Laura on her 30th birthday before congratulating Malek on his. The other way around would appear confusing. The conceptual norms that define the way we use words influence other social norms that regulate our actions, and vice-versa. It is therefore not in the power of an individual person to control the linguistic meaning of a word.

When it comes to words for people and social groups, this connection becomes morally and politically more explosive. On the one hand, changing social relations can end up altering the meaning of an expression. A few decades ago, the conclusion to be drawn from “Juan is an unmarried man” seemed to be clearly that “Juan is a bachelor”. In the meantime, however, there are numerous different forms of long-term romantic relationships that do not involve marriage and which mean that “unmarried” can no longer be directly equated with being single. On the other hand, words for people or social groups can seem pejorative or exclusionary. This is neither dependent on the perspective of the person speaking nor on the hurt feelings of the conversational partner. The n-word does not lose its highly derogatory effect if the speaker says that she did not mean it to be insulting, nor if the conversational partner is not hurt by it. The degradation associated with this word originates from social relationships in which black people have been and continue to be structurally oppressed by white people.

Our social relations contribute to the linguistic meaning of words. This is why political language criticism implies neither the cruel intentions of a particular person nor the expression of conversational partner’s sensitivity in the first place. Nor does it suggest that we should always use the word “humankind” when we really mean “mankind”. As the influential US sociologist and civil rights lawyer W. E. B. Du Bois remarked, simply exchanging one word for another does not get us very far: “If a thing is despised [...] you will not alter matters by changing its name. If Men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called ‘colored’ or ‘Afro-Americans’”.

If we introduce a new expression that is intended to replace an existing problematic one, it can only have a different meaning if it prompts different conclusions to be drawn. To exercise political language criticism therefore means to put forward new practices in which unjustified derogatory conclusions are not treated as valid. To participate in this kind of new practice means to let those voices to be heard – loud voices in numerous studies – that illustrate how our sentences lead people to draw varying conclusions depending on which words we use, whether humankind or mankind, regardless of what we intend to say. Gender often makes a difference. This kind of language practice also means making more decisions about when the naming of different genders is relevant and when it is not.

In the framework of this new language practice, the term “political correctness” is imprecise at best and counterproductive at worst. It has little to do with a gag order or forcing a person to use supposedly correct words. On the one hand, using a new expression without changing language practices is futile. On the other hand, our language community is based on unequal power relations, and certain social identities are often not accepted.

This makes it difficult to find terminology for certain people and groups that does not prompt derogatory or exclusionary conclusions to be drawn. It is not in vain that African Americans have been engaged in discussions about an appropriate self-identification for decades. There are however different levels of derogatory language and various strategies for opposing it. If we understand political language criticism as an invitation to open up to other people’s perspectives, people who have a different place to us in the fabric of society, then we will all learn more about the effects that our words actually have. If we remain fixated on our own intentions (what we meant to say), however, the meaning behind many of our speech acts remains hidden.

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