Return to Menu

Political Correctness


An aide to a US mayor used the word `niggardly' at a meeting. Shortly after the incident the aide resigned from his position saying that he shouldn't have used `niggardly', which means stingy and has no racial connotation but sounds like a slur. He insisted that resigning was his idea and that the mayor should not be blamed for it. Williams (the mayor), who is black, initially said that Howard (the aide), who is white, showed poor judgment, even though he "didn't say anything that was in itself racist." Dictionaries trace `niggardly' to Scandinavia and attribute no offensive meaning to it. But the possibility of confusion is raised in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, which says the word is often shunned to avoid misunderstanding.


Counter Point

ALL PEOPLE ARE POLITICAL. When someone speaks about how good things were in the past, they infer that things aren't as good now. As our society moves towards plurality (political power shared between different groups) there will be those who lose their influence and freedom to act as they had in the past. For example, smoking laws have been changed to accommodate for the health of nonsmokers. I am sure that you have heard a smoker complain about how they hate having to smoke outside. To some smokers, these new laws are unfair and they cannot see the benefit of such an `unjust' law.

Now, let me give you another example. In the nineteen-seventies my wife's cousin was travelling in the south of the United States. He saw a pretty woman who was White and smiled at her. This woman was very upset that a Black man was so rude to her (she thought that his smile was offensive). Some local men were informed and that night they found and hung him from a tree until he was dead. It is likely that in the past, due to relentless social pressure this man would have not turned his head to dare to be friendly to a White woman.

You could say that the woman was uncomfortable with the way the society was changing. Her reaction was harsh, her accomplices reaction was even more incomprehensible. Why is it that people cannot adapt and realise that the past was not `golden' for everyone? Is it so hard to acknowledge that rules, laws and stereotypes from the past were repressive and inequitable for large segments of society? I believe that the phrase `political correctness' comes from people who have lost the political power to act without discretion. They use the term with great venom as if they are being seriously repressed. Acceptable behaviour in the past may not be acceptable in the present and when a group comes to realise that they have lost political or social control there is usually a sense of fear and loss of control.

`Labelling words' were often created and upheld by groups that needed to justify their own dictatorial control over society. Language is one of the most pervasive tools of social control. Let me give an example. For many years, the world called cultures who lived in the high arctic, `Eskimos'. This name was not of their own choosing. In fact, it was a name chosen by their enemies to the south which means `fat eaters'. Who knew the im-pact that the word `Eskimo' had? For the Inuit (aka Eskimos) it was an on-going insult and a way to exclude them from sharing their cultural wealth.

Language creates the `social milieu' in which ideas flourish or starve. It is necessary for people to discuss the words and context we use when referring to one another. Being `politically correct' means that you care about the feelings and contributions of your neighbours, your brothers and sisters. Political correctness should be accompanied by love, acceptance and understanding.

The aide who used the word `niggardly' may have used the word correctly on technical grounds, and perhaps he should not have lost his job. Perhaps everyone over-reacted. Maybe the aides's next words were going to be the solution to a daunting social problem for Washington, DC. No one will know. The significant result was that people did not participate equally in their re-definition of society because of the ill use of words. That is what went wrong with the story above. The end of dialogue is what holds back society today.

David Lau has a degree in political science and he always tries to be `intellectually challenged'.

CONSIDERATION AND SENSITIVITY to others are, at the most idealized levels, key elements behind political correctness (PC).

PC recognizes the impact hurtful words and actions can have on individuals and on society as a whole. In essence, PC is about trying to keep people from being hurtful to each other, especially when the target of the meanness is towards someone from a group historically or presently ill-treated. It is a lovely idea and it is truly a shame that it isn't that easy; unfortunately, it is neither possible, nor desirable to enforce 'niceness' through social censorship of diction and behaviour.

Political correctness, as it is often practised today, largely ignores the actual intent behind expression. Instead, it attributes intent and meaning according to physical characteristics such as sex and ethnic origin. This homophonic incident caricatures this beautifully; not only did the aide have no ill intent behind the use of `niggardly,' but the word itself has no history of offensive meaning - its hook is in phonics. Yet he was treated to a McCarthyism of the left: chastised, shunned, and pressured to the point that he resigned for doing nothing intentional nor actually wrong. All of this was generated from a person with greater power than him, but because the aide was white and the mayor was black, this dis-abuse is ignored and justified. That an employee can be pressured to resign by a superior simply because of the false appearance, and that this goes unquestioned, well illustrates one the of pitfalls of PC - tends to ignore actual power differences for group average power differences. Putting aside, however, this unreasonable event, there are problems in the practice of PC that deserve even deeper scrutiny.

PC fails to recognize that while we can control what words a person chooses to use or what behaviours she chooses to express, we cannot take away the ill-will which caused the harm in the first place. It is a simple thing to avoid all racist, sexist, and similarly non-PC words while expressing with malevolent intent. This demonstrates that PC is not a solution to social problems, only a displacement. Indeed, in Canada concern is to-wards the prevalence and impact of covert expressions of racism. I believe we will discover that this brand of racism is more dangerous and destructive than its more obvious cousin.

Another serious concern with PC is its effects upon critical thinking. PC often discourages critical examination when directed towards certain groups, subjects, or critics. It is disturbing when political science professors are accused of creating a 'chilly climate' for questioning and critiquing feminism. I get chills imagining any setting where questioning of any sort is taboo.

It is the duty of concerned individuals to look deeply into social problems, to devise solutions, and to take action. Political correctness is the manifesta-tion of such concerned individuals wishing to right the odious wrongs of discrimination. Yet history has shown that bad policies and actions are often implemented for the best of reasons, with the highest of intentions. In my opinion, PC does not ultimately fulfil its goal and, worse still, it has manufactured its own set of injustices. Perhaps it is time to let PC RIP and try something new.

Mark Redgwell currently writes a controversial opinion column (The Unfettered Tongue) for the Camosun College student news- paper, The Nexus. He hopes to get into law school and wants to be a writer.

Return to Menu