“Political Correctness” – Language and Society

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For some years now, a whole diffuse series of social phenomena and practices have been operating under the vaguely defined collective term or keyword of “political correctness”, the core and common denominator of which is perhaps to be grasped in an effort to treat one another with as much respect as possible.

Language and culturally significant forms of expression, in particular, are often at the centre of disputes. If little can be criticised for the underlying foundation of values of these efforts – equality, freedom, humanity – the sober observer will be surprised at the vehement dynamics of polemics – both among “proponents” and “opponents” – which this debate has sparked off and at times the rigorous formation of camps.

The topic, not only in view of the repeatedly heard and already polemical question,“what is one still allowed to say?”, seems highly relevant, as the recent publication of the Austrian philosopher, Robert Pfaller (Adult Language: On its disappearance from politics and culture), and the strong reaction to it in the culture section prove. Last year, the Swiss Philosophical Stammtisch of SRF Kultur also devoted a special contribution to the possible “end of political correctness”.

In the following, we do not want to repeat the multitude of good arguments on both “sides” or examine them critically in detail, but try to extend the debate to include some fundamental structural clarifications as neutrally as possible in order to create a foundation from which understanding in individual cases will possibly be easier. This first part of my series on “political correctness” deals with the fundamental relationship between society and language.

There is no doubt now that social reality and practice, and the practice of their language and general “conventions of manifestation” more precisely, interact with each other.

From Nietzsche to Foucault to the recent past, these ways of speaking were mostly interpreted as manifestations of social power structures, which, ergo, had first to be made visible and possibly also to be broken up. That is, of course, an important point.

Basically, however, the (social) structures of a society manifest themselves in its language practices, just as these language manifestations have a retroactive effect on social realities in one way or another.

Language, like all conventions (literally from Latin “conventio”: “agreement”, “meeting”) and culture, arises from the living communication of the individuals involved and their explicit or mostly unexpressed negotiation about the conditions of this communication in general (“meta communication”).

We can imagine this quite simply and archetypically (i.e. originally): two people meet and find before them a “thing” for which they have no name – and after some toing and froing perhaps or communication problems, they even agree on a name, for example “bird”, which they will both further understand and use. A language convention has been created which enables them to communicate, but which, if it is socially connectible, can also be taken over by other participants in the language community, for example, for the first time in terms of function. As a result, and with each new agreement of the conventions of expression, this language is increasingly enriched over time, is modified if necessary, and becomes increasingly complex.

It is the case, of course, that once set linguistic agreements of the language community are now objectively confronted and initially “blindly” learned and “simply” used for communication, but they can also be modified again with changing social requirements and expectations of this stock of expressions.

We are obviously not born into a language vacuum (or cultural vacuum), in which we always have to negotiate everything anew, but rather always into an existing language system with its manifold meanings and historically enriched, often also judgmental, connotations of meaning (“co-meanings”) that has grown, so to speak, vividly organically over centuries through the communication of the language community.

And as we do with the person with whom we want to communicate, we are also in a living relationship with the language material already given to us – always with respect to the question of whether our way of expressing ourselves and our use of the language stock, like the language stock itself, are also appropriate. Accordingly, we can imagine a living reference triangle.

If we now understand how the historical development and also the cultural-historical alterations or the enrichment of different words and meanings lead to evaluations, we also understand the fundamental concern of a conscious and reflected handling of this language stock.

Thus, for example, the term negro, derived from the relatively neutral and seemingly harmless word negro, Latin for black, is usually inappropriate, if not even offensive or unacceptable, in our society today because of its historically inhuman enrichment of meaning.

At this juncture, we do not want to discuss the consequences of dealing with the language stock in detail, but first, create an understanding of the underlying dynamics behind it. It should have become abundantly clear how social structures and values also shape the use of language stock and enrich it with meanings over time, and that these meanings, like possibly also the language stock itself, must therefore always be negotiated anew and dynamically by the respective society: namely whether the respective types of expression are still relevant and appropriate.

However, it is equally clear, especially in the case of obviously disparaging forms of expression, that this language stock, this complex conglomeration of words and nuances of meanings, can also have a very positive psychological effect on the language community and its unconscious – and possibly also on social reality, on values and actions, and that, at least unconsciously and interpersonally (i.e. in the communication with each other), it can have an effect on the language community and its unconsciousness. Because one word can be understood completely differently.

Translation into English: Anna Dichen

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  1. […] the first part of my series on “Political Correctness” (“Political Correctness” – Language and Society), whose core we have generously brought to the formula of striving to treat each other as […]