Monday, December 14, 2009

How Politically Correct Language Alters Understanding and Thought

"It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." - George Orwell, 1984.

Language as a Means of Communication:
How Politically Correct Language Alters Understanding and Thought

Dr. Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and philosopher, once said that if “human language has a function at all it's for expression of thought. So if you just think about your own use of language, a rather small part is used for communication. Much of human language is just used to establish social relations.” (Nancho) Through further reading of Chomsky's discussion on this subject, the reason that he makes the statement about communication being a minimal aspect becomes clear: his definition of the word 'communication'. However, it is interesting to note that Chomsky put such a great emphasis on language as a mode of thought expression and social relation, for it is in these areas that the concept of political correctness comes into play. In terms of language as a mode of expressing one's thoughts, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis enters the equation. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that language is not simply a mode of communicating our thoughts, but is also the way in which we form our thoughts (Stafford). Politically Correct Language (PCL) attempts to alter language in the most intense of fashions: removing certain words from use. One of the possible consequences of this, though not necessarily to the extreme degree suggested by Whorf, is that our thoughts are altered as well. Addressing Chomsky's second quality of language, its usefulness in the formation of social relations, it is primarily due to this characteristic of language that Politically Correct Language first came into being.  The primary purpose of PCL, to this day, is to minimize the possible offensiveness of certain pieces of our language, and thus improve the qualities of interpersonal communication. These two qualities of Politically Correct Language are not disputed; the questions at hand are what makes something politically (in)correct, is it censorship or something new, whether or not PCL improves our ability to communicate our thoughts, whether it impacts the way we think, and if the attempt to minimize offensiveness within language is worth the consequences inflicted upon the language itself. Politically Correct Language consists of a myriad of euphemisms for certain words and phrases that are otherwise offensive to a significant amount of the community. Several questions, to which there are no clear answers, arise out of this definition: Who determines what is offensive? How many people must be offended before a word is removed from common usage? Where does it end?
To the first question, the best answer that can be given is that everyone is able to say what is offensive, but those in some form of power determine whether the word or phrase is offensive enough to be altered. It also is interesting to note that words, phrases, and subject matters vary in terms of acceptability depending on the speaker and the subject; a famous example of this is the film “The Producers”. The film, by Mel Brooks, first came onto the scene in the late 60s, not too terribly long after the fall of the Third Reich, and focused around two Jewish producers attempting to cheat their way into wealth by putting on a fictional play known as Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Though the film received mixed reviews initially, it is now one of the most well known films and stage musicals. Were this play to have been written by anyone other than Mel Brooks, or another equally well known Jew, it is unlikely that the film would have even made it to screening, let alone to popularity. The story involves a great deal of racial and religious humor, and it makes fun of the most infamous character in the world at the time: Adolf Hitler. However, despite these racy qualities, “The Producers” is not known as politically incorrect, it is not censored; in fact, the year the first version came out, it was praised with many awards, including Academy Awards for Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay, and a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination for Gene Wilder. Although the film met with slight resistance, it would appear that the primary reason for this acceptance, is that the person who wrote it was in fact a Jew, which lends credence to the concept that perceived correctness varies depending on the speaker.
To the question of how many people need be offended before something is deemed taboo,, there is one particular set of phrases that, though they both mean the same thing and are equally offensive, have not been censored in the same fashion: “Billy jewed me down” and “Billy gypped me”. Both of these phrases convey the message that Billy swindled me, and both use a particular ethnic group in order to express this method. The former example, however, is considered extremely politically incorrect, and would likely cost any public official his career, while the latter is still a common phrase in mainstream conversation. An even more interesting detail about the word 'gypped' is that, with a quick perusal of a basic Internet search engine of the word, it appears to be common knowledge that the word is derogatory, but the usage is not diminishing. This evidence furthers the theory that there is a threshold that must be met prior to a word becoming taboo; however, there is room for a second option: the phrase 'gypped' refers to gypsies, who have often had, and still often do have, a negative reputation, and thus the derogatory nature of the phrase takes a back seat to the reputation of the group to whom the phrase refers. Regardless of which theory is the genuine reason, or if it is a combination of the two, it is clear that not all offensive phrases are censored out of the language.
This leads into the third question previously posed: where does the politically correct path end? This is a question that cannot be effectively answered, because it is quite likely that it will not end,  but it possible to hypothesize where the path will eventually lead. Steven Pinker, an experimental neuro-psychologist, upon examining the way that euphemisms function within language, discussed a concept known as the “Euphemism Treadmill”. The theory quickly summarized is this: a euphemism, or “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant” (Merriam-Webster), used to replace a taboo word or phrase will, eventually, become taboo itself, requiring yet another substitution to occur. The clearest examples of this treadmill effect fall in the category of disabilities, either mental or physical. For example, “during the 19th and 20th centuries, people with developmental disabilities experienced a range of labels (idiot, imbecile, moron, defective, trainable)” (State Councils on Developmental Disabilities). Since that time, new euphemisms have come into existence, such as crippled, retarded, and disabled, and have been removed from usage just as quickly. 'Handicapped' is still the most widely accepted term for someone who is physically disabled, but that is simply because the suggested substitute, 'differently-abled', was ridiculed as ridiculous and trivializing from its conception, much like another equally absurd suggested substitute, 'handi-capable'. However, as soon as an acceptable substitute is created, 'handicapped' will likely fall into the ranks of outdated euphemisms, to be substituted with another, equally short-lived expression. In attempting to fully answer the question of where this entire process will lead, one must first acknowledge how willing people seem to change their language in order to not seem bigoted through their speech. It is a bit of an exaggeration, but Orwell's “Newspeak” is a good model to hold in mind if one is attempting to see the future that the PCL movement could bring. It obviously will not subvert the communication of thoughts such as freedom and revolution, but perhaps it has the potential to completely eliminate the discussion of race from our accepted vocabulary, or any physical or social differences at all.  The word “minority”, for example, is moving down the treadmill, soon to be replaced by another euphemism. Since it is not truly possible to see where this will end, especially if the Euphemism Treadmill concept holds true, we must refocus our attention on whether the movement could go too far in its attempts.
Simply put, the answer is yes. The reason it is so simple to answer a question concerning the future is the fact that Politically Correct Language has already gone too far in many cases. Lenora Billings-Harris, a Business Communication Consultant, put out a short list of suggestions that, if followed, will make your speech in the workplace more acceptable and more politically correct. The very first phrase that she addresses is “black sheep”, with a suggested replacement of “outcast” (Billings-Harris). This issue may catch many off-guard, as they may not see why such an obvious replacement is necessary; admittedly, I was much in the same boat. Eventually, however, it became clear that Billings-Harris's reasoning is the word “black” within the phrase. It is here that it becomes obvious that the fear enforced by the Politically Correct Language movement has started to impact the way in which we think. As PCL is concerned with not offending anyone, it is implied that, without PCL, we will inevitably offend one person or another. It is because of this fear that the phrase “black sheep” made it onto Billings-Harris's list. Race and gender are the two most frequent issues dealt with by PCL, to the extent that even mentioning the color black is taboo, even when it has absolutely nothing to do with the color of human skin. The phrase “black sheep” actually comes from the fact that a sheep with the rare, recessive trait of black wool stands out from the herd of white-woolen sheep. Had natural selection worked out differently, the phrase, might be just as accurate if said “blue sheep”; perhaps we could substitute “white crow” instead. This irrational fear of colors within language has made us associate any usage of the word “black” with the Negroid skin tone, any usage of the word “white” with the Caucasoid skin tone. The ironic part is that the one who utters the phrase “black sheep” likely had no thoughts concerning human skin color, while the person who gets offended by the phrase is the one focusing on skin tone, and thus is the more bigoted party. Billings-Harris includes one other example in her list that goes to much the same point, and that is “white lie”. This phrase does not come directly from the concept of skin color, but is “based on the ancient Western idea of polar opposites, represented in popular culture through white meaning good and black its evil antithesis. We have white magic, for example, beneficent magic that’s opposed to the malign black variety....Along the same lines, a white lie is one that lacks evil intent, as opposed to a black lie, which is most certainly malevolent, though normally we don’t bother to specify that lies are evil.” (Quinion) This visual polarity of black and white can be seen within Western art and literature long before any true racial tensions, and thus should be more associated with that concept than with the possible racial implications. These are just two examples of how being overly concerned with political correctness leads to the unnecessary changes that inevitably ignore the history of the word or phrase in question.
A more modern, technological example of language getting altered due to implications rather than actual meaning, comes in late 2003. At that time, “an unidentified worker spotted a videotape machine carrying devices labeled 'master' and 'slave' and filed a discrimination complaint with the county's Office of Affirmative Action Compliance.” (CNN) Within the technological world, the terms “master” and “slave” refer to a primary and secondary device, and their functional relationship within the system. The complaint filed by the unidentified worker caused quite a ripple, and has lead to a large percentage of technology companies to change the phrases. The interesting part about this case is that the worker filed a “discrimination complaint”, when in fact he was not being discriminated against in any way, when in fact the phrase was referring to two pieces of technology. It cannot be denied that the phrases “master” and “slave” within technology take their titles from the human relationship, but it is certainly not referring to one specific instance of slavery, nor is it intended to put down a particular group of people; it was simply the most accurate way to describe the interaction between the two pieces of technology. The notion of Politically Correct Language and offensiveness has led us, as language users, to see the worst in every aspect of language. This leads into another aspect of the Euphemism Treadmill, specifically the idea that if a word or phrase has both a negative and neutral meaning, the negative meaning will eventually win out and the word will become taboo. The best examples can be found within the animal kingdom, with words such as “ass” and “bitch”; both of these words initially referred to a particular animal, and were also given more negative meanings later. These negative meanings eventually prevailed, becoming the primary usages, and thus the words have become taboo. To close the discussion of whether Politically Correct Language can go to far, I yield to someone far more apt to discuss it than I, George Carlin:

Because we do think in language. And so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language. So maybe some of this patriarchal shit ought to go away....But they take it too far, they take themselves too seriously, they exaggerate. They want me to call that thing in the street a "personhole cover." I think that's taking it a little bit too far! What would you call a ladies' man, a "person's person"? That would make a he-man an "it-person." Little kids would be afraid of the "boogie-person." They'd look up in the sky and see the "person in the moon." Guys would say "come back here and fight like a person," and we'd all sing "For It's a Jolly Good Person," that's the kind of thing you would hear on "Late Night with David Letterperson"!
(George Carlin, IMDb)

Politically Correct Language, in its attempt to purge offensive content, often passes the point of usefulness, eventually consuming us so much that we start imagining racism and bigotry where there is none. It is in this fashion that political correctness first starts to influence how we think.
Upon accepting that Politically Correct Language often goes too far, to the point that it ignores the history and meaning of the phrases that it seeks to alter, we find ourselves stuck with yet another question: how does that impact the quality of our language? In order to answer that question, I will refer back to two previously discussed issues: the language used to describe mental and physical disabilities, and the Billings-Harris list of suggested phrases. It has already been shown that many phrases have been used in the attempt to describe mental disabilities, both in an attempt to make them more accurate and less offensive. However, in our attempt to use less offensive phrases, we have started to negate the earlier attempts at increasing accuracy. One humorous anecdote found on the WebMD web-log, Healthy Children, sums up the issue nicely:

It was an all too common story in our School Achievement Clinic: 12-year-old Bertie was doing terribly in school and had just failed 6th grade. Her parents believed it was because she was "lazy" and because the school had lousy teachers. On formal testing, Bertie's IQ was in the high 60s, meaning she had scored in the "mild mental retardation" range. So it was no mystery to us why school was so difficult for her. But it was to her parents. "Mentally retarded!?" they exclaimed, incredulously and angrily. "We have known she was developmentally delayed since she was 3 years old, but no one ever said anything about mental retardation."          

In an attempt to soften our language and minimize offensiveness, we have started to lose the ability to effectively communicate and understand each other. Due to the fact that it is difficult to find any PCL advocates who directly address this issue, it would be interesting to discover when those in favor of PCL feel clarity takes precedence over kindness, or if minimizing offensiveness is always the primary goal. Is there a true difference between the phrases “developmentally delayed” and “mentally retarded”? If there is not, then why do we need two phrases, when people obviously interpret them to mean different things. Other examples of this come from within Lenora Billings-Harris's suggestions. The issue of the “white lie” has been discussed previously, but it is now relevant to examine the suggested substitution: “Lie (Calling it white does not make it okay)”. Billings-Harris suggests that whenever one would use the phrase “white lie”, one should instead simply say “lie”, in an effort not to include any racially offensive language. This attempt destroys the meaning of the phrase and limits its usefulness and limits our ability to understand each other. The intention of the phrase “white lie” is communicate that a lie is “harmless or trivial, frequently one said in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings” (Quinion). However, the suggested euphemism, “lie” does not communicate this same concept, and thus one would need to say, “John told a harmless, trivial lie, with the intention of avoiding hurting Lauren's feelings,” instead of simply saying, “John told Lauren a white lie.” This is a breakdown in language efficiency and usefulness, all for the purpose of avoiding offensiveness that was not in the phrase to begin with, offensiveness that was superimposed by those with the goal of weeding out bigoted language. Another, more controversial example from within the same list involves the use of the words “bitchy or 'PMSing'”, which Billings-Harris says should be substituted with the word “assertive”. However, once again, the original word and its euphemism communicate entirely different concepts. This is not a defense of the phrase “PMSing”, but the implication of that phrase is not the same as the word “assertive”. One final example of PCL's interference with the effective communication of thought comes from the world of Star Trek, specifically the captain's monologue during the opening sequence. In the original Star Trek, starring William Shatner, the opening monologue ended with the phrase, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” However, with the next incarnation of Star Trek came a revised version of the opening monologue. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart, the opening monologue ended with the phrase, “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” The difference between these two endings is subtle, but it manages nonetheless to completely change the meaning of the phrase. In an attempt to minimize offensiveness, the reference to “man” was removed and replaced with “one”, a common solution to this problem within writing. In this case, however, it also alters to literal meaning of the phrase. To say that you are going where “no man has gone before” implies that you will go where no human has ever been; this meaning makes perfect sense in a reality with alien civilizations. On the other hand, saying that you are going where “no one has gone before” implies that no one at all has ever been there, a statement that is not accurate within the reality of Star Trek. The Politically Correct Language movement, however, is less interested in accurate communication of thoughts, feelings, and concepts, and is more interested in using censorship to create a language with no risk of offending anyone.
The primary reason the the Politically Correct Movement is so effective, and so dangerous, is that it is not mere censorship, but a form of self-censorship. By imposing an arbitrary value system, making users of some words bigoted, and users of other words moral crusaders, we begin to censor our own language, which eventually leads to changing the way that we think. As an example, not too terrible long ago, it was commonplace to be given peanuts on an airplane by a stewardess; this was the word that was used both in conversation and in our thoughts. Eventually, however, that word became taboo and was replaced by the more acceptable “flight attendant”. This change obviously did not happen overnight within the vernacular; instead it was altered by people's catching themselves starting to use the newly outdated word, and then deliberately using the new phrase. Eventually it was no longer an effort, and the new phrase replaced the old word within people's mental vocabulary. The final stage of this is that one no longer sub-vocalizes the word “stewardess” when thinking about the person handing out peanuts or pretzels on an airplane, but instead thinks the phrase “flight attendant”. There are many other examples of this, including “policeman” becoming “police officer” and “mailman” becoming “mail carrier”. If you think about the way you currently mentally voice these occupations and the way you previously did, you will likely realize that the way in which you think about at least one has been influenced by PCL. Interestingly enough, all three of the aforementioned examples involve a euphemism which is longer than the original, implying a slight breakdown in the effectiveness of the language itself: using two words to communicate the same concept that was previously implied with one. Self-censorship starts with simply editing what we say, but eventually it results in altering what we think.
Many questions have been posed throughout this investigation, and the majority have been answered.  The hypothesis suggested by Whorf and his predecessor, Sapir, does not hold entirely true; it is not true to the extent that Orwell suggested, that without the word for “freedom” one could not think of the concept. However, it is true that the language we use impacts the way that we think, and Politically Correct Language attempts to alter both the way that we speak and the way that we think.    The Political Correctness Movement's effort to reduce offensiveness in expression, often superimposed by those wishing to control our language and ideas, hinders our ability to effectively communicate thoughts, feelings, and concepts through self censorship.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please be civil to everyone. Please understand that I will respond in kind to however you decide to present yourself (if you act like an ass, so shall I).