“A man cannot be politically correct and chauvinist too”. Toni Cade’s “A Black Woman” (1970) is the first printed reference to Political Correctness in this sense. In fact, Political Correctness was deliberately developed as a political tool by the US political parties in the 1970’s. So how has it changed our society, and is it time for Political Correctness to be modified or put back into context?
In the UK Political Correctness has greatly influenced our terminology and language. In many ways this has had a positive effect. Terms previously used to describe disabled people or those from ethnic minorities are now rightly recognised as unacceptable. It seems almost inconceivable that when I was at Oxford in 1988 I was called a “handicapped student” by the authorities. As attitudes have changed, so has the law. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005
and subsequently the Equality Act 2010
have made it illegal in the UK to discriminate on grounds of race, disability, sexual orientation or gender.
Unfortunately Political Correctness has been interpreted so rigidly by some Corporate and Management organisations that it has often led to resentment and ridicule. An example of this is the infamous case in 2002 when the Home Office Minister of the time, John Denham, was criticised by the police for using the term “nitty-gritty” because it apparently alluded to the slave era. This was during a debate in Bournemouth at the Police Federation conference. Apparently police could face disciplinary charges for using this term, and some rank-and-file officers stated that the rules around language were a “minefield” and at times inhibited them from speaking. This type of high-profile incident always sparks off heated debates about free speech and censorship. Ordinary people often feel annoyed that corporate regulations and government mandates inhibit free speech. The Big Brother State is repellent to most minds, and the majority of people have strong opinions about what we should and should not be allowed to do and say.
Following a Channel 4 programme Dispatches in February 2011, in which the term “kaffir” was discussed in detail, Nesrine Malik wrote an interesting article about where to draw the line between the right to exercise free speech and the need to ban inciting and offensive language.
She states that “language informs our attitudes as much as it reflects them”. It is certainly true that the words we use influence the way we act towards different groups of people.
But Political Correctness filters into our everyday lives in other ways too. Because many people are afraid of causing offense, they are often reluctant to approach a disabled person or to discuss controversial issues surrounding sexuality or race. This can make it harder for people from diverse groups when they’re out and about. Political Correctness has inadvertently created an invisible barrier which in effect is socially divisive. I have encountered a whole range of attitudes throughout my life. I have a cleft lip and palate which affects my speech and appearance, I am visually impaired and have used a long cane as well as a Guide dog, and I have experienced mental health issues which in the past have earned me labels. I am relieved that nowadays people tend to think about what they are saying rather than coming out with expressions such as “handicapped” or “nutter”. But it seems to have gone to the other extreme. Many people are nervous about asking me questions. This sometimes makes me feel quite isolated. It has become acceptable for people to lower their eyes and move away rather than to confront a potentially awkward situation. In this sense, Political Correctness has become a convenient concept for the general public to hide behind.
I would like to see rigid Political Correctness replaced by tact and sensitivity. Basic awareness of other people and their feelings would go a long way towards improving social attitudes. But even more importantly, open discussion and debate about controversial topics would break down many unnecessary barriers. In my view, assumptions cause far more offense and problems than simple questions. If someone asks me, “Do you need a hand?” or “How much can you see?” I am more than happy to answer, and I think I speak for many visually impaired people. The problem occurs if that same person assumes that I don’t need any assistance because I’m with a Guide dog. Then I can be stranded at the side of a busy road for minutes on end. Yet I have lost count of the number of times people have told me they walked past because they did not want to cause offense by asking if I needed help.
Political Correctness has led to laws which uphold the rights of those with diverse needs. But the down side of this is that many people from minority groups are more alienated because people are afraid to ask questions or make conversation. Now that there are anti-discrimination laws in place, is it time to challenge the rigidity of Political Correctness and put it back into context? Political Correctness is no justification for the human race morphing into ostriches with our heads permanently buried in sand.