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Against Political Correctness

By: Aaryan Panchal

Abstract- The concept of political correctness (PC) seems like the perfect panacea to the perils of
contemporary society. However, a closer inspection reveals the limits and absurdities of PC.
Through the case study of the term “mentally retarded”, it becomes clear that politically
correct language is entirely constitutive of euphemisms and its perpetuation prevents from
addressing the real issues of racism, sexism, and inequality.

On the face of it, political correctness (PC) seems like the perfect panacea to the perils of
contemporary society. Oxford Dictionary defines it as “the avoidance of forms of expression
or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalise, or insult groups of people who are
socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” The online Cambridge dictionary defines
PC as the “act of avoiding language and actions that could be offensive to others, especially
those relating to sex, gender, and race.” These are great working definitions and ostensibly
there appears to be nothing wrong with it or the concept of PC. However, on a closer
inspection of the definition and the concept, issues and absurdities began to arise. Firstly,
what is common to this and almost all other definitions of PC, is the use of passive forms
such as “perceived” and “considered.” Who decides whether a form of expression is
offensive or not? The logical answer seems to be the offended party. This however opens
another set of questions that need to be answered. Is the term offensive in every context? Is
the term offensive to all members of the “offended” group or is it limited to a petulant few?
And most importantly, is the term more important or is it the intention behind it?

Political Correctness has often been stated as being inherently totalitarian in nature. The
totalitarian tendencies of PC are brilliantly diagnosed by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj
Zizek. Zizek gives the following example to drive home this point. Imagine a father who
wants to convince his son to visit his grandmother. If the father was a traditional authority, he

would probably say something like, “I don’t care how you feel; it’s your duty to visit your
grandmother. Be polite to her and so on.” Now if the father was a modern post-authoritarian
figure, he would say, “You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless
I’m not forcing you to visit her. You should only visit her if you freely decide to do it.” In the
former situation, it is easy for the child to fight back, to rebel since his father had issued a
clear order. In the latter example, there is the appearance of free choice. Beneath it, however,
lies an even stronger implicit order that the child is expected to obey. It is much harder to
disobey or fight back against this kind of command. It is a much stronger order than the
former example since the father is telling the child that he must not simply visit his
grandmother but instead love to visit her. In the latter example, under the garb of a gentler,
kinder language lies a stronger pressure which is harder to fight due to its presentation.
Defenders of politically correct language argue that it is a civilising influence on society as it
discourages the use of words that have a negative connotation. The goal of PC then is to
replace terms that are explicitly offensive with words that are allegedly impartial and thus in
doing so prevent offensive behaviour by reducing the social acceptability of that term and
discouraging its use of it.
Let us take a case study of a politically incorrect term to test the validity of this claim. The
use of the term “mentally retarded” contemporarily invites accusations of being insensitive
and being characterised as a bully. However, the term itself is not offensive. “To ‘retard’
something means to hinder or impede it, to make it slower or diminish its development or
progress in some way. Thus, to describe someone as “mentally retarded” literally means that
their mental processes are somehow impeded, hindered, diminished, or slowed down.” This is
certainly an accurate and neutral description since the term itself does not imply any
judgement. However, this neutral term has acquired alleged rudeness due to playground
bullies using the term as an insult. This insult has two effects; the main effect is “to assert that
the person’s mental skills are impaired and to taunt the person about this alleged impairment.
Its secondary effect is to imply that people who are mentally retarded should be ashamed of
this condition.” When enough bullies use the term retarded in such a manner the term
becomes “imbued with the insult’s implicit value judgement that mental retardation is
shameful and worthy of ridicule.” Political correctness seeks to solve this problem by
periodically replacing the words that are used as insults with new terms. This, however, does
not solve the problem since the issue was never with the term itself but with the way it was used. This case study of the term, “mentally retarded” holds for most other politically
incorrect terms as well such as moron and idiot.

The periodic replacement of words that have acquired a negative connotation with new
politically correct words is endless since they do not address the root issue. The actions of the
bully are not curbed simply because a new word has entered circulation. The endless cycle of
how a neutral term acquires a negative connotation through its use as insults and is replaced
by a politically correct term has been dubbed by Steven Pinker as the “Euphemism
Treadmill”. This cycle is bound to repeat itself until the root issues which are the underlying
realities and social dynamics are addressed. Politically correct language, though emerging
from the understanding that issues like racism, sexism, and inequality exist in today’s world,
prevents from addressing them by seeking to paint a rainbow over the existing filth of reality.

PC and its advocates focus their attention on the wrong things. As mentioned above,
politically correct language focuses mistakenly on the terms themselves rather than the
intention behind them. Moreover, the targets of PC are not playground bullies but instead the
literate who are either unaware of or refuse to keep up with the periodic word replacements.
This creates a dangerous atmosphere which some authors have compared to the kind in
dystopias like 1984. In the novel, George Orwell comes up with a fictional language called
Newspeak which essentially makes it impossible for any way of thinking other than the party.

Newspeak achieved that by several means; from “the elimination of all unwanted words, the
elimination of unwanted meanings, …, forming new words by composition, and through the
use of euphemisms as a way of concealing the truth.” Such is the case with PC today. The
problem is never solved since the creation of a new sanitised politically correct term does not
change the reality or social dynamics but instead, gives the bully a wider range of words to
choose from.

What then is the solution? Well, the first step would be to actually acknowledge the evils of
PC. Instead of critically thinking about this, most people today wield PC as a fashion
accessory, draping and adorning themselves in new, cutting-edge languages while making
fun of the uncouth who are caught with outdated versions. However, as we have seen,
politically correct language is rotten to the core with euphemisms that act as a barrier to
assessing and addressing the actual ills of society. Moreover, on a personal level, PC serves
as a barrier between two people with both maintaining a cold respect for each other which
prevents real closeness through a “wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity.” PC
suppresses instead of addressing biases and prejudices which only lead to their manifestation
in other pervasive forms. PC is just a form of self-discipline which prevents us from actually
addressing and overcoming the real issues plaguing society such as racism and sexism.
Instead of discarding and replacing the words that have acquired a negative connotation with
a euphemism, it would be better to continue using those words properly, in circumstances that
would make it clear that no negative connotation is intended. This would retain the word’s
actual meaning and expose the foolishness of the bully. PC generates unthinking and a
reflexive adherence to the latest language fashions. Instead of codifying the use of terms as
good and evil, it is important to foster a climate of critical thinking and politeness (which is
drastically different from political correctness). Before morally policing people for saying
politically incorrect terms, it is important to understand why simple rudimentary descriptions
acquired a negative connotation. By continuing the usage of euphemisms through political
correctness one simply perpetuates an insidious and pernicious cycle which prevents from
addressing the root causes plaguing contemporary society.

About the Author
Aaryan Panchal is a second-year student at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and
Humanities majoring in Political Science.

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