Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Axe the chav and more tales of PC

Two articles in today's Guardian feature discussions about language and how it represents different groups and individuals in society. In the first piece by Ziauddin Sardar, the idea of language in a post-PC world is discussed. The argument goes something like this: if the term PC (Political Correctness) is discredited and the ideas that go with it are suffering splashback as a result, then what should we do to make sure that people are sensitive and careful about the potential impact of their words on others? As Sardar says:

We shape our language, but language also shapes us. Giving a currency to demeaning language can blind us to the fact we have embraced demeaning perceptions about other people.


And he expands on this:

Derogatory words make way for degrading treatment. Language is more than our basic tool of communication; it shapes perceptions and so influences behaviour. Referring to "faggots" or "wrinklies" strips people of respect, and it's just a short step to thinking them less equal. Terms such as "cripples", "spastics", "thick" and "retarded" stigmatise disabled people as less human. A recent increase in attacks has its roots in such language. If "terrorism" is constantly linked to the "Muslim community", as though it is one monolithic entity, it is not surprising if 69% of Britons see all Muslims as terrorists and feel fear and loathing towards them.


It's an argument that should be familiar to most A Level students who've looked at Language & Representation or done the recent Language Debates ENA6 paper (which I'm still marking...). Basically, what Sardar is proposing is an argument inspired by linguistic determinism: that the language we use is a framework through which much of our perception of the world is dictated, or at least influenced.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, Tom Hampton of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank and pressure group, argues that the word chav should not be used as it is "deeply offensive to a largely voiceless group and – especially when used in normal middle-class conversation or on national TV – it betrays a deep and revealing level of class hatred".

This time what's being proposed seems to be a reflectionist argument: that the language we use reflects our social values and attittudes, and that if these values stink (racism, snobbery, sexism etc.) then we should try to moderate our language. The article goes on to talk about the use of racist, homophobic and generally abusive language, so it's a good read for anyone studying ENGA2 (new spec) next year or ENA6 (old spec) from September.

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