At a recent conference, a speaker made an excellent presentation on the theme of the conference. During the question-and-answer part of the session, a member of the audience remarked: “Sir, it was a great presentation. I do appreciate your clarity of thought and clarity of expression but I object to your use of some politically incorrect words during the course of your presentation”. Then the member listed three “politically incorrect expressions” used by the speaker and explained why the expressions should not have been used. Two of the expressions were “ignorant students” and “lazy students”. A heated discussion on ‘politically incorrect’ language followed for about ten minutes.
What is political correctness in language? What are the commonly used ‘politically incorrect’ words and phrases? Does the use of politically incorrect language by someone reveal their attitude? Politically incorrect language refers to words and phrases that are construed to be offensive or perceived to exclude or marginalize any particular person or group of people who are socially, culturally or economically disadvantaged or discriminated against. Political correctness in language can be defined as the elimination of words and phrases that are perceived to cause offence to any person or group of people. Politically correct language can be called ‘language of equality’ and politically incorrect language can be described as language of discrimination.
Let’s look at the two ‘politically incorrect expressions’ listed above: “ignorant students” and “lazy students”. The word “ignorant” is a negative term. It means “lacking in knowledge”. There are many students who lack knowledge and skills and their reason for coming to school is to gain knowledge. If that is the case, what is wrong in using the term “ignorant student”? The problem is that the word ‘ignorant’ is equated with ‘stupid’. No person likes to be called ‘stupid’. It is an offensive term and therefore is politically incorrect. The politically correct replacement for ignorance is “alternative wisdom”. Similarly, the term ‘lazy student’ is construed to be offensive. The politically correct replacement is “motivationally deficient student”.
Advocates of political correctness in language argue that it is not morally correct to use any word or phrase that causes offence to a person or a group. Language is so powerful that it can influence the way we construct the world view. For example, those who are exposed to ‘sexist language’ — words and phrases which stereotype members of either sex or which needlessly call attention to gender — tend to use stereotypical language. For example:
Running for city council are Jake Stein, an attorney, and Mrs Cynthia Jones, a professor of English and mother of three. [The title Mrs and the phrase mother of three are irrelevant] (The Bedford Handbook by Diana Hacker).
Here are more examples of politically incorrect terms and their politically correct replacements: bald (follicularly challenged/comb free), uneducated (lacking a formal education), bar maid (bar attendant), short (vertically challenged), slum (economically disadvantaged area), housewife (homemaker/domestic engineer, criminal (behaviourly challenged), dishonest (ethically disoriented), sex change (gender reassignment).