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Linguistic politics and language usage in the debate on "Political Correctness"

Seminararbeit 1997 22 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik



I. Introduction

II. Sociological aspects of the debate on PC
A) What is "Political Correctness"?
B) Symbolic politics
C) Use of anecdotes and the need for empirical research

III. Linguistic problems related to the debate on "PC"
A) Use of the term "PC" as a rhetorical strategy
B) History of the term "PC"
C) Language and linguistic politics of the anti-pc right
D) The debate on speech codes
E) The relationship between language and "reality"

IV. The effectiveness of conservative word coinage

V. Conclusion

VI. References

VII. Appendix

I. Introduction

The debate about "Political Correctness" has been called a "war of the words".1 In the old days, "political" people used to have arguments about inequality, oppression and exploitation. In the second part of this century, especially since the 1960s, questions of race, gender, sexuality, the family, ethnicity and cultural difference have been included in political arguments.

With the rise of radio and television, the form of political conflict has changed as well. Nowadays, the institutionalization of a certain discourse is an important aim for anyone who wants to exercise political power.

But what exactly is "Political Correctness"? This essay combines a sociological and a linguistic view on the issue of "PC". In the first part of my paper (chapter II), I will look at the socio-historical context in which the "PC" debate started. In chapter III, my attention will focus on a range of linguistic aspects of the "war of the words". I will show how the use of the term "PC" is already a rhetorical strategy and how the term has undergone historical changes of meaning. The aim of the linguistic part will also be to find out about the effectiveness of what I will call linguistic politics. In the debate on "PC", certain new expressions have been coined to serve specific political purposes. The question of the relationship between language and reality will be discussed: Can anybody talk of a "correct" and an "incorrect" use of language? In chapter IV, I will look at two newspapers to find out about the empirical occurence of certain terms. Did the new terms become part of the vocabulary journalists use every day?

Fortunately, a number of useful books and articles have been written on "Political Correctness" since the debate first started. The most important work on the linguistic side of the "PC" phenomenon is Deborah Cameron's Verbal Hygiene.2

I hope my essay will help to illuminate disregarded aspects of the "PC" debate.

II. Sociological aspects of the debate on PC

A) What is "Political Correctness"?

In 1991, a new phrase began to be heard across America. The term "Political Correctness", PC for short, made its appearance in newspapers, magazines, television shows, books and increasingly in speeches by well-known politicians.

Articles and broadcasts warned against a threat to American universities and to the very idea of liberal education. The villains were feminists, multiculturalists and "tenured radicals" who seemed to have taken control of the universities, censored conservatives, politicized curricula and imposed a new "McCarthyism of the Left" on higher education.

"Political Correctness" became the rallying cry of the conservative critics at the universities. This expression had the advantage that a variety of groups with "leftist" agendas - groups that stood for multiculturalism, affirmative action, speech codes, feminism, gay and lesbian rights - could be united into a single conspiracy by the conservatives.3 The latter saw themselves as the defenders of Western Culture, universal truths and free speech.

The conservatives were successful in establishing "PC" as a term with extremely negative connotations.

Many Americans would now link the phrase to a "repressive agenda" set forth by "tenured radicals".4 John Wilson recalls from his own college experience that

"whenever conservatives were criticised or a leftist expressed extreme ideas, the story quick became another anecdote of political correctness. But whenever someone on the Left was censored - often with the approval of the same conservatives who complained about the PC police - nobody called it political correctness (...)"5

Furthermore, the "PC scare" attracted far more media attention than racist or homophobic attacks on campuses and more attention than what Wilson calls "fiscal correctness" - the wave of cutbacks in state funding of higher education, the increase in college tuition and the consequent limited access to education for poorer students.

B) Symbolic politics

Arguments about university curricula, speech codes and minority rights are much older than the controversy over "PC", but the use of the new term must be regarded to have marked a different stage in the so-called culture wars in America.

One of the peculiarities of the debate on "PC" is that the parties involved do not even agree that what they argue about is proberly labelled "Political Correctness".6 The use of this term is already part of a rhetorical strategy.7 It also provides an excellent example of linguistic politics in action.

Linguistic and symbolic politics have gained importance in ideological confrontations since the 1960s. Both radicals and conservatives treat words and images as useful material in the struggle for social change. In a society where our chief agenda-setters are the mass media, it is important to gain media coverage in addition to the more traditional politics of workplace and neighbourhood organizing.8 The new politics of image, spectacle and performance depend on being covered by the media, of which television must be regarded as the most influential. Television and other media have become an integral part of daily interaction, communication and socializing, providing education, information and entertainment.9

C) Use of anecdotes and the need for empirical research

Anecdotes have played an important part in establishing a certain picture of what originally were political disagreements on campus. Dinesh d'Souza, Rush Limbaugh and other protagonists of the anti-pc right10 have transformed real-life events of campus life into anecdotes, often leaving out important aspects. To take just one example: In 1988, Jesse Jackson was reported to have led a group of protesting students at Stanford University who chanted "Hey, hey, ho ho, Western culture has got to go". Conservative critics11 have repeatedly used this anecdote to warn against the decline of Western civilization as supposedly demanded by Jackson and the students.

The truth is that Jackson never chanted anything and the students who did the chanting were not attacking the Western Culture in general but the Stanford class called "Western Culture". They wanted that class replaced with a class that would permit non-Western texts to be presented alongside traditional Western texts.

"Like the myth of the chanting reverend, the attacks on Stanford's curriculum reform and on multiculturalism across the country are based on imagined conspiracies and inaccurate information."12

In his book The Myth of Political Correctness John Wilson discloses that many of the anecdotes show little resemblance to what really happened. He explains how by force of repetition, the anecdotes have been woven into the tale of a "victim's revolution" on campus by critics who were not really interested in finding out the truth. As an empirical study of the phantom of PC, his book is indispensible.

Many people in the US believe what they hear in the media: that there is a leftist "thought police", that "feminazis" threaten free speech on campus. But the real issue of the "PC" debate as part of the culture wars is who has got the power to influence the politics on campus. The issue is not to defend an assumed concept of "free" speech against censorship but to ask the question which kind of speech is legitimate or derogatory in a certain context. The question is who has got the power to speak13 and label and who is kept from speaking and labelling.

These are issues that are not only of interest to the groups concerned and cultural anthropologists, but also to discourse analysists.

III. Linguistic Problems related to the debate on "PC"

A) Use of the term "PC" as a rhetorical strategy

In 1991, a New York Magazine article by John Taylor inquired: "Are you politically correct?". Deborah Cameron points out how this seemingly straightforward yes/no question put people in a double bind who considered themselves as leftists who would subscribe to the ideals of multiculturalism and feminism:

"To say yes was to claim for yourself a definition constructed by conservatives for the express purpose of discrediting you; to say no was to place yourself among those conservatives.14

The question in the article depends on a false or contested proposition. It presupposes that there is a real- life entity "PC". Answering yes or no is to accept that there is such an entity. But one cannot contest the fact that {political correctness} is an item of the lexicon. The way the anti-PC right has managed to establish a particularly pejorative meaning to the term can be regarded as a triumph of the politics of (re)definition and linguistic intervention.

The discourse on "PC" emanates from sources explicitly opposed to it, while the people who are characterized as adherents to the "PC" movement deny that such a movement even exists. The phrase is a rhetorical stategy that serves to disqualify leftist criticism on a metalinguistic level:

If a conservative blames affirmative action for undermining the job perspectives of "bright white males"15 and is criticized for it by defenders of affirmative action, the conservative could answer that his/her opponent is just {politically correct}. This metalingusitic speech act functions in a way that a political argument is transformed into a problem of linguistic politics: Calling the criticism by the adherent to affirmative action {pc}, the conservative implies that his/her right of "free speech" is impedited. The conservative implies that he feels pestered or even threatened because he/she cannot even "speak his/her mind" any more.

The advantage of calling somebody {pc} becomes even more obvious when one looks at how successfully it was imported into German politics, even though the political agenda of leftist and pro-multiculturalism groups in Germany is quite different. Even though the term was introduced to German audiences as early as 199116, it rose to national attention as Steffen Heitmann ran as a candidate for the German presidency. In an interview with the S ü ddeutsche Zeitung 17, he openly argued against feminism and for a strong German national identity, and called for "family values". When he was criticized by feminists and leftists, his supporters used the trick of accusing those critics of "PC Terror": Heitmann, his supporters argued, was just a straightforward kind of guy who was new to politics and who should not be harrassed by a "politically correct" reading of his words. They made believe that criticizing Heitmann for his statements was out of all proportion if he had just innocently spoken his mind. They refused to argue against the content of the leftists' critique. By calling them "PC" Heitmann's supporters used the old trick of linguistic politics and pretended that Heitmann had just made a mistake of form.

"Als hätten Heitmann und Co. auch nur gegen willkürlich gesetzte Etikette verstoßen und nicht vielmehr Inhalte geäußert, die recht unabhängig von ihren Formulierungen Anstoß erregten."18

B) History of the term "PC"

But how did the term {political correctness} emerge? What was its history before it was taken up by conservatives in the late 1980s?

The term did indeed emerge from the counter-cultural movements of the left. It is difficult to find out what it first meant and how it was typically used: Linguistic corpus study has long had a bias to "mainstream" sources and to written language.19 These limitations are relevant if we want to determine the historical usage of a term that was practised in the spoken language of counter-cultural movements. Their speech and most of their writing has been non-mainstream and the habits of speech have been "in-group" - the groups did not have the goal to expose terms as {politically correct} to a wider constituency.

Some authors have still tried to uncover the hidden history of the term, which required the co-operation and the accurate recollection of people who were part of the counter-cultural left.

Roger Geiger notes that political correctness was "a sarcastic reference to adherence to the party line by American communists in the 1930s."20 Herbert Kohl first heard the term in the late 1940s in debates between socialists and members of the US Communist Party: "Politically correct" was "being used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyality to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics."21 According to Ruth Perry, the term can be traced back to the late 1960s and the Black Panther movement, who adopted the term from the English translation of Mao's Little Red Book. Perry says that "the phrase politically correct has always been double-edged" and "has long been our own term of self- criticism."22

Nearly all the authors who have engaged in this diachronic research agree on the fact that the term was used sarcastically among leftists to criticize themselves for taking radical doctrines to absurd extremes. The most common use was ironic.

It was always used in a tone mocking the pities of our own insular political counter-culture, as in "we could stop at McDonalds's down the road if your're hungry ... but it wouldn't be politically correct."23

It seems clear from various accounts that {politically correct} was used as an in-group marker and understood by insiders as a joke at their own expense. It was used to criticize the group's own tendency towards humourlessness and orthodox party lines, poking fun at the notion that anyone could be wholly "correct".24

Wilson points out that many conservatives overlook the self-critical origins of the phrase. Dinesh D'Souza writes that The term "political correctness" seems to have originated in the early part of this century, when it was employed by various species of Marxists to describe and enforce conformity to preferred ideological positions The revolutionary ideologues of that period were serious people, and there is no indication that they spoke of political correctness with any trace of irony or self-depravation.25

D'Souza projects his own ideas of the phantom "political correctness" on the past to reinforce his attacks on a leftist "thought police".

C) Language and linguistic politics of the anti-pc right.

In the enlightening foreword to Richard Feldstein's book Political Correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left, Theresa Brennan wonders why the Right's linguistic politics have been so successful in the United States.

She argues that elements of what she calls "the language of the Left" have been appropriated by the Right. She claims that the Left no longer has a recognizable language of its own to argue its case:

Words such as revolution, radical, liberation, freedom are now employed by the right. What we are witnessing is a co-optation of the language of change that has been the Left's hithero.26

The process of using certain "leftist" terms in a different context to pursue a conservative cause is a subtle attempt of language politics that Brennan calls redescription or paradiastole.

There could be the objection that it is true that the Right uses the language of change, but nobody truly believes that when conservatives speak of a "Republican Revolution", they mean a change in a real revolutionary sense including the redistribution of wealth etc.

This objection assumes that certain signifiers ({revolution}, {radical}) have real meanings. But according to theorists of the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, there is no such thing as a fixed meaning. Meaning is not determined by the tie between word and thing, or signifier and referent, but by the relation between signifiers.27

In the "Political Correctness" war, certain signifiers have been thoroughly detached from their referents in left-inspired struggles.28 Other signifiers used to have referents in the history of authoritarian systems and are now used to disrepute radicals and liberals. Brennan argues that this process of detachment of signifiers and referents was accelerated by the advent of television.

But how does redescription work?

Historical, affective meaning refers to the emotional connotations a word has accrued. (...) Over time, a signifier aquires the power to mobilize certain emotions. It does not lose that power until and unless another signifier becomes the site of investment for the same historical affective meaning.29

To state this point more clearly, I will briefly analyze a few expressions with regard to redescription.

1) Republican Revolution

For those who were proponents of radical change, the term {revolution} was meant to "stir blood" and inspire courage to overthrow the existing order. For those whose positions were threatened, the term was meant to produce apprehension and distaste.

When conservatives nowadays use the word in combination with {republican}, the name of the conservative party in the U.S., they try to use the affective meaning that {revolution} has traditionally carried. Conservatives want welfare cutbacks, the rise of authoritarianism and other points of their agenda to be regarded as true "radical" changes in society. They want to create the impression that these changes have to be drastic, need courage and will finally create a new and better society. Nevertheless, these "changes" are traditional conservative goals meant to preserve or strenghten the existing power structure.

2) Male white victim (of affirmative action)

In the emancipatory rhetoric of this century, the term {victim} has carried an important affective meaning. Groups that have suffered from a history of oppression as women, Afro-Americans, Native Americans or homosexuals have claimed the status of victims for themselves. This meant that they were hurt or discriminated against because of economic reasons or because they could not fulfill a certain norm that was set by the dominant male/caucasian/heterosexual majority. {victim} also implies the notion that the respective groups or individuals do not have the power to change their status actively and out of free will, but are bound to their positions by existing norms.

In the debate about "PC", conservatives have created a myth of reverse discrimination.30 If white males apply the term {victim} to themselves, its traditional affective meaning is divorced from the signifier. The goal is to create an image of a white male who has to suffer from discrimination and oppression because he cannot fulfill a certain norm. This is obviously far from the truth: if we take all empirical findings into account, there is no evidence that white males as a group really have to suffer from the effects of affirmative action.31

3) Feminist Thought Police and Feminazi {thought police} is a term quite frequently used in articles and books against the phantom of "Political Correctness". It derives from totalitarian dystopias as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. The

"Thought Police" is a device of real or imaginary totalitarian states to control their subjects not only on the level of actions but also on the level of ideas and thoughts that could threaten the existing order. {thought police} further implies that it is a powerful force omnipresent with almost invisible influence - it can also control one's thoughts without the person realizing its effects.

{thought police} carries a thoroughly negative affective meaning, because thoughts are meant to be free and unimpeded according to popular belief. {feminist thought police} implies that there are women with extreme, possible "totalitarian" beliefs who seek control of people's ideas and thoughts in order to induce fears.

It would be interesting to obtain a psychoanalytical reading of this rhetoric strategy. We are probably witnessing a classic example of projection: People disown something in themselves and project it onto and into another. Men project their authoritarian tendencies onto feminists.

The use of the term {feminazi} serves a similar purpose as the one discussed above. The only difference is that the Nazis do not have a partly imaginary quality as {thought police}, but are a real-life historical entity. {nazi} carries a whole range of negative affects. The blend {feminazi} has the advantage that it is short and easy to use.32

D) The debate about speech codes

Speech codes have been the main villains in the great "PC" melodrama staged by conservatives. Judging from articles and books that attack speech codes, one would imagine that students live in terror of the "thought police", afraid to ever express a conservative opinion. Critics of speech codes claim that a wave of censorship has swept over campuses and that "free speech" is in great danger.

According to Wilson's empirical findings, there has never been a crisis of censorship on American campuses: There have been speech and behaviour codes since colleges were first founded.33 Disciplinary codes, however, can be found at virtually every college. It is quite ironic that the widespread older rules against disruption and lewd, indecent, and profane language, which are fare vaguer and more subject to abuse have not been subject to criticism while the more recent narrowly written provisions have been condemmed as "speech codes". Even the use of the term {speech code} could be contested:

No one really knows how many colleges have speech codes for the simple reason that no one has ever defined what a speech code is. If a speech code means that colleges have the authority to punish students for certain verbal expressions that are threatening or abusive, then every college has a speech code and has always had one.34

Although it is true that many of the new "speech codes" are badly written or badly enforced, they do serve to protect individuals or groups who want to express their opinions. When abusive or threatening speech is not restricted, marginalized groups hesitate to express their ideas for fear of retaliation. It is important to have means to penalize the use of "hate speech", like using the term "niggers" in addressing Afro-Americans or "faggot" for male homosexuals.

Stanley Fish contests the assumption that there is such a thing as "free speech". He claims that "free speech" could never be an independent value, but is always asserted against a background of some assumed concept of the good to which it must yield in the event of conflict.35 The First Amendment of the American constitution does obviously not protect actions that cause harm to others.

But when is an expression "just speech" and at what point can it be counted as "action"? First Amendment theorists argue that some forms of speech are not really speech but they are "fighting words" with a tendency to incite violence.36 Obviously, some words are provocative to one group and others to other groups. Every idea is a potential incitement to somebody.

Fish argues that the distinction between speech and action has always been effaced in principle, although in practice it can obtain any form the prevailing political conditions mandate: there has never been any normative guidance for marking off protected from unprotected speech.37 The existing guidance has been fashioned in political struggles.

If speech is to be regulated or not should be a local question. What does not help in the debate is to use phrases like "freedom of speech" or "the right to individual expression", because no class of utterances is separable from the world of conduct. Speech always matters.

Because everything we say impinges on the world in ways indistinguishable from the effects of physical action, we must take responsiblility for our verbal performances and not assume they are being taken care of by a clause of the Constitution.38

E) The relationship between language and "reality"

One of the basic questions in the debate about "political correctness" is about the relationship between the categories "language" and "reality". Does language shape reality? Does verbal hygiene 39 change reality?

"When I use a word", Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more or less."

"The question is", said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is", said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

The discourse between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Behind the Looking-Glass has at its core a central problem of linguistics. The extract quoted above has been interpreted in different ways by linguists. Can Humpty Dumpty really decree the meaning of his words? Or do signifiers carry meanings which are independent of the intention of the individual speaker? Are both of these assumptions incorrect? Who is to be master, Humpty Dumpty, Alice or the language itself?

I want to discuss three different positions on this problem.

1) The voluntaristic concept of language

The voluntaristic concept takes language to be a voluntary act performed by individual agents. According to this view, individuals bear the responsibility for the success of a linguistic act. In its crudest form, a voluntarist would believe that s/he has control over the language and the meaning-making process.40 This idea is still popular with part of the general populace41, although it was criticized as early as in Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique g é n é rale. Saussure states that the connection between signifier and referent cannot be made by the individual speaker. He takes the signifying connection between ideas and words to be independent of the speaker's will:

The language itself is not a function of the speaker. It is the product passively registered by the individual.42

Neither the speaker nor the hearer have any say in choosing which signifiant is to stand for which signifi é.

2) Language is the master: the institutionalist concept of language

Saussure's research has led to a concept of language that can be labelled "institutionalist"43. Language is seen as an institution which exists independently of the individuals who perform linguistic acts. Individual agents have no say in determining the features of that institution:

No individual is able, even if he wished, to modify in any way a choice already established in the language. Nor can the linguistic community exercise its authority to change even a single word. The community, as much as the individual, is bound to its language.44

The specific features of language can be studied in the field of descriptive linguistics. Taylor explains how from this perspective, descriptive metalinguistic practice is seen to be an empirical science, with truth - rather than political power - being its only authority.45 Language gains its normativity only by its inherent structure.

The signifiying connection between a word and its meaning is a historical reality. Since language is isolated from the will of individual agents, it is regarded to be the perfect vehicle of communication if only the speakers stick to the rules.

To take the argument a little bit further, one could believe that the burden of linguistic responsibility is lifted off the individual's shoulders. To use Saussure's words: "the sign eludes control by the will, whether of individual or of society: that is its essential nature"46. This implies that if language disadvantages women, it's just too bad! Nothing can be done and no one is to blame.

According to Deborah Cameron, present-day apologists of the institutionalist concept can be found among them the conservative subspecies of verbal hygiene activists: There is a notion of defending a certain linguistic "correctness" and "accuracy". The conviction rules that there are right and wrong ways of performing what is called "speaking English".47 Taylor complains that linguists have paid too little attention to the high value members of a culture have placed on their linguistic practices. He argues that academic linguistics still have to come to terms with the fact that - from the perspective of the language user -, concepts of right and wrong are neccessary for an understanding of what language is.

3) Language as a normative practice: Linguistic agents exercise power within a certain context

Taylor and Cameron both argue for a third position on the concept of language. Taylor argues for the need to examine our ordinary practices of attributing shared knowledge and mutual understanding. He regards speaking a language as a normative practice with which we forge the conformity, regularity and multi- individuality of verbal interaction.48 Normativity of language is enforced by giving moral weight to a "proper" use: A certain maintenance of language is taught to children and other initiates into the community as the "right" things to do. Members of a community will hold each other responsible for the maintenance of the language norms.

We are in principle free as linguistic agents, but we live in social contexts which function to a large degree by restricting the free exercise of our voluntary actions. There is no structural determinism that would enable linguists to speak of a genuinly "correct" or "incorrect" use of language.

If we regularly exercise our freedom to call anything by whatever word we like or to combine words however we choose, we may well find ourselves "corrected", sanctioned, or even ostracised. We are free, but we are also held morally responsible for the public exercise of our freedom.49

Part of what linguistic politics stands for is holding people morally responsible for their linguistic performance. Viewing language as a normative practice is locating the individual acts of linguistic agents within the coercive moral context of everyday life.50

Taylor finds fault with academic linguistics, which in his opinion excludes the normative character of language from the cocoon of scientific autonomy. Academic linguistics thus prevents itself from connecting up with contemporary debates on the political issues of language; it has been unable to address the concern of verbal hygiene activists of different political origins, who regard language as a highly valued political and economic property.

How language-users make language significant is contingent: What matters in my choice of words in one context might not matter in another. Whether features of my speech act matter can be negotiated or even fought over, how language "matters" is dependent on context, persons and interaction.51 Connected to the contingency of linguistic form is the contingency of social norms. The norm that applies in a given speech situation is open to contextual determination.

The question who is to be master can be seen as a question about which norms we should stick to. If radicals charge that a certain term is, say, "racist", critics deny this on the ground that it was not their intention and accuse radicals of "reading things in". At other times, critics argue that words do have meanings independent of speakers' intentions and that "political correctness" perverts those time-honoured meanings. Cameron points out that the contest about who is to be master is a contest about the issue to decide which set of values will be affirmed symbolically in the language of public discorse.52 There is no neutral language; the so-called "PC warriors" argue that all words come with values attached, and that these are variable depending on who is speaking, in what context and within which structure of power. The truth someone speaks may be relative to the power they hold.

Radicals have politicised al terms, and it is exactly the politicising of people's words against their will that conservative critics have found so objectionable.53

They (conservative critics, P.S.) are genuinly bewildered that women or members of minority groups persist in reading bizarre connotations into perfectly innocent words whose meaning should surely be transparent to anyone, since they are simple facts of language. To which women, etc. are likely to retort: "On the contrary, they are arte facts of your historical power to define words for everyone."54

No single constituency can control the meaning-making process, but some people have more influence than others in determining which terms will have more circulation and credibility in a given context than others.55 Conservatives might dream of a "common language", but this idea is quite totalizing:

If people do not speak from the same position (as surely must be in a society whose population is culturally diverse and/or hierarchically organized), any attempt to place their utterances in a "common" frame of reference is likely to entail making one group's frame - in practice, that of the dominant group - the norm of intelligibility. This is "totalizing and imperialist"56 because it casts all experience in the verbal image of the dominant group's experience.57

No one has the inalienable right to prescribe language. No one owns it. Changing language is a form of social intervention. The categories "language" and "reality" cannot be wholly separated, since language is - as a social practice - a part of "reality": if language changes, reality changes. Verbal Hygiene is not trivial. If feminists argue against the use of certain terms in specific circumstances, they find offence not in words but in acts: a word is not inherently offensive, but it becomes problematic in particular, contextualized acts of language use. Feminists and others do what could be called the breaking of the linguistic contract. They believe that the status quo of social norms is not inevitable. Feminists and others force people to become aware of power structures in which speakers and hearers operate.

IV. The effectiveness of conservative word coinage

In part C) of chapter III, the conservative practice of redescription has been discussed. I have also pointed out how certain new phrases have been coined to put radicals and liberals into disrepute. Among them are {thought police}, {feminazi}, {fascism of the left} and {McCarthyism of the left}. But are these new phrases really employed in everyday discourse? Or do they remain propagandist instruments of the Right who fail to win "popular support"?

I have taken a closer look at issues of two newspapers58 in the period between January 1991 and December 199359 to find out how often and in which context the terms were used by journalists.

A) Thought Police

In the liberal, left-of-center daily newspaper Guardian, I found many instances of the use of the term {thought police} in the period mentioned above. In 1991, the term can be detected in 4 different articles. It was used in 12 articles in 1992 and in 11 articles in 1993.

This proves a high frequency of use among journalists. But how was the term used? When I took a closer look at the 12 articles that were published in 1992, I found out that the term was used in different contexts, and not always with the meaning the conservatives wanted to attach to it.

In two cases60 the term was used disrespectfully of the "PC warriors" in the United States context, in two other cases it was used against the "ecologically conscious" - the {green thought police}61 who want to "force" people to separate their garbage.

The most frequent use seems to be in reviews about TV programmes and the media in general: In four instances {thought police} was used to criticize censorship in public broadcasting. In two other cases, certain official practices of the church were associated with the term; in one article there was the issue of the IMF "thought police", who force economic programs on Russia. In one instance, the term was used in the "old" context - in a review about a book on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four.

Although a quite frequent use of the term can be detected, there is no proof that conservatives have been successful in establishing {thought police} as an expression that would only be associated with feminists, multiculturalists and leftists.

2) McCarthyism

The term {McCarthyism} has also had a frequent use in the 3 years from January 1991 onwards. In the Guardian, it can be detected in 2 articles in 1991, in 7 articles in 1992 and in 16 articles in 1993. In the issues of the Miami Herald from January to December 1992, it can be detected in 17 articles. As I reviewed the single cases of occurance in the Miami Herald, in 6 cases it was used in articles about the "genuine" McCarthyism of the 1950s. In the 11 other instances, it was used in different contexts, being applied to conservative, liberal and radical politics.

Of the 16 times {McCarthyism} could be detected in the Guardian in 1993, in 11 articles the term was used in the "genuine" sense. In 5 articles, the term was applied to different political beliefs. There was no occurance of {McCarthyism of the Left}, though.62

3) Feminazi

{feminazi} has been used far less than the other terms in articles in either paper. In the examined time period, it was only used in 2 instances in the Guardian (occurrence: 1991: none; 1992: one, 1993: one) and in 2 articles in the 1992 issues of the Miami Herald.

In neither instance was it used derogatorily against feminists. The Guardian articles mention the use of the term against Hillary Clinton and another prominent female American - but the use of the term is criticized by Guardian journalists.

The Miami Herald uses the term in reports on anti-abortionist "pro life" activists who follow a conservative, anti-feminist agenda. These activists are reported to use the term {feminazi}, but the journalists of the Miami Herald take up a distance to a usage that would be derogatory..

The terms {thought police} and {McCarthyism} were used with a comparatively high frequency by journalists, while {feminazi} was barely used. Another important aspect for my research is that neither of the terms appeared in the first 5 pages of the any issue of the papers. In the Guardian, most articles that included the terms could be found between page 16 and page 35. Many articles were in the section "Culture". Often they were reviews of books, other works of art or television programs.

After examining the two daily newspapers63, I cannot find any proof that conservative linguistic politics have been effective. Although there are some instances when the first two terms were used to attack liberal and leftist concerns like the protection of the environment, there are a majority of examples for other usages. This corresponds to other empirical investigations64 which suggest that linguistic militants have not succeeded in imposing their terminology on everyone.

V. Conclusion

I have pointed out how "Political Correctness" as we know it was invented by conservatives to serve their political agenda against multiculturalists, feminists and a variety of other "leftist" groups. The conservatives' strategy includes linguistic politics, part of which is labelling someone {politically correct}. The application of linguistic politics is not limited to conservatives, though. Different groups engage in verbal hygiene practices to change the way language is utilized.

I have argued for a concept of language as a normative practice. Linguistic agents live in social contexts that are highly normative. How language matters thus depends on the power structure the speech situation and the persons are situated in. Practicing verbal hygiene is not trivial: It holds people morally responsible for their linguistic performance.

Although the "PC" issue might seem out of date by 1998, it might be worthwhile to think about practicing a particular kind of linguistic politics on the "PC" issue: Maybe by now the stigmatized term "PC" has gained so much public attention that it can be turned against the conservative critics. As homosexual men have used the derogatory term {gay} to self-assuredly label themselves, progressive groups could choose labelling themselves "politically correct" to show that it is "correct" to hold people morally responsible for the way they use language. But there might even be better strategies to fight the "war" of symbolic politics.

VI. References

Annette, John: "The Culture War and the Politics of Higher Education in America", in: Sarah

Dunant (ed.): The War of the Words. The Political Correctness Debate. Virago, London 1994, 1- 14.

Aufderheide, Patricia (ed.): Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding. Graywolf Press, 1992.

Berman, Paul: Debating PC. The Controvercy over Political Correctness on College Campuses. Dell Publishing, New York 1992.

Brennan, Theresa: "Foreword" to Richard Feldstein: Political Correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997, ix-xix.

Cameron, Deborah: Feminism and Linguistic Theory. Macmillan, Houndsmill 1985.

Cameron, Deborah: "Demythologizing sociolinguistics: Why language does not reflect society", in: John E. Joseph and Talbot J. Taylor: Ideologies of Language. Routledge, London 1990, 79-93.

Cameron, Deborah: "Words, words, words. The Power of Language" in: Sarah Dunant (ed.): The War of the Words. The Political Correctness Debate. Virago, London 1994, 15-34.

Cameron, Deborah: Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, London 1995.

Collier, Peter and David Horowitz: "McCarthyism: The Last Refuge of the Left."Commentary 85, 1988, 36-41.

Diederichsen, Diedrich: Politische Korrekturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 1996.

Dunant, Sarah (ed.): The War of the Words. The Political Correctness Debate. Virago, London 1994.

Feldstein, Richard: Political Correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997.

Fish, Stanley: "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too", in: Paul

Berman: Debating PC. The Controvercy over Political Corectness on College Campuses. Dell Publishing, New York 1992, 231-245.

Frank, Karsta: "PC-Diskurs und neuer Antifeminismus in der Bundesrepublik", in: Das Argument, 213/1996, 25-38.

Frith, Simon: "Political correctness"Critical Quarterly 35:4 (1993), 41-54.

Roger Geiger: Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War II. Oxford Universitiy Press, New York 1993.

Hauser, Kornelia: "Die Kulturisierung der Politik. 'Anti-Political-Correctness' als Deutungskämpfe gegen den Feminismus.", in: ApuZ B21-22 (1996), 15-21.

Isermann, Maurice: "Travels with Dinesh"Tikkun 5/6/1991, 81-84.

Kohl, Herbert: "The Political Correct Bypass: Multiculturalism and the Public Schools". Social Policy, Summer 1991.

Lampert, Günther: "Political Correctness und die sprachliche K onstruktion der Wirklichkeit: Eine Skizze", Amerikastudien (Amst) 40:2 (1995), 247-257.

Losey, Kay M. and Hermann Kurthen: "The Rhetoric of 'Political Correctness' in the U.S. Media", Amerikastudien (Amst) 40:2 (1995), 227-245.

Perry, Ruth: "A Short History of the Term Politically Correct", in: Particia Aufderheide (ed.): Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding. Graywolf Press, 1992, 74-84.

Saussure, F. de: Cours de linguistique g é n é rale. English translation by R. Harris. Duckworth, London 21922.

Schenz, Viola: Political Correctness. Eine Bewegung erobert Amerika. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1994.

Schiffrin, Deborah: Approaches to Discourse. Blackwell, Oxford 1994.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty: The Post-Colonial Critic. Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Edited by Sarah Harasym. Routledge, New York 1990.

Steiner, Wilfried (Hg.): Zensur oder freiwillige Selbstkontrolle? Vom Tabubruch zur politischen Korrektheit. Konkret, Hamburg 1997.

Taylor, Talbot J.: "Which is to be master? The institutionalization of authority in the science of language", in: John E. Joseph and T.J. Taylor: Ideologies of language. Routledge, London 1990, 9- 26.

Taylor, Talbot J.: Theorizing Language. Analysis, normativity, rhetoric, history. Pergamon, New York 1997.

Wilson, John K.: The Myth of Political Correctness. The Conservative Attack on higher education. Duke University Press, Durham 1995.

VII. Appendix

Anderson, Martin: Impostors in the Temple. Simon & Schuster, New York 1992.

Bloom, Allan: The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster, New York 1987.

D'Souza, Dinesh: Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. Vintage, New York 1992.

Hughes, Robert: Culture of Complaint. The Fraying of America. Oxford University Press, New York 1993.

Kimball, Roger: Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. Harper & Row, New York 1990.

Limbaugh, Rush: See, I Told You So. Simon & Schuster, New York 1993.

Sykes, Charles: A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character. St. Martin's Press, New York 1992

Sykes, Charles: ProfScam. Professors and the Demise of Higher Education. St. Martin's Press, New York 1988.

Taylor, John: "Are You Politically Correct?", New York 1/21/1991, 32-40.

Thibodaux, David: Political Correctness. The Cloning of the American Mind. Huntington House, Lafayette 1992.

Will, George F.: "Radical English", in: Paul Berman: Debating PC. The Controvercy over Political Correctness on College Campuses. Dell Publishing, New York 1992.


1 Sarah Dunant (ed.): The War of the Words. The Political Correctness Debate. Virago, London 1994.

2 Deborah Cameron: Verbal Hygiene. Routledge, London 1995.

3 John K. Wilson: The Myth of Political Correctness. The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. Duke University Press, Durham 1995, 1.

4 Richard Feldstein: Political Correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997, 1.

5 Cf. Wilson: Myth, xv.

6 Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 122.

7 The strategy will be explained in Chapter III. For now, I choose to put PC in inverted commas.

8 Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 141.

9 Kay M. Losey and Hermann Kurthen: "The Rhetoric of 'Political Correctness' in the U.S. Media", Amerikastudien (Amst) 40:2 (1995), 227-245; 229.

10 See Appendix for a list of anti-pc authors and publications.

11 Among them the Republican Education Secretary William Bennett and National Alliance of Scholars founder Herbert London. See Wilson: Myth, 64.

12 Cf. Wilson: Myth, 64.

13 Which includes the power (and failure) to attract media coverage for their issues.

14 Cf. Deborah Cameron: "Words, words, words. The Power of Language" in: Sarah Dunant (ed.): The War of the Words. The Political Correctness Debate. Virago, London 1994, 15-34; 15-17.

15 Chapter on "The Myth of Reverse Discrimination" in Wilson: Myth, 136-157. This example 137.

16 See Diedrich Diederichsen: Politische Korrekturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 1996, 105-107.

17 Interview in the issue from 9/18/1993.

18 Cf. Diedrichsen: Korrekturen, 106.

19 Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 126.

20 Cf. Roger Geiger: Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War II. Oxford Universitiy Press, New York 1993, 330.

21 Cf. Herbert Kohl: "The Political Correct Bypass: Multiculturalism and the Public Schools". Social Policy, Summer 1991, 33.

22 Cf. Ruth Perry: "A Short History of the Term Politically Correct", in: Particia Aufderheide (ed.): Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding. Graywolf Press, 1992, 77.

23 Cf. Maurice Issermann: "Travels with Dinesh"Tikkun 5/6/1991, 82.

24 Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, p. 127. See Feldstein: PC, 6.

25 Cf. Dinesh D'Souza: Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. Vintage, New York 1992, xiv.

26 Cf. Theresa Brennan: "Foreword" to Richard Feldstein: Political Correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997, xiii.

27 This point will be discussed more thoroughly in part E) of this chapter.

28 See also Günther Lampert: "Political Correctness und die sprachliche Konstruktion der Wirklichkeit: Eine Skizze", Amerikastudien (Amst) 40:2 (1995), 247-257; 253.

29 Cf. Brennan in Feldstein, xv.

30 Wilson: Myth, 136ff.

31 Ibid., 156f.

32 Other terms that are employed to degradate liberal forces using old affective meanings are {McCarthyism of the Left} (Collier/Horowitz) and {fascism of the Left}(Camille Paglia). They are not discussed thoroughly because of their structural resemblance to {feminist thought police}.

33 Wilson: Myth, 91.

34 Cf. Wilson: Myth, 92.

35 See Stanley Fish: "There's No Such Thing as Free Speech and It's a Good Thing, Too", in: Paul Berman: Debating PC. The Controvercy over Political Corectness on College Campuses. Dell Publishing, New York 1992, 231-245; 233.

36 Ibid, 236.

37 Ibid.

38 Cf. ibid, 245.

39 A term used by Deborah Cameron. In this context, verbal hygiene could be defined as the action of questioning certain ways in which language is used and the effort to engage in language change.

40 Talbot J. Taylor: "Which is to be master? The institutionalization of authority in the science of language", in: John E. Joseph and T.J. Taylor: Ideologies of language. Routledge, London 1990, 9-26; 9f. Also see Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 120f.

41 Actually, the idea is not as simplistic as might seem from today's perspective. The liberal philosopher John Locke subscribed to the voluntarist concept of language, opposing a position which rests on a dogmatic trust in external forces like God or Nature, believing instead in the individual's linguistic freedom. See Talbot J. Taylor: Theorizing Language. Analysis, normativity, rhetoric, history. Pergamon, New York 1997, 127.

42 Cf. Ferdinand de Saussure: Cours de linguistique g é n é rale. English translation by R. Harris. Duckworth, London 21922, 30.

43 This label is taken from Taylor in Joseph/Taylor: Ideologies, 10.

44 Cf. Saussure: Course, 104.

45 Taylor in Joseph/Taylor: Ideologies, 10.

46 Cf. Saussure: Cours e, 34. See Taylor: Theorizing language, 146.

47 This is linguistic politics that is not exclusively exercised by conservatives. Many liberal verbal hygiene activists work on a philosophy of equal opportunity: Language is seen as a "mirror of nature", designating things in the world rather than symbolizing values. For them, using generic masculine pronouns is acceptable in connection with groups that are made up exclusively of men, e.g. {he} for "the airline pilot". They would also subscribe to the use of "firefighters" instead of "firemen", but only when the fire brigade start to employ women. From this "sensitivity" point of view, the use of non-sexist language does not serve to challenge androcentric linguistic representation but merely serves to avoid offending women. Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 132-139.

48 Taylor: Theorizing Language, 154.

49 Cf. ibid, 155.

50 Ibid, 156.

51 Ibid, 162. See Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 159.

52 Ibid, 121.

53 Cameron in Dunant: War of the Words, 32.

54 Cf. ibid, 32.

55 The mass media play an important role in the circulation of terms. See Losey: Rhetoric of "Political Correctness", 241-245.

56 Cameron takes these terms from Donna Haraway.

57 Cf. Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, 161.

58 The Guardian and the Miami Herald.

59 I chose this period because it marks the time after "PC" first entered the headlines in Britain.

60 Article by Hugh Hebert from 3/30/1992, 34 and article by Anne Karpf from 9/24/1992, 34.

61 Article by Toby Young from 8/14/1992, 27.

62 {McCarthyism of the left} does not occur in any issue of the Guardian in the period 1991-1993. Neither is there any occurrence of the combination of the terms {fascism} and {left}. "Leftist fascism" or "fascism of the left" seem to remain the semantic property of a small number of conservative "PC" bashers.

63 This research obviously cannot claim to rely on a broad base of empirical data, but it serves to acquire a exemplary impression on the usage of the mentioned terms .

64 Mentioned by Cameron in Dunant: War of the Words, 31.


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Linguistic Political Correctness From Victorian English Prof Christian Mair




Titel: Linguistic politics and language usage in the debate on "Political Correctness"