In the contemporary world, there are many questions which arise in an individual’s mind before social interaction like, ‘ How do I address this person? , is it appropriate for me to assume this person’s physical inability? Or is this an appropriate term to use for this person? Etc. Everyone has to be conscious of what they are saying, both explicitly and implicitly because of social and sometimes legal repercussions of being ‘incorrect’ in doing so. This has compelled people to be conscious of their statements and to ensure that they are ‘politically correct’ to avoid unfavourable repercussions.
What is political correctness?
The origins of this term and its usage is highly debated in politics, but a rough idea can be grasped from the following meaning-
Description of the practice of using speech that conforms to a liberal or radical opinion by avoiding language which might cause offence to or disadvantage social minorities. (Phrases Finder UK, 2019)
Therefore, political correctness essentially refers to the avoidance of offensive use of language which may hurt or disadvantage social minorities and implicit agreement to use language agreed upon by the collective of such social minorities like racial and cultural minorities. They agreed upon terms which would remove social barriers which undermined their position in society and disadvantaged members of their community.
The constitution of such offensive, derogatory or demeaning statements is difficult to analyse as several factors like subjectivity and relativity make it a difficult terrain to navigate through. Although it can be broadly restricted to what the collective minority explicitly considers to be of such nature.
In the contemporary world, there have been instances where terms are made politically correct like the term handicapped replaced by the term specially abled or the term Negro was replaced by the term African American. It is visible from these examples that the degree of offensiveness may vary, with calling someone handicapped having social repercussions and calling someone a Negro having legal ramifications. This is because when a term encroaches upon the fundamental individuality of an individual by socially compromising their position in the political world, it has legal repercussions. In the earlier example, the term Negro was a social disadvantage which compromised their political rights. Therefore there are legal repercussions. On the other hand, when a term is only a social drawback which creates difficulty in living in the society, it has social repercussions. The term handicapped undermines the individual’s position only in the society. Therefore, political correctness is important, but it has some challenges in the contemporary world.
The relevance of political correctness
Globalisation has brought people from around the world for trade and commerce. This has compelled people to coexist with each other socially to ensure the smooth functioning of international trade and commerce. On some occasions, a difficulty arises in coexisting because of difference in cultural, ideological or other geographically specific identities. This creates friction among people.
Another significant factor responsible for creating friction in society is the internet. In today’s age of the internet, people can express themselves more freely than ever. Therefore, people do not hold back while expressing themselves, and in the process of doing so, they hurt other people accidentally or on purpose. For example, many online forums and websites like Reddit or Facebook enable people to express their opinions by providing them with a platform which is within the ambit of law.
The relevance of political correctness has increased because it was an outcome of an attempt to reduce friction in the society. In today’s world where globalisation and the internet have created friction between people of different cultural, ethical, religious, geographical and other diversities, political correctness is required to reduce if not eliminate this friction in the society. For example, Americans need to keep in mind basic Indian norms and etiquettes in mind while interacting with Indians and vice-versa — political correctness aids in the smooth functioning of this interaction.
Challenges before political correctness
Political correctness has become an important concept in the contemporary world, but it has some drawbacks and challenges. From a theoretical perspective, the biggest challenge to political correctness is subjectivity. It is very difficult to draw a line on what is offensive and what is not. What may offend a person from social minority may not necessarily offend another person from the same social minority. For instance, April Parker a person with cerebral palsy in an article wrote that she does not want to be called differently abled but disabled although it does not necessarily imply that everyone having cerebral palsy wants to be called disabled (Parker, 2016).
Subjectivity also brings another challenge with it. Not all people of a social minority can agree or agree to being called a definite term or a set of terms. For example, the LGBTQ+ community has different pronouns for people of different sexualities, but there is no definite structure to it for it be practical. To further elaborate, there is no regularity as to people from a sexuality X should be referred to as ‘he’ or people from sexuality Z should be referred to as ‘they’. This makes it difficult for people unbeknownst to the LGBTQ+ community to address people from the community as there is no commonly agreed upon pronouns or even definite number of sexualities. In such cases, subjectivity fractures political correctness and creates friction in the society.
In the quest for not being offensive or hurtful towards social minorities, freedom of speech and expression is restricted. This is valid to the extent where hate speech and derogatory comments are subdued, but a line needs to be drawn when comments are made in fair use of freedom of speech.
For example, if some people deny homosexuality based on their beliefs and further refuse to use the politically correct terminology to correctly address individuals from the LGBTQ+ community, they have a right to express their sentiments in a free and fair manner. Their expression cannot be denied solely on their rejection of a social minority but only when it attempts to incite hatred or violence against such a minority. From a practical perspective, it is difficult to bring political correctness into practice. This is because unlike political correctness, society is not dynamic. It takes time for any particular human society to process new values, norms and cultures. Only after processing such values, norms and cultures can the society bring them into practice.
For instance, after Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India [(2018) 10 SCC 1] (Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, 2018) case, homosexuality was decriminalised in India, but the Indian society will take time to accept homosexuality. This is because of the orthodox nature of Indian society. Therefore, a majority of the people will make mistakes or will not be able to address the people from the LGBTQ+ community in the right manner even if politically correct terminology is readily available. A problem will arise if people repeat the same mistake without acknowledging their necessity of education.
Thus, political correctness is greatly affected by temporality. Its dynamic nature does not allow society to adjust to new ideas or cultures. It is because people are unable to use politically correct terms because of a lack of education about the latest politically terminology and due to the time taken to adjust and adapt to new ideas and cultures.
Need for political correctness
Political correctness is needed to the extent where it eliminates friction in society. The moment it begins to make the society overly sensitive towards a particular topic, political correctness should be discarded there. It is because an overly sensitive society becomes a highly intolerant society which poses a huge threat to the fundamental freedom of speech and expression of law-abiding citizens.
For instance, using the word Daesh instead of ISIS is an example of how political correctness should work. On the other hand, if there is an unwanted and unneeded modification of a term only for the sake of making it politically correct, then political correctness should be discarded in such instances. For example, in Boulder, Denver you're not allowed to own a dog. However, you can be a pet guardian (Morgan, 2009).
Therefore, it is important to use political correctness as a medium to promote amicable relations and fraternity amongst the people. It should also be used as a medium to inculcate adjustability amongst the people. All of these qualities of political correctness are essential for the smooth functioning of any political structure. In the absence of political correctness, States can function but not without compromising upon the individuality and socio-cultural rights of individuals living in that State. This is why political correctness is needed to the extent of lubricating the intersection of the political and social machinery of all the countries in the contemporary world.
Morgan, R. (2009, March 3). Only in Boulder: A home for Pet Guardians. Retrieved from Colorado Dialy: http://www.coloradodaily.com/ci_13116998
Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India, (2018) 10 SSC 1 (Supreme Court 2018).
Parker, A. (2016, March 22). Please Don't Call Me Differently Abled. Retrieved from The Mighty: https://themighty.com/2016/03/i-have-cerebral-palsy-please-dont-call-me-differently-abled/
Phrases Finder UK. (2019, February Tuesday). The meaning and origin of the expression: Politically Correct. Retrieved from Phrases Finder UK: https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/287100.html
Image Credits- Tennessean
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