Thursday, June 23, 2011

Political Correctness: theories and debates

I wouldn't normally copy a comment from another post over as a new post, but I think this might be helpful for tomorrow's ENGA3 if PC comes up as a topic.

This is in response to a comment by Jessica on the ENGA3 Language Discourses post from earlier in the week, asking about which theorists might be helpful on a question about PC. She'd already mentioned Sapir & Whorf, Miller and Swift and Norman Fairclough.  This is just my take on the theories and concepts that might help, so please add any comments or observations/criticisms to it as comments. I'd be interested to hear what anyone else has to say on arguments around PC.

I think you're fine with those theorists really, so long as you're clear that the underpinnings of the PC movement come from a belief that if you remove sexist & racist words from the lexicon, you'll either a) remove the pejorative association of that term, or b) go some way towards changing the discourse around sexism and racism by drawing attention to the problems inherent in those words.

E.g. You could argue that the debate about "slutwalking" has polarised opinion about the word slut and "slutty" dressing, but on a very simple level it has at least made everyone think about the word, what it means and whether or not it should be used. It's also given young feminists the chance to enter the debate about women's rights in a way that might not have been open to them before, thus intervening in the discourse.

I think the other thing is that it's important to realise that PC is quite a rarity in linguistic terms in that there has been a degree of success in imposing a "top-down" model of language change. You could argue to what extent it's been successful, but in many ways it's one of the few attempts at linguistic engineering that's actually worked.

Most of the time, language change is bottom-up - usage leads to adoption and codification of patterns of lexis and grammar - and organic.

This of course means that there are some who would normally see themselves as descriptivists aligning themselves with a rather prescriptivist stance - PC, after all, is all about prescription. So it makes for some unlikely bedfellows: normally prescriptive language commentators arguing that PC is a bad thing because it's telling us what we should and shouldn't say; normally descriptive linguists arguing that PC is a force for good.

That's why I think it's such an interesting debate.