The Baaing Black Sheep has been put on the endangered species list, the Kookaburra sitting in the old gum tree no longer lives a gay life, and Humpty Dumpty now makes a miraculous recovery after falling off the wall.
It’s 2018 and it’s political correctness – a trend sweeping across the globe and changing much more than just our favourite childhood nursery rhymes. But is it for better or worse?
Political correctness is the label given to the genre of speech aimed at removing discriminatory and prejudicial language and replacing it with more inclusive, inoffensive terminology. The movement has made its mark in the areas of gender diversity, multiculturalism, and religion, and is about using words that make society feel like one, big, happy family, while censoring those that alienate our fellow brothers and sisters.
But political correctness has divided society like coriander divides foodies. For some it’s a pedantic lefty movement fencing off our free speech, and for others, it’s a necessary protection of those human rights more basic than Domino’s on Origin night.
So is political correctness a problem, or just progressive?
Political Correctness Protesters
Those who give political correctness the thumbs down are driven by the argument that it oversteps its mark, eating away at our right to free speech and restricting the liberal democratic ideals Australian society is founded on. They say that the norms created in a politically correct world stifle open debate on issues such as racism and sexism and constitute a menace to society by imposing ‘groupthink’. To them, political correctness is the ‘thought police.’
A recent example is the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services initiative making the first Wednesday of each month ‘They Day.’ The Department’s 10,000 staff have been urged to avoid gendered language, and instead refer to each other using neutral pronouns such as ‘they’ or ‘them.’ Federal Ministers slammed the idea as ‘political correctness gone mad’.
Critics also argue that the move towards a politically correct society is generating an air of caution, where people feel that they have to walk on eggshells when engaging in conversation, and tiptoe around certain issues. The fear is that we’ll adopt one type of euphemistic language in public forums, and return to our usual speak in private spaces. So we’ll all start living double lives, Mrs Doubtfire style.
The problem with this is that it leads to superficial replacements of words that don’t actually match up with the speaker’s true attitude. The words we use as substitutes will eventually be tarred with the same brush as the originals, meaning the negative connotations we’ve always applied to them will transfer over. So if our words change, but our attitudes don’t, is there really any point?
Political Correctness Proponents
Supporters of political correctness believe that the trend isn’t merely a bit of red tape, because changing our words has the power to change our actions. For example, if we use the word ‘police officer’ instead of ‘policeman,’ a shift in values will occur where the occupation becomes less synonymous with males, and more open and accessible to females. The idea is that by paying attention to words that exclude individuals or entire groups, our behaviour too will fall into line.
And while critics of political correctness claim that it tears at the fabric of our democratic values, there’s an argument to suggest it actually protects them. Political correctness disrupts the white male privilege so deeply entrenched in society, which has silenced the voices of others for a long time totally undemocratically. By helping minority groups feel comfortable enough to present their views, political correctness actually contributes to our democracy.
Fans of this line of thought also think that political correctness increases the possibilities for cross-cultural and mixed gender interaction, and allows people to make themselves vulnerable to others’ judgement in the workplace so they can more effectively perform their jobs. By remaining sensitive to the way others feel, there’s more opportunity to learn from fellow employees from different cultures or genders, unconstrained by difference.
So maybe political correctness has gone mad, or maybe the world has.
Either way, it’s not slowing down.
So which childhood favourite will be next to receive the political correctness treatment? Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Itsy Bitsy Spider?