To examine the character of our contentious public debate, let us list some of the recurrent and dominant terms we confront day by day. There are four I will conside: "politically correct" (or incorrect), "phobia", "hate speech" and "terror".

These terms drift across our everyday life on a seeming inexorable tide. We confront them as descriptions about events, about words that are used, about the dissent that arises as some or other issue hits the headlines. They are often part of comments directed at the comments of others. They are often used to stop further discussion. They often signal a desire to change the topic.

Speaker 

How does the language we use impact our public debates? PICTURE: Miguel Henriques/Unsplash 

Indeed the term “politically correct” functions as a label, and often, as a convenient shorthand; it is heard when someone’s view is dismissed without any further consideration: "That is but a politically correct view!"

Sometimes the phrase will be put forward to explain that there is neither the time nor the inclination for further comment. It will not be examined at length or in depth. The statement is an accusation suggesting this other view is merely an opinion. The irony is then is that this accusation can easily be turned back upon the one uttering it. After all, it is an opinion that the other view is but an opinion. 

"The term 'politically correct' functions as a label, and often, as a convenient shorthand; it is heard when someone’s view is dismissed without any further consideration: 'That is but a politically correct view!'"

But there is more. It is an accusation and it also functions as a signal. The accused opinion is identified with an ongoing superficiality, not as deep as the person making the signal deems to be appropriate. So it carries the view that true political dissent - dissent worthy of consideration - has avoided such superficiality, at least until now. True political dissent will not rely upon clichés floating on the surface. But then, the accusation, having signalled a dogmatic closure to further discussion demands that this superficiality remain superficial!

And so our examination of the meaning of this term may indeed lead us to a further irony. In this exercise we may have been preening ourselves, smug about the depth of our probing examination of the superficial use of terms. But then what about our own use of language? How deep are we really prepared to go? Our bemusement with these terms and their daily usage should drive us on to wisdom in our thoughts and in our speech. But are we truly prepared to be truly constructive about all our neighbours, about their welfare even in the conversations we share with them? If so, this means we examine the words we use, and not just pretend that these words are their terms alone. 

Try as we may, we cannot escape these terms that function as labels and signals in our conversation. So, without further ado, let’s examine the “politically correct” term to see what we can learn?

Politically: Sounds similar to polite, a term that previously was employed to describe the way inter-personal and private conversation should be conducted; but that was then, this is now, and now it seems there is great urgency to be on the right side of some or other public cause or movement. These days, joining the wrong cause or movement, is very impolite. It deserves “exclusion”.

Correct: As a verb, sounds very much like the term we use to describe the classroom of former times when the schoolmaster wielded a cruel cane to correct the mistakes in grammar or the times-table. Something is “correct” when a word is spelled as it should, when a statement provides true data.

Politically correct: The term is a signal about a view that can only pretend to be correct, and that is because its claim to be true relies upon political power for its legitimacy. Truth, presumably, is not found by superficial adherence (like “politically correct” views do) but by the more difficult, the deeper, approach, subjecting that which can only be saidto be true to open radical doubt. 

So, have we made progress? Have we begun to unscramble (even if only in a superficial way) recent appeals to “alternative truth” and “alternative facts”? By keeping in mind our recent political history we might also recall brave dissenters claiming to “speak truth to power”, making themselves sound like the Old Testament prophets. But to work out what is happening linguistically with the use of the term “politically correct” we will also have to use our discernment and come to some understanding about how these other terms have been part of our public debates; how they are used to give public comments an aura of seeming undeniable legitimacy.

However they may be used in any particular instance, such terms can be overused (that is, they become clichés). They can tell us something about the speaker and about ourselves and also about the background of our own efforts to speak meaningfully about politics. But how come this “politically correct” phrase, and its ambiguities, keeps on littering everyday political reflection, speech and debate? Can our reflection lead us on to grow wise about our language and the fashionable “twittered” terms that place “politically correct” or “incorrect” views in doubt?

"[T]o work out what is happening linguistically with the use of the term 'politically correct' we will also have to use our discernment and come to some understanding about how these other terms have been part of our public debates; how they are used to give public comments an aura of seeming undeniable legitimacy."

Next time we will examine the other three items in our list (phobia, hate speech, terror). In the meantime, let us conclude by reflecting upon Jesus’ admonition to us His disciples when He defined our discipleship: "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt loses its taste, how is its saltiness to be restored? It has become good for nothing, fit for throwing away and walked upon. You are also the light of the world...like a city set on a hill which cannot be hidden...a lamp put on a stand gives light to the entire house. Like that, you should let your light shine in people's lives, so they can see your good works and affirm splendour of your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5: 13-16).

Then we recall the advice of the converted terrorist, Paul, encouraging “tasty” speech among the Colossian Christians. They were not to avoid conversation but "the words of your conversation should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, as you get to know how to respond to anyone" (Colossians 4:6).

Reading these together, we remind ourselves of how we are called to a life in this world that has to be demonstrated so our neighbours, all of them, may get a taste of “the Father’s splendour". Our neighbours include all who are bent on using words to diagnose “phobias”, performing with words to pinpoint “hate”, as much as those who are under some hateful obligation to foment “terror”. 

In such a context of verbal confusion, our question is this: how should Jesus’ disciples speak?

This is part one of a two part series. Part two will be published soon.