Freedom of expression is a high good. It is the cornerstone of democracy and an important prerequisite for the freedom of the press and information. If the freedom of expression is restricted step by step, that is a sign of anti-democratic tendencies in a pluralistic constitutional society.

Political correctness (PC) is a virtue. Originally a common-sense matter the idea was to describe a linguistic behavior that minimised offence, particularly in relation to minorities and women.

Merriam Webster, America’s most trusted online dictionary for English word definitions, defined “politically correct” as “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated”.

Freedom of expression and political correctness may support each other, but they also may be mutually exclusive.

Laden with the Values of a Previous Time: A Welsh University Tried to Make a Gender-Neutral Language Mandatory

Image: Cardiff Metropolitan University (Google Maps)

In 2017, a Welsh university was accused of censorship after banning the use of terms such as “right-hand man”, “waitress” and “forefathers” on campus in a crackdown on gendered language. “(L)anguage should always be inclusive,” the accompanied document read, offering a check-list of 34 gender-neutral terms. The university said it was committed to “providing an environment where everyone is valued”. Therefore it had devoped  a code of practice which was to “promote fairness and equality”.

Suggestions from the university checklist:

best man for the job          best person for the job
fireman                                firefighter
housewife                            shopper, consumer, homemaker
manpower                           human resources, labour force, staff, personnel, workers
tax man                                tax inspector
sportsmanship                   fairness, good humour, sense of fair play
gentleman’s agreement    unwritten agreement, agreement based on trust

Dr Joanna Williams, author of the book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (2016) told BBC Wales in March 2017 the guidelines were “very authoritarian” and universities “should trust academics to be able to communicate with each other without being permanently offended”.

Political Correctness in the Media: The AP Stylebook

Image: Cover

The tendency towards language regulation can also be observed in the journalistic field. Example: The AP Stylebook. The style of the Associated Press “is the gold standard for news writing. With The AP Stylebook in hand, you can learn how to write and edit with the clarity and professionalism for which they are famous.“ (AP Stylebook 2018)

In its 2017 edition it advises writers not to use words like “Pro-Life,” “Refugee” and “Terrorist”. Here are the alternative suggestions:

pro-life           anti-abortion
refugee           people struggling to enter Europe
terrorist         militant, lone wolves, attackers

Rachel Alexander, a conservative critic who liked to appear on Fox News, wrote an article published in The Hill, “How the AP Stylebook Censors ‘Pro-life’ and Other Conservative words,” where she pointed out the bias in the AP Stylebook:

More often than not, style writers have been more interested in censoring conservative words while promoting language that liberals tend to favor, said Alexander. “That’s been especially true of the AP Stylebook published by The Associated Press. It’s unfortunate, because that’s the guide most journalists rely upon.

Irony and Satire: The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook (1993)

Image: Cover

In their semi-bestseller Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf commented on the PC trend in an ironic-satirical manner. The bestseller was announced as a guide to survival in multicultural America in the sensitive 1990s.

Here are some definitions from the titlepage:


short-sighted           optically challenged
eggs etc.                    stolen non-human animal products
flowers                      botanical compagnions
white woman           woman of non-color
dog                             non-human animal compagnion
a chicken                  voiceless victim of speciesism
paper                         processed tree carcasses
light skin                   melanin-impoverished

At first glance, irony and satire are just amusing, “tongue in cheek”, “outrageously funny”, “hilariously rewarding for people who have not read any non-humorous works on its subject and who enjoy satire”, “thoroughly sourced”. At second glance, it will be noted that the authors’ irony and satire have a particular target: a world view that avoids the negative focus on physical deficits, in which a light pigmentation of the skin is not deemed of major value, animals are protected, and forests saved from the predatory interests of the paper lobby.

Still Up to Date: George Orwell’s 1984: Language Policy in a Fictious Totalitarian State

Image: Cover of the Penguin Reader

Georges Orwell (1903-1950), real name Eric Arthur Blair, is known for his anti-totalitarian position. His dystopia 1984 is about a totalitarian state in distant fictional Oceania. It tells the story of Winston Smith, who – once a critic of the regime – is eventually forced by phychological pressure and eventually torture to publicly declare himself a convinced supporter of the regime. In 1984, language policy plays a crucial role.

Much has been written about the language policy prevailing in Orwell’s Oceania. Roughly speaking, the so-called “old speak”, the existing language, replaced by a “modernized” language, the so-called “newspeak”, not staggered immediately, but over a period of time. This included, for example, the revaluation of terms, which u.a. on the three slogans of “INGSOC” (html link) of the governing party announced: “War is peace”; “Freedom is slavery”; “Ignorance is strength”.

Another sign of Oceania’s language policy was the gradual reduction of the vocabulary. The scope of the vocabulary was to be reduced to key concepts and their positive and negative variants. Example: “beautiful” and “not-beautiful”. The underlying idea was that if the existing language system were manipulated accordingly, it would be more difficult to think and communicate deviant thoughts because the new language would not provide the linguistic means to express and communicate them. This strategy was particlarly intended to put a stop to thought-crime. For “thought-crime” was, in Orwell’s dystopian state, the worst of all crimes.

Orwell wrote 1984 just after the end of World War II, wanting it to serve as a warning to his readers. He wanted to be certain that the kind of future presented in the novel should never come to pass, even though the practices that contribute to the development of such a state were abundantly present in Orwell’s time.

Why Freedom of Expression is a Higher Good than Political Correctness
The linguist and militant scholar Noam Chomsky was once criticized for defending a French Holocaust denier. It was about the case of Robert Faurisson who, in a book of 1978,  had presented abstruse ideas about the holocaust. In defense of his position Chomsky pointed out that he did not share the opinion of the French author, which he rejected, but nevertheless had to defend the right of the author to freely express his view. Nobody should be restricted in this right. Freedom of expression, Chomsky said, is the litmus test for real freedom. If only opinions are tolerated which are shared, this is already censorship and no longer freedom of expression. 

Sources

Alexander, Rachel. “How the AP Stylebook censors ‘pro-life’ and other conservative words”. The Hill (09 July, 2017)

Brilling, Julia. “Political Correctness“. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (23. Dezember 2013)

Weigel, Moira.Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy”. The Guardian (Nov. 30 2016) https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump

“Im Würgegriff der politischen Korrektheit: Droht das Ende der Meinungsfreiheit?” Freie Welt.

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