In the Merriam-Webster dictionary the term politically correct is defined as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.” While erasing problematic language from our rhetoric is great, it seems these days that people tend to get offended over every other word. So where do we draw the line when it comes to being politically correct? How far is too far? And what does that mean for the language we use?
In 2015 the University of New Hampshire released a Bias-Free Language Guide on its websites in an effort to encourage inclusion on the campus, and to stop students from using common terms that were deemed offensive. While the intentions are good, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at some of the words that make the list of objectionable terms. ‘American’ is a no-no, as are ‘mothering’ and ‘fathering’. Instead of saying ‘rich’, students are supposed to use the phrase, ‘person of material wealth.’ In place of ‘poor’ speakers have a couple options: ‘person who lacks advantages that others have’ and ‘low economic status related to a person’s education, occupation and income.’ It’s a little hard to keep track of what’s the appropriate phrase, much less remember the whole thing, and it definitely tends to make language a bit more complicated when you replace a single word with an entire phrase.
One particular aspect of U.S. culture that many Americans are proud of is our right to free speech. And while some people do agree that politically correct speech isn’t intended to infringe on one’s freedom of speech, but rather prevent people from offending others with that same right, a significant percentage of Americans see political correctness and the culture it’s created as an issue in the United States. The definition of free speech is, “the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint.” Nowhere in this definition is “as long as your free speech doesn’t offend anyone” included, and yet political correctness seems to be changing how free speech is defined in America. College students in particular seem to be a group that is so heavily protected from other forms of free speech, that even President Obama once said students shouldn’t be coddled but rather exposed to differing points of view.
“Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say,” Obama stated.
A New America
Still, experts remain split on the topic of political correctness. Some feel that American culture is moving in a new and better direction. This Utopian future is full of respect and tolerance towards others regardless of religion, social standing, sexuality, race, and so on. At the same time, there are others who think that enforcing politically correct speech too rigorously goes against the very essence of free speech. Should we have the right to shut someone down when we deem their speech offensive? Or is it only an issue if an individual becomes aggressive when confronted with someone of a differing point of view? Some like to point out that the latter can happen to anyone, whether you’re politically correct or not–our last presidential election is certainly proof enough that both liberals and conservatives are more than capable of name calling and insults when things get really heated.
So where does this leave us? Well, it’s difficult to say. What may come as a surprise to many is the fact that the U.S. isn’t in fact the most politically correct nation in the world! Countries like Sweden, the U.K., and even our neighbor Canada are considered far more politically correct. At the same time, these nations are famous for being more inclusive, multicultural, and facing far fewer racism driven issues. Can the country that invented ‘South Park’ and ‘Family Guy’ follow suit? Or will free speech continue to get in the way? One thing is for sure: with the right parameters political correctness could benefit the United States in some major ways. We just have to figure out how to use it first.
Do you think politically correct language has gone too far? Where do you think we should draw the line?