This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and explores how political correctness has influenced language. It’s an interesting topic and one I find pertinent, since language is always evolving and the words we use to identify groups or individuals affect our collective views on these groups or individuals.
As our culture strives to become more tolerant and accepting, society tries to avoid using labels that have negative connotations associated with them. This is a good thing and a step in the right direction, in my opinion. But Eco points out something that is worth considering. He claims that by changing the labels that we use to identify people, we are essentially creating a loophole that allows society to skirt the real social issues that need addressing.
The point here is that politically correct decisions can represent a way of avoiding unresolved social problems, disguising them with a more polite use of language. If we stop calling people in wheelchairs handicapped or even disabled (they are differently abled) but fail to build them access ramps to public areas, we have clearly—and hypocritically—got rid of the word but not the problem. The same may be said of the replacement of unemployed with involuntarily leisured.
(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 90 – 91)
Eco also points out another issue with political correctness, that some people see it as an infringement on free speech. This is a can of worms and I am going to stay out of this argument, but I felt it was worth including just as something to think about.
… from the start PC caused a violent reaction in conservative circles, who see it as a case of left-wing bigotry and a curtailment of free speech. Reference is often made to Orwell’s newspeak and (sometimes directly) to the official language of Stalinism. Many of these responses are equally bigoted, and in fact there is a right-wing form of PC, just as intolerant as the left-wing brand. Think of the abuse hurled against those who talk of the Iraqi “resistance.”
(ibid: p. 94)
Eco closes his essay by asserting that we should all strive to avoid using words that make others uncomfortable or cause others to suffer.
And let us stick to the fundamental principle that it is humane and civilized to eliminate from current usage all those words that make our fellow beings suffer.
(ibid: p. 96)