English Language

Political correctness – can language really be discriminatory?

Lisa Tran

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[Watch] John Cleese: Political Correctness Can Lead to an Orwellian Nightmare

At the start of 2016, John Cleese suggested that Political Correctness could lead to an Orwellian Nightmare, claiming that nowadays it appears as though any playful language with a hint of satire or criticism can be perceived as ‘un-PC’ and consequently labelled cruel, bigoted or discriminatory. Cleese correctly stated that Political Correctness once started out as a good idea that encouraged us not to be “mean to people who particularly were not able to look after themselves very well” (that is, not to undermine those who are already disenfranchised). Whilst it is clear that there are some bigots, racists and misogynists in Australian society who use language that perpetuate discriminatory biases, the issue arises as to whether language itself can really be discriminatory or that what is deemed PC is merely born out of increasingly sensitive interpretation.

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  1. Playful lexemes interpreted as offensive

In August last year, Eddie McGuire was thrust into the limelight after calling the Muslim Victorian Sports Minister, John Eren, a mussie. Many viewed this as an example of discriminatory language, arguing that it derogatorily represented an unsympathetic and disrespectful attitude towards Muslims. Despite this, others – including Eren – did not see this as offensive, and McGuire himself argued that it was only a ‘term of endearment’. Hence, when observing the lexeme linguistically, mussie can be described as an informal vocative created by the popular Australian morphological construction of adding the suffix –ie to proper nouns. Consequently, diminutive lexemes are produced and can be used playfully by interlocutors to build rapport and reduce the social distance.

A similar issue arose in October last year when a Xavier College student used the colloquialism ‘povo’ on Facebook when referring to public school students. Likewise, although povo may sound un-PC (and therefore ‘cruel), it can be said that it merely represents similar morphological constructions occurring when turning ‘muslim’ into mussie.

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Therefore, perhaps it is not the language itself that causes offence but more rather, playful language that is interpreted by some people as offensive.

  1. Derogatory lexemes used by ‘innocent’ people
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Nevertheless, it still is possible that language can be inherently discriminatory. During the Rogers Cup, tennis player Nick Kyrgios, said to his opponent, Stan Wawrinka, ‘Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that mate’. (The girlfriend referred to here was Croatian tennis player, Donna Vekic).  Kyrgios was not only criticised for his unsportsmanlike conduct, but also for being misogynistic and perpetuating sexism in men’s sport through use of the verb ‘banged’. According to sports and health expert, Joanne Mayoh, ‘Vekic was the invisible victim here’, and an apology should have been directed towards Vekic instead of Wawrinka. However, unlike mussie and povobanged is perhaps an example of language that is inherently misogynistic. This is because in this context, banged refers to sexual conduct but semantically with its violent connotations further suggest some violent sexual conduct against a woman. In this case, perhaps Kyrgios himself is not a misogynist and perhaps men’s sport is not sexist but more rather the word is fundamentally and linguistically offensive.

In discussing whether language can be inherently racist, there are two points of view. On one hand, language that is playful and reflective of a laid-back Australian culture and is not discriminatory could be used by people who do hold prejudiced views, thus generating the illusion of discriminatory language. On the other hand, language that is fundamentally discriminatory could potentially cause people who are not necessarily discriminatory be deemed as such. When linking this back to the issue of political correctness, therefore, what is seen as pc or un-pc depends on interpretation. Is it offence given not taken or offence taken not given?

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