Final Word

Political correctness – an elusive target

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Is political correctness an instrument to protect the dignity of groups of people or an instrument of censorship that impinge of people’s right to freedom of speech?

A closer look at this question quickly reveals that the content of the term is very elusive, depending on the context, society, epoch, political- and or religious environment, and endless other circumstances and factors under which it is raised. In short, to formulate a single definition for the term is just about impossible.

Anything you say, wear (or not wear) eat (or not eat), and do or (don’t do), that can offend others if they hear or become aware of it, could be regarded as politically incorrect.

One only must think of how many words, and expressions have become taboo as politically non-correct, and could even become the subject of litigation, in the public environment in South Africa over the last three decades, to realise to what an extent the perception of political correctness, and non-correctness can change over time.

First recorded

Interestingly the first known recorded instance of the use of the term politically incorrect can be found as a legal term in a 1793 court case in the United States Supreme Court – in the judgment on a political lawsuit, “Chisholm v. Georgia."

A quote from the time reads: “The states, rather than the people, for whose sake the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention... Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language... ‘The United States’, instead of the ‘People of the United States’, is the toast given. This is not politically correct."

We find it again in another American record in the global politically highly charged environment at the end of World War II. It came in an exchange of telegrams between then president Harry Truman and general Douglas MacArthur the day before the signing of the Surrender Agreement with Japan on September 2, 1945.

It also gives us a definition, of sorts, of political correctness, which is probably shared by many to this day, but definitely not by all. It also reveals that already then one had to be careful to be politically correct when the media is involved. 

It starts off with a telegram by MacArthur to Truman, which read: “Tomorrow we meet with those yellow-bellied bastards and sign the Surrender Documents, any last-minute instructions?”

Truman replied: “Congratulations, job well done, but you must tone down your obvious dislike of the Japanese when discussing the terms of the surrender with the press, because some of your remarks are fundamentally not politically correct!

And, even to these high-ranking men the term was a mystery. MacArthur responded in a second telegram with: “Wilco Sir, but both Chester and I are somewhat confused, exactly what does the term politically correct mean?”

Truman, apparently frustrated himself by the impingement of “political correctness” on his freedom of expression, replied: “Political Correctness is a doctrine, recently fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and promoted by a sick mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a piece of shit by the clean end!”             

More history and definitions

Truman’s definition is, however, not the only one around, and rather illustrates that the content of the term, when used, can only be deciphered, or interpreted on a case-to-case basis depending on the context in which it is used.

The website The Phrase Finder, for instance gives the following definition: “Description of the practice of using speech that conforms to liberal or radical opinion by avoiding language which might cause offence to or disadvantage social minorities.”

However, The Phrase Finder immediately accedes that it is not as straightforward as just that by adding: “…it is difficult to discuss the meaning and origin of the term 'politically correct' whilst avoiding expressing political opinion.”

The site claims that the use of the term intensified during the 1970s on the back of the then feminist and left-wing movements in the US, from where it spread to the rest of the industrialised world.  

How the term had spread it wings from the purely formal political sense, as in the 1793 quote by the 1970s, is illustrated by a quote from the book The Black Woman of 1970: “A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too."

Final word

And sometimes, what is “politically correct,” can be judged or change over quite a short time, depending on contemporary events.

Last week, the African National Congress’ chief parliamentary whip, Jackson Mthembu, said electing Mr Jacob Zuma as leader of the party and president of the country was a “terrible error of judgement.”

In four weeks’ time, when the ANC’s elective conference is behind us, we will know if Thembu’s statement was politically correct or not.

To tell us what you think, click HERE

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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