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How political correctness kills language freedoms

  • 25 August 2017


The push for politically correct language may be well intentioned enough, but its consequences are often appalling. It can rob us of one of the most important of all human freedoms: the right to use words to mean what we want them to mean.

The first problem in prohibiting certain word usage is that there is an assumption that the intention of the speaker or writer is known. In literary criticism this is called the intentional fallacy; the invalid notion that the author’s intention can readily be derived from the words.

To give an example, this writer was a weekly satirical columnist for BRW, a business magazine. I wrote a joke about Asian drivers, which was deemed to be politically incorrect, even racist. I tried to explain that the joke was actually directed at people who held such views, not at Asian drivers—something I thought was obvious enough and well enough flagged—but it was deemed inadmissible. It was assumed that there could be only one possible intention, no matter how much it was explained that this was not my intention.

A similar dynamic could be seen in a reader response to a headline on this web site. The headline, 'Do we ban the nun's veil next?' was sarcastic. But one reader interpreted it as potentially nun-bashing (and presumably politically incorrect). This kind of confusion is actually quite common; readers can interpret intent in very different ways.

And here lies the problem. Analysis of politcial correctness necessarily relies on making assumptions about intent. The language is targeted in a very legalistic way, and more complex aspects such as intention, context, or potential multiple layers of meaning, are ruiled out.

There is no doubt that a great deal of Shakespeare’s language, especially the swearing, does not meet the PC strictures, for example. It is a good thing that many of the Bard’s words are unfamiliar to modern ears, otherwise we might lose our greatest writer. Although at least it is widely acknowledged that his intentions were always subtle and complex.

Just how absurd political correctness can become was reinforced for me during a teaching exercise I was involved with in primary school. The teacher told the class that they would be learning about how to deal with dogs.

‘A lady will be showing you a big black dog,’ the teacher said. ‘You can’t say that, Miss—it's racist,’ an eight year old protested, horrified. To him, just using the word