Chloe Alexander & Jeffrey Wright defend a careful choice of words
It seems appropriate that this particular article should begin with a health warning: this is another one of those “bitter-class warrior”, “liberal-left”, “done to death”-type stories for your laundry list. Our subject is political correctness.
We have all been involved in a discussion where people have stammered and stuttered around, searching for the most neutral sounding phrase to use when discussing sensitive areas such as race and nationality. I am sure everyone can reel off a list of incidents where well-meaning organisations have changed names of events to conform to standards of political correctness. Very recently, for example, James College JCRC agreed to change the name of next year’s Freshers’ event. What began life as the “Seven Deadly Sins” became “Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues”. The customary response to the above is to declare that political correctness has gone too far.
Political correctness is useful:?it allows us to to avoid offending and excluding.
In the wider world, political correctness is said to have gone too far as it erodes tradition. For instance, why should we change the name of Christmas to “Winterval”? This is a Christian country and has been for centuries, I hear you cry. This is the surely first step toward secularising Christmas! But I would ask how many of us think about the birth of the baby Jesus when we are ripping away the wrapping paper to reveal the next generation iPod? And in how many ways has Christmas already been secularised: how many fir trees do you think you find in Bethlehem?
The whole point of tradition is to create a sense of belonging, something that can’t be destroyed by a name change. In fact, by changing the name of Christmas, we might be making it easier for more people to identify with our few weeks of alcohol and tinsel.
Another accusation commonly leveled against political correctness is that it is the product of overly sensitive bureaucrats. Supposedly, they sit in their ivory towers sanitising the English language, imagining offense where none exists. Of course, this accusation does not really concern those who actually wish to offend or those who do so unintentionally. Instead, this is the gripe of those who suspect that their opinions are socially unacceptable. They would prefer to blame overzealous bureaucrats for representing their views in this way, rather than be frank and accept the hostility their views might provoke. Political correctness is useful for heading off such accusations.
Our language has the potential to exclude. The usefulness of political correctness is that it informs the language of those who want to avoid offending or excluding others. By rejecting political correctness, we are either revealing a deliberate unwillingness to be polite, or admitting laziness in our choice of words – something university is supposed to hammer out of us.