A student of mine once wrote: “In the USA they have political correctness; here, we prefer to have good manners.” I have nothing against good manners, quite the opposite. Equally, I agree that political correctness has sometimes been given a bad name, or even made to seem ridiculous1, by some of its more extreme supporters. Terms such as ‘vertically challenged’ (i.e. short), ‘non-human animal companion’ (a pet), or ‘feline2-American’ (a cat that lives in the USA) have been created to mock some of the more absurd ideas of political correctness that exist.
But I strongly believe that the basic idea of political correctness is an admirable one. Its origins go back to the 1960s, a decade of great idealism, and it started from the view that it is wrong that the world discriminates against certain groups of people and that language reflects this. The idea was that if we change language, it will help make the world fairer and reduce discrimination. And I hope that no reasonable person would object to that.
Discrimination takes many forms and victimises3 many groups: it can be based on gender4, age, skin colour, nationality, religion, sexuality, physical appearance; having a disability…. the list goes on. For reasons of space, in this article I will concentrate on just two: gender and skin colour. But that doesn’t mean the others aren’t equally important.
For most of human history most societies have treated most women as second-class citizens or worse. The rights to, for example, receive education, work, vote, and many more things have historically been enjoyed more fully, earlier, or even exclusively by men. Even now in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive, but on the other hand Islam gave women rights to own property hundreds of years before European countries did. Swiss women only got the vote in 1971, and in Europe and North America, women are still paid less than men for doing the same jobs. A recent survey in the UK showed that on average, women got 19% less than their male colleagues, while in the Czech Republic in January 2016, the figure was 22%.
And not only are women paid less; they are routinely charged more than men for similar things. Haircuts? Well, women’s hairstyles are very different. OK. But why should a child’s bicycle cost L49.99 if it is black with pirates’ skulls and crossbones, but L59.99 if it is in pink with flowers? And why should a packet of razors for men (coloured orange) be L1 and identical ones for women (coloured pink) L2? 2016 surveys in the UK and New York found hundreds of cases of this kind of thing.
The modern feminist movement began as a response to injustices like these. And one of the things they said was that our language reflects male dominance. Some examples: Why, they said, are all men ‘Mr’, while some women are ‘Miss’ and others ‘Mrs’ according to whether they are married? So the neutral term ‘Ms’, which is now almost universal, came into being. They also pointed out that terms such as ‘chairman’ or ‘headmaster’ were sexist and should be replaced, so that we now have ‘chair’ and ‘principal’ or ‘headteacher’ or just ‘head’ instead. This, I hope you will agree, is progress.
Let’s move on to racial prejudice. It takes many forms, from racist jokes, stereotyping, and insults, through the denial of human rights and legal discrimination, up to physical threats, violence, murder, and genocide. When I was growing up in the UK, it was considered OK to tell jokes about Jews or Irish people or Pakistanis; the jokes were even told on TV. Jokes like these are always told by the majority, and what is supposed to be funny is that minorities are always stereotyped as stupid, lazy, dishonest, parasitical, criminal, and so on. By the late 1980s such jokes were no longer acceptable, so I was shocked when I came to what was then Czechoslovakia and heard jokes about gypsies that expressed exactly the same stupid prejudices.
Are things better now? Fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable to have Barack Obama as the US president and Angela Merkel as the German chancellor. TV comedians in the UK no longer tell jokes about gay people or women drivers or ethnic minorities, and terms such as ‘faggot’ or ‘nigger’ have become very taboo indeed. So political correctness has helped to make the world a better place in at least some ways, but the statistics, for example, about women in the workplace or the daily lives of African-Americans, show that prejudice, unfairness, and discrimination are still far too common. So there is still plenty of room for improvement. And language, I believe, can help.
THINGS TO DO
Czech and Slovak have many more gender-specific features than English. What significance do you think that has, if any?
Have you personally had any experience of being discriminated against? What happened? How did you feel?
Find Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech on the internet, listen to it, and enjoy its beautiful language and ideas.
VOCABULARY: 1 komický, absurdný – komický, absurdní; 2 mačací – kočičí; 3 diskriminovať, prenasledovať – diskriminovat, pronásledovat; 4 pohlavie – pohlaví