How political correctness kills language freedoms



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.

xxxxxThe 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 ‘black’ was unacceptable in itself. Out of the mouth of babes.


"Language that is intended to be hurtful should be deplored. But there is a high cost associated with outlawing any language use."


The second problem with political correctness is that assumptions have to be made about meaning. Again, this is because the PC approach is legalistic. In law, words tend to have strictly defined semantics; in the English common law system underpinned by precedent. There tends to be, deliberately, a very limited range of reference and, as much as possible, a one-to-one correspondence between the word and the thing being denoted.

To say the least, there is more to words than this. Read any decent work of literature and you will observe language that produces a range of meanings, including enacting meanings from the way the writer uses the words themselves.

One does not have to agree with the absurd exaggerations of French deconstructionist literary critics such as Jacques Derrida—that the ‘author is dead’ and there are as many possible meanings as there are readers: a principle they did not apply to their own writings of course—to see that language can mean many things to those who receive it. Read William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and the point becomes clear enough. 

Yet in the PC approach, it is assumed that those who derive one meaning, who have been offended, have the sole right to define what the words signify.

Viewed this way, political correctness represents an extraordinary attack on basic human freedoms that are almost as fundamental as the freedom to think what we want. It is even reaching the point in the public environment where what is not said is being deemed ‘incorrect’. Witness the furore over Donald Trump’s comments on the Charlottesville violence. What Trump said was broadly factually correct; that both sides were violent. He was pilloried because of what he did not say, or at least didn’t say at the right time: that neo-Nazis are unacceptable.

Political correctness is increasingly being applied to absence, as well as presence, which means not just making assumptions about what the words denote, but also what silences connote. As any philosopher will tell you, deducing from absence is a dangerous course. And once again it involves making assumptions about intention; purporting to be inside the speaker's mind.

Language that is intended to be hurtful should be deplored. But there is a high cost associated with outlawing any language use, because such initiatives can only be applied, crudely, to the words themselves. They cannot apply to the person’s intentions—that would require further evidence—and they rule out the possibility of multiple meanings.

The PC approach easily descends into authoritarianism and aggression. When such aggression is associated with those purportedly being protected, it ultimately does them no favours.

The way to a more tolerant society is to take a mature approach to language, to see it in all its complexity and polyvalence. And perhaps develop a little looseness: remember what used to be said in the schoolyard, that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Sadly, many are going in the opposite direction.


David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of He has a PhD in English Literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Topic tags: David James, political correctness



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Existing comments

Very well stated, David. Perhaps Australia's current obsession with PC language derives from a need to fill the vacuum left when political ideology supersedes the Catholic tradition's synthesis of reason and faith as the touchstone of what is true and most desirable in society - at least as much as it does from the linguistic sophistry that presents itself as deconstructionism.
John | 27 August 2017

Very interesting and a long overdue statement regarding the damage done by the political correctness of choosing or interpreting words to suit a personal agenda and then acting according to that choice in the belief that the action taken is correct and ethical and any dissenting opinion is wrong and unethical. "Do we ban the Nun's veil next"? raises the question, "Do the clothes maketh the man"? Billy Shakespeare had an interesting comment to make on this question expressed in Hamlet, when the king declares that his black clothes are not evidence of deep depression, do not reflect his inner essence and "do not maketh the man". Meanwhile, Hamlet's chief adviser, Polonius, advises his son, Laertes, to make sure that he dresses expensively with panache in that the "clothes do maketh the man". Shakespeare's written words express two directly opposed views. Words are indeed powerful and have the capacity to inflict just as much if not more damage than the sword. My literary agent recently waxed poetic about my latest book, a history of Western Civilisation which amongst other things traced the history of euthanasia in a couple of brief paragraphs. She said she was no longer able to represent me because she felt strongly about the right to euthanasia and didn't feel that she could genuinely and ethically support the book. She interpreted the historical Hippocratic opposition to euthanasia and the evolution of pro-euthanasia law in some countries as my view - not historical truth. We are indeed a weird mob, capable of abusing all that is good including the beauty of words.
john frawley | 27 August 2017

Words can wound, no doubt about it. The "sticks and stones" quote seems to me to be the wrong way around. Bruises on the skin heal, but bruises remain under peoples' skins. If one is an overly-sensitive type, and there are plenty of them around, then the schoolyard can be a challenging place. I'm a huge admirer of George Herbert, but when he said "Words are women, deeds are men" it rankled. A bit. And he has written sublimely. So, best to see the best.
Pam | 27 August 2017

How ironic that political correctness is derided by a white man... Some might call it privilege.
M | 27 August 2017

I think there are two main elements to this worrying tendency. One is that so much modern social dialogue is in casual written form, and by those we don't know - so we lose the context provided by tone of voice or facial features on what a colloquial phrase communicates. Irony, humour, good-natured colloquialism is trickier to detect. The other problem is plain woolly thinking from all our platforms. Our children should be taught logic from primary school so that their innate logic is sustained and informed as they grow and confront more nuanced ideas.Then perhaps we might get more clear thinking adults.
Libby Vorrath | 28 August 2017

I don't think it is political correctness that is the problem, it is the ideas here that a. If your intention is okay, your words are okay while, b. Donald Trumps words were just words, no other intention. This skips the idea that communication is a two way street: your joke, clear to you, was not clear to others; while you think Trump's words were clear, to his intended audience there was another meaning (based on the reactions of all sides!). This is not political correctness' fault but the unwillingness to acknowledge that context matters to meaning. And your audience matters too.
Liz | 28 August 2017

Great commentary. We are losing the color and imagination that language provides and replaced it with a Rule Based society of thought controls. The consequences are a society descending into beige mediocrity.
Peter | 28 August 2017

Excellent article. In response to M's comment, some might call it racist that the commenter denigrates and invalidates the author's contribution because it comes from a white man, who is equally prejudicially assumed to be "privileged". How can we have any reasoned debate about important issues when "race" and presumed class are deemed to nullify a person's argument?
Jenny Kyng | 28 August 2017

Does it not stand to reason the more complex society becomes so to the representation, connotation and interpretation of the logos? I think political correctness evolves as a tool to counter the linguist hegemonic , heterosexist narrative that for too long has served to oppress and marginalize 'the other'. It must be the the middle ground, underpinned, by rational and respectful discourses, that underpin a truly democratic public sphere.
Eric Lowes | 28 August 2017

A friend rebuked me when I recited the jingle to her grandson...1 2 3 4 5 6 7...all good children go to heaven she said "heaven' forbidden at his secular school so we should not use it I was struck dumb!! Will the word be eliminated from literature/language/ drama etc; Crazy...........Marie
Annette | 28 August 2017

Privilege indeed as M has suggested. The hurt of words is impossible to quantify and is hidden. Minorities suffer and are powerless. PC helps in ridding us of the excesses.
GAJ | 28 August 2017

Great points, Intrinsically, offensive speech or behaviour is unacceptable. Towards the end of my hospital career I realised that offending is all about intent. "I am offended by that remark" became a brake on my free speech until I realised that it is a choice to take offense.
Dr Denis Bartrum | 28 August 2017

May I recommend a book of essays in the Penguin Books series of Great Ideas? it is titled Why I Write by George Orwell. In it is a short (18 pages) essay 'Politics and the English Language'. It was written in 1946 but it is as relevant today as it was then. It also has the advantage of being wittily written. Just one example: Political Language - and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. Orwell! thou should'st be living at this hour: Politics hath need of thee. (pace William Wordsworth, Sonnets Dedicated to Liberty, bemoaning the absence of a John Milton to rescue England from its spiritual quagmire.)
Uncle Pat | 28 August 2017

There is a problem with PC, but the basic problem is a contempt for linguistic precision - a "Humpty Dumpty" approach to communication. We need to give certain words a rest: "potentially", where what is often meant is "possibly"; "could potentially" (surely pleonastic); "necessarily", which is often redundant (does anything happen necessarily? if there is a God, there is only one necessary being; if there is not, there are no necessary beings or events); and so many other words that are interpolated to forestall challenge or argument. And when PC kicks in, the wells have been poisoned (as Newman put it), and the debate confused and prejudiced.
John Hill | 28 August 2017

This discussion of an important and complex topic is damaged by the repeated use of "political correctness", an ill-defined put-down expression used by reactionary forces to dismiss worthwhile causes by linking them with silly ones.
Chris Watson (Ph.D. in English Literature) | 28 August 2017

One of the problems with political correctness is that it is used by the extreme conservatives to challenge any action that threatens their view of history.. While some examples given by the writer are over the top that doesn't make the case for all such conversations being so. The example of Trump also lacked some accuracy. The violence Trump was talking about was not evenly balanced but, from what I saw, vastly one sided. He didn't acknowledge that during his third speech on the topic. I prefer political correctness to the attempt by the angst driven conservatives to wind back the clock.
Tom Kingston | 28 August 2017

It appears Chris Watson would disagree with that great English writer George Orwell. "Homophobia" and "Islamophobia", recently minted words and neither of which Dr Watson uses, are also what I would consider inexact. I think sometimes what is supposedly intelligent debate in this country degenerates into 'intellectual mud pie throwing'. Neither Chris nor David was throwing mud pies of any sort but both seemed to be trying to initiate an intelligent discussion. My own thinking is that this sort of discussion is often very emotively coloured. Once again, neither of the two was guilty of that. We need to continue. Intelligently, like them and Uncle Pat.
Edward Fido | 28 August 2017

LOVE TRUMPS HATE was one of the messages we put on the new LED sign at the front of our church. We had a series of X TRUMPS Y signs at the start of Donald’s presidency, capitalizing on the topicality of the situation. Many failed to see that we were presenting Jesus’ message in bite-size, contemporary language. Half accused us of being pro-Trump; half anti. They saw not our neutrality and our simple desire to take advantage of the new President’s unique name to grab attention. Attention grabbed, please consider the message. Pressure was brought to bear and we ceased the series of trump messages, which could still be going given the Gospels’ ongoing teaching concerning our better options.
Michael O'Connor | 29 August 2017

My daughter in year 11 had dialogue in a story that included the phrase "Man up" it was corrected by an English teacher who commented the phrase was sexist and she should consider "woman up" or "person up".
Annie R | 29 August 2017

As already commented, "politically correct" is a negative term describing what should simply be courteous behaviour. Because communication is between people, it is common courtesy to avoid expressions which could be offensive to the other. When such courtesy is regulated and codified, courtesy itself is degraded, along with language. Like David James, I respect, even love, language. But love of language does not relieve one of courtesy toward another.
Ian Fraser | 30 August 2017

Ian Fraser: “As already commented, "politically correct" is a negative term describing what should simply be courteous behaviour. Because communication is between people, it is common courtesy to avoid expressions which could be offensive to the other. When such courtesy is regulated and codified, courtesy itself is degraded, along with language.” John called some Pharisees a brood of vipers but did not deny them the baptism they sought ‘to flee the retribution that is coming’. Sincerity justifies strong language. If courtesy is not a creature of sincerity, truth itself will be regulated and codified.
Roy Chen Yee | 01 September 2017


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