If I type “political correctness” into my search bar, third in the list of suggestions is the phrase “political correctness gone mad”. A favourite of UK tabloid the Daily Mail, it has become somewhat of a cliché and is used to invoke hysteria about supposed policing of language. Ironically, many people would object to the term “gone mad”, on the grounds of it being offensive to those with mental health problems.
Usually these outrage-inducing “bans” are put in place by an individual school, local council or other body with no influence over how we use the English language. But that won’t stop opponents of “PC gone mad”. “It’s been banned,” they cry, as if Mrs. Thrip’s School for Girls’ disapproval of a certain term means anyone in the country will be smote for using it.
On the opposite side of the camp are “the PC brigade”. Another tabloid phrase, these are the silly people trying so hard to be inclusive or not to offend that they insist on saying “Winter Holidays” instead of “Christmas”. A few rumours and tabloid examples from over the years include “you have to say chalkboard, instead of blackboard” and “you can’t say brainstorm” (I think this one was supposedly offensive to people with epilepsy).
As far as I’m aware, neither of these actually happened anywhere, but here’s one that did: in 2010 an employer was told they couldn’t place an advert for “reliable workers” because it discriminated against unreliable people. So while many reported cases of over-sensitivity are made up, there are real instances where a probably well-meaning person has jumped the gun and gone a little (or a lot) overboard.
I have come across people who will spend a long time twisting their words, running around the houses to get out what they want to say, because they’re trying to avoid any potentially offensive words. Some would even suggest that “running around the houses” isn’t a very nice thing to say, because some people are unable to run. It’s admirable that these people are essentially trying to be kind, polite and courteous, but is it worth so carefully choosing your words to avoid the theoretical upset of one person?
For me, political correctness has its place – only, I call it “being polite”. Of course it is often difficult to know which words to use; no one group of people thinks the same and has the same opinions, but that is where getting to know people as individuals comes into play. But some argue that just because someone, or many someones, find a word offensive, doesn’t mean they should stop using it, so long as they mean no harm.
Take, for example, calling something or someone “gay”, as in the trendy young person’s use of it, meaning lame or stupid. I don’t like it and don’t use it, but people who do often assert that it has nothing to do with sexuality, that they are only using the word in a new capacity, in the way that gay once meant happy. This suggests that “no offence meant” should trump “offence taken”, but even if you don’t intend to offend, should you consider how you might accidentally be offending?
Should we choose our words according to the sensitivities of others or say what we like? Will asking people to use certain language make them more respectful, more inclusive or more accepting?