Political Correctness: Why Language Matters

Carlton Boyce takes a look at why language matters, and why being politically correct is so important.

I posted something on Instagram recently. Posted in jest, I was careless with my use of language, something a friend of mine was quick to point out. You see, I’d used the word ‘prostitute’, and, as he correctly pointed out, I should have used the term ‘sex worker’. I have to admit that my first reaction was to defend myself; after all, I was referring to a woman who had lived and worked a hundred years ago, a period during which the term prostitute would have been perfectly acceptable, if not downright gentile. (If you doubt me, then just watch an episode of The Sweeney to see what sort of terms were used to describe sex workers only a few decades ago.)

Driving the length of Canada gave me an awful lot of time to think about what he’d said, and whether he was right. And if he was right, then I was, of course, wrong, which is something that is never easy to admit.

Political correctness is easy to rail against. But, in the same way that those who define themselves as blunt-speaking because they lack the compassion, intelligence, and eloquence to be anything but, being PC is not about what we think, but what others may think.

Take the use of the N-word to describe black people. While young black males will quite happily use the term to self-describe their ethnicity and culture, it is completely unacceptable for any other ethnic group to do so. This is something I experienced first-hand as a prison governor, when many members of staff argued long and hard that the term was acceptable for everyone to use because the black people in their care used it themselves.

Sometimes, this confusion led to innocent mistakes; one young nurse, new to working in a prison and possibly over-eager to show how approachable and friendly she was, called out to a line of black prisoners: “Which one of you (N-word) is next?”. She’s lucky that the chaps were understanding enough to point out that while they could use the term, she certainly couldn’t…

And language, and the names we attach to people, matter. It is more than 15 years since we were instructed to refer to prisoners as ‘Mr Johnson’ say, rather than just ‘Johnson’. While many members of staff had no problem calling a prisoner by his first name, they almost all refused to call them ‘Mr’, seeing the use of a title as bestowing a degree of respect that wasn’t appropriate. They dehumanised them by the use of surnames alone, sometimes citing their time in the army when they’d been addressed in the same way. That the purpose in both cases was the same was a distinction that eluded them.

Other terms became a battleground, too. The area manager chided a member of staff once for saying “I’m off to feed the prisoners.” In response, he was told that animals were fed, not people, to which he replied that if Jesus could feed 5,000, then he was sure he’d be able to feed 120. Funny, but hardly helpful in a climate such as the one we were working in.

So, while I think we can all agree (or we bloody well ought to be able to agree) that the N-word is unacceptable, things seem to become a little more blurred after that.

Interview: Brian Blessed

Take, for example, ethnicity. Back in the days when I was a copper in the Metropolitan Police, we’d refer to black people as IC3. This was a quick way of establishing part of the physical characteristics of the person we were looking for. The Prison Service later moved to use self-defined ethnicity, a more complex system that tripled the number of ethnic groups we had to slot someone into – and allowed them to self-define their own ethnicity.

All very noble and, frankly, something I supported – but what do you do when you’re chasing a prisoner along a wing and need to give a description out over the radio? Saying that someone is six-foot-tall, heavily built, wearing a prison uniform and having brown hair might be accurate, but being able to add their colour increases the odds of apprehending the wrong person significantly – and, just as importantly, slashes the odds of failing to apprehend the right one. Yet we weren’t allowed to use descriptors such as IC1 (white) or IC3 (black) for fear of causing offence.

In my opinion, this was ridiculous.

So, are physical descriptions okay? Even this is less clear-cut. I saw Warwick Davis recently and told a mate about it later. He’d never heard of him, something I found hard to believe. So, I gave a description, starting with the TV shows and films he’d been in. I started to describe him, but faltered; is it okay to describe someone by the most obvious physical characteristic they have? Or is it wrong to define them by only one such element of their character, personality, and life? I didn’t know.

Then there is the matter of gender and sex. I have no problem whatsoever in referring to a person’s gender if it is relevant, but too often we hear someone using terms like “she said” as a pejorative in itself. So, in the case of a fleeing villain, to mention that the person is male or female is appropriate and entirely defensible but to use terms like “a silly bitch” is clearly using the person’s gender as an insult; language, and history, are written by the winners and it’s interesting that there is no masculine alternative; to call a man “a bit of a dog” is almost a compliment.

And this duality is reflected in every level of society. Promiscuous men are ”a bit of a lad”, while a woman is a slut or a whore, and while men are quite right to point out the inequities we still suffer in family courts, women suffer disproportionally in the criminal justice system. While a woman is less likely to be arrested, charged with and convicted of an offence than a man, she faces much harsher penalties if she is found guilty. Criminologists posit that this is because society is expressing its disapproval of her failing to live up to the Western ideal of how we expect women to behave.

(Black men are, you won’t be surprised to learn, more likely than white men to be arrested, charged and convicted – and, of course, they are given harsher penalties too.)

Some men even struggle still with whether it is okay to compliment a woman on her appearance. Well, a simple test is to ask yourself whether you’d say the same thing to a male colleague. If you would, then it’s probably okay. If not, then just don’t do it.

Do The Locomotion

(Oh, and touching is never okay beyond shaking hands. I don’t care if you clap your mates on the back, just keep your hands to yourself.)

Yet even the male/female dynamic is a piece of cake compared to the issue of gender fluidity. Quite why so many people seem determined to continue to refer to the gender a person was assigned with at birth rather than the one they have chosen is beyond me; frankly, I’m not in the least bit interested in someone’s gender or sexuality. All I care about is are they kind, interesting, and, in the case of an interview with a view to employing them, capable of doing the job. Anything else is superfluous, and if their decision regarding which gender they feel most comfortable embracing offends you to the extent that you have to refer to them by a gender other than the one they prefer, then the problem is entirely yours.

But to navel-gaze to this degree is pointless. Because it doesn’t matter what I think. Or even what you think. The only people whose opinion matters is those who are affected by the language we use. So, if you’re happy to be called a ‘Brit’ then that’s fine; more power to you, but don’t use that as an excuse to call people whose ethnicity originated in Pakistan by the similar four-letter contraction because it is not the same: one is a contraction that has no racial connotations whatsoever, the other is a term of racial abuse and always has been.

Essentially, being politically correct is nothing more than good manners by another name. It’s about taking the time to think about what you’re saying – and sometimes thinking about the reasons why you need to say it in the first place. It’s about playing nicely with other people. Political correctness aside, if you say something offensive with the aim of deliberately hurting someone, then you are an asshole.

So, to return to my unthinking use of the term ‘prostitute’. Was I wrong? Yes, I think I was. Albeit used in a well-meaning way and in historical context, what was acceptable fifty or a hundred years ago is irrelevant because no-one objects to renaming the Agatha Christie novel to And Then There were None, do they?

My apologies then, to anyone who was offended by my careless use of an outdated job title. I was wrong, and my friend was right.

Or was he? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section on social media. Just keep it polite and respectful, okay?

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.