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.


Anonymous said...

What does Norman Fairclough actually say - I don't think i have come across him?


Dan said...

Loads of stuff! But he's particularly excellent on the politics of language and how ideologies are often encoded in apparently common sense expressions all around us. E.g metaphors that portray politics as combat, or conflicts as sports.

What's interesting about some of Fairclough's points about PC is that he doesn't seem to like the idea of changing language on its own, but he sees it as part of a wider need to change society completely. I think he makes a point that it's virtually pointless to argue over a phrase like "chairman" being sexist (because it's used to describe a woman who is chair of a committee, for example) when you're completely missing the wider sexism that means that woman is the *only* female member of a committee that consists of 19 other people, all male.

I think he's essentially arguing that language change is important but only as part of a wider attempt to change the political and social structures that create inequality.

There's a good example of his approach in this paper (which is heavy going in places, and not really for night-before-exam-consumption):

Anonymous said...

I know you did mention it in the other post but i'm still confused, would political correctness appeal to Descriptivists or prescriptivists, or is it dependent on the way PC comes about - for example naturally through social change or coercive measures

i would have thought prescriptivists would have been opposed to it because it is changing the "golden, pure language".


(sorry if this posts twice, wasn't sure if it posted before)

Dan said...

Hmm, good question...

I think the key thing is thinking about what "prescriptivist" means. To prescribe means to authorise or set down as a rule, so by that definition PC is actually prescriptive.

That means - to me, at least - that people who would normally be quite descriptive in their outlook might be put off PC because it's imposing a model.

But you're right, that prescriptivists might also complain that changing the language in this way is a form of mutilation of the "golden, pure language", so it is a mixed picture.

There's no harm in putting that view, because (to be honest and with my examiner's hat on) if you're getting as far as evaluating different attitudes to PC you're doing better than 80% of the candidates who answer questions on this topic. Also, seeing that it's not just a black and white issue shows that you are offering a more subtle critique.

Sophie said...

Hi, I'm an A2 English Language Spec A student and am doing my production piece for my coursework on Political Correctness. Would the theorists mentioned here be relevant?

Dan said...

Hi Sophie, yes, I would have thought so. You might also want to check the other posts on PC, especially Stewart Lee's article.