Opinion Pieces

Political correctness; why language matters

Political correctness; why language matters

In December 2015, then US presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He went on to tell his cheering crowd that his statement was “very, very salient, very important and probably not politically correct”. Trump’s denouncing of the call for political correctness only seemed to encourage his cheering audience.  

It is a commonly heard complaint by conservatives; ‘Nowadays, you cannot say anything anymore. Whatever you say, someone will be offended by it.’ More and more people seem to be opposed to the pressure to be ‘politically correct’, meaning that they should stay away from language that can be seen as insulting as controversial. Over time, being called ‘politically correct’ has almost become a joke or an insult, especially used by conservatives to describe ‘sensitive millennials’ and liberals. Ironically, this term can now mean both politically wise, and hypersensitive and cowardice.

Why political correctness wasn’t an issue earlier

The term “political correctness’ was first heard in the 70s, and ever since it has seen opposition. Surely, those complaining have somewhat of a point. There was a time when you did not have to worry about whether or not you were being politically correct and you could just say whatever you want. That is, of course, if you belonged to the dominant and privileged group in society, as white men have been in Western countries for decades. Power and privilege allowed them to say and do what they wanted, without thinking considering impact of their words on other people in different situations and without ever being challenged on it. 

But times have changed, and powers have shifted. In Western societies, discriminated groups such as women, immigrants, LGBTI communities and racial minorities have gained the right to exist in public space and to voice opinions. While this progress has been slow and most groups still do not enjoy equal rights, some of the privileges of dominants groups has been chipped away at. This means that it is now taken more seriously when members of these groups say something and that it is no longer acceptable to say things that discriminate and denies others their fundamental rights. In short, intolerance towards others, such as misogyny, racism and bigotry is now much less acceptable. 

Why we need it now

While obvious forms of racism, misogyny and bigotry are virtually eradicated in Western societies, subtle and institutionalised forms are still very present. Part of the problem is that stereotypes and prejudice persist and spread through the messages that we hear, see and read. 

Being politically correct is important because the language that we use influences how we see the world, a concept called linguistic relativity. For instance, a study showed that English speakers were much more likely to remember who did something wrong (such as breaking eggs) in a video than Japanese speakers. This was caused by different directions of blame in the English and Japanese language. To illustrate, while English speakers would say that ‘John broke the vase’, a Japanese speaker would say that ‘the vase broke itself. In another study, Hebrew-speaking kids were aware of their own genders a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children. In Hebrew, gender markers are very much present, while Finnish does not mark gender at all. 

Knowing this, imagine what other everyday use of language does to our world image. When we call boys sissies for not matching gender stereotypes, we basically say that it is not okay to have a feminine side. And when we label things that we do not like as gay, we consciously or unconsciously make it look as if being gay is wrong. 

Especially when politically incorrect languages used by well-known figures, it has a big impact. When President Trump goes in front of national tv and announces that Muslims should be banned from entering the USA, this implies that Muslims are dangerous. Or when he says he likes to ‘grab women by the pussy’, it implies that it is okay to sexually assault women. If these messages are repeated often enough, these notions are instilled in the public’s mind, thereby contributing to the proliferation of racism, bigotry and misogyny.

Food for thought

While an often heard argument is that political correctness is a limitation of freedom of speech, this is actually not true. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, and this should never be limited. In reality, everyone is still able to speak their mind. However, if your opinion is uninformed or insulting to others, this no longer goes without being called out on it. The truth is that those complaining about the pressure to be politically correct do not want equal treatment. Instead, they want special treatment, like they had in the past. 

And if being a ‘sensitive millennial’ means being considerate of other people’s feelings and situation, should we really mind being called being politically correct?

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Opinion Pieces
Do we have a responsibility to change the world?

Do we have a responsibility to change the world?

Some people have a strong sense of right and wrong. They feel like they have to fight for a better and more equal world. If you are one of those people, then you must have noticed that not everyone feels the same way. Many people live much smaller lives. They go to work, spend time with their families and friends, and do not think about the bigger picture very much. They shop at Zara and H&M without considering who made those clothes, shop for groceries without thinking of the amount of waste ending up in landfills because of it, and never seem to consider their roles in climate change, inequality, poverty or the landfills of plastics and other sorts of waste that their purchases are contributing to. They are unaware of racism, sexism and fundamental injustice in their own communities.

You might sometimes feel jealous towards these people, as being oblivious to these problems must mean that they are much happier than us. It seems that ignorance really is bliss sometimes. This makes me wonder. Do we have some sort of moral obligation to think of the bigger picture? To make choices that contribute to a better world?

Do we have some sort of moral obligation to think of the bigger picture? To make choices that contribute to a better world?

What does reality tell us?

If we look at the day-to-day life around us, the obvious answer is no. Everywhere around us, people are either unaware of the griefs of the world, or are aware but do not do anything about it. They do not care or do not know what they can do about it. There are even people who profit from injustice, inequality and the exploitation of our planet. These are often people who have the resources needed to understand and maybe even solve the significant problems of our time.

However, their scale often seems to tip to profits rather than justice or a healthy climate for all. To make matters worse, companies actively create confusion to prevent solving of the problem. Examples are the sugar and tobacco industry, which willfully withhold or contest evidence and publish biased research to muddy the waters of scientific evidence.

Except for the occasional lawsuit, there are nearly no direct consequences for those who mess up our climate or take advantage of vulnerable groups. Of course, the long-term implications of these decisions are pretty severe. Climate change and the pollution of our planet will make life much more difficult for the next generations. The consequences for vulnerable groups and developing countries are even much more severe and are taking place right now; our choices cause suffering in third world countries every day. However, this does not seem to motivate us to do better.

For some people, the problem is just too far away. We watch reports of natural disasters, child labour, and human rights violations on the news, but it does not feel like it is really happening. We all know that driving a car or taking long showers affects our environment. But when we take a shorter shower or cycle to work, we do not see its positive effects. It is often easier to ignore confronting information and just focus on day-to-day-life. Or we are aware of problems, but do not know what to do about it. We can feel powerless and as if it will not make a difference if we put the heating a few degrees colder or avoid using plastics, because we are just one single person.

However, the effects of such actions often go further than we think. Our actions and stories often inspire others to make a move. As Luvvie Ajayi writes in her book, I’m Judging You; ‘When you speak out, someone else might be encouraged to do the same. Do not be silent’. Moreover, being neutral or silent contributes to the status quo. As Luvvie writes: ‘For me, [speaking up for what you believe in] is the simple acknowledgement of injustice. It is the act of stating that you see it and you do not condone it. It is the refusal to ignore the world’s shenanigans in an effort to be neutral. Neutrality is for suckers, and it does nothing but indicate that you are alright with bad things happening.’ Or as Einstein said: ‘The world will not be destroyed by those that do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing.’

‘When you speak out, someone else might be encouraged to do the same. Do not be silent.’

Luvvie Ajayi

Then there is a group of people who have opposite beliefs of us and wholeheartedly stand behind these beliefs. Think of white supremacists, who believe that they are responsible for protecting the white race. Or those thinking that they have to keep refugees away to defend their countries and their loved ones. In their stories, they are the good guys, fighting for a better world, just as we are in ours. No one sees himself as the bad guy in the story. A great example is Meghan Phelps-Roper. She grew up in the infamous Westboro Baptist Church that amongst others advocates for hate against LGBT+, jews and U.S. soldiers. Contact with outsiders made her doubt this lifestyle and eventually she decides to leave the church.

In various religions, we find that followers are told to do good for others. In Buddhism and Hinduism, there is the concept of karma; every action has a matching consequence. Being selfless, altruistic, compassionate causes good karma, while causing harm to others creates bad karma. This should motivate believers to do good for others. But what does this mean? Are we just not to harm each other? Or does it go further than that, meaning that we should be active to improve the situation of other people? And does this just apply to people in our own community, town or country?

And what about religion, and popular culture?

Or are we also responsible for helping people in across the world? Many religious organisations deliver developmental aid in nations far from home. This suggests that our religious responsibility runs globally. But then again, there are also many religious people that are not concerned with charity at all. Moreover, these holy books were written in a time when one’s world was confined to his own community. In modern times we are much more connected with the rest of the world through (social) media and technology. There are now many more people to do good for. But we are also becoming immune to injustice. We are faced with so many images of hunger, violence and inequality through the media all day long. How can society comply with these ancient commandments in modern times of information overflow and fatigue?

When looking at popular cultural or doing some research on the internet, one finds many opinions about our responsibilities. Michael Jackson told us to start with the ‘man in the mirror’. John Lennon asked us to imagine a world where all people shared all the world. And the Black Eyed Peas sang about injustice and inequality in their hit Where is the Love.

Moreover, there are also plenty of quotes on our responsibilities to change the word. As Toni Morrison said ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’ Gandhi told us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’. And Audrey Hepburn told us that as we get older, we will discover that we have two hands; one for helping ourselves, the other for helping others.

These are just a few of many opinions about our responsibility to others. However, these opinions are from those who pay attention to the issues in the world. They feel that they have a responsibility to change the world. People who are not aware of these problems or who do not think it is our responsibility will not be the ones to sing a song about it or to be quoted on it.

The Talmud told us: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it’. This tells us that we are responsible for changing the world, and we cannot abandon the work to decrease the world’s grief. However, ‘not to be daunted by the world’s grief’ implies being aware of it. Are we still responsible for changing the world if we do not know about the existence of these problems? Can you do better if you are not aware of doing wrong to others and the world? The answer probably is no, awareness is crucial to doing better.

The key for people to feel responsible and take action seems to be awareness and information. We should all have access to info about the simple things that we all can do to contribute to a better world.

Whatever your opinion on our responsibility for improving the world, it is hard to deny that a healthier climate, greater justice and more equality would be in (almost) everyone’s benefit. Therefore, it seems to be a worthy goal to get more people to join the cause for a fairer world. The key for people to feel responsible and take action seems to be awareness and information. We should all have access to info about the simple things that we all can do to contribute to a better world. Think of a platform where you can find information about sustainable and fair products. Or information about simple ways to be more environmental-friendly in daily life.

Want to learn more about the small things you can do to change the world? Check out this article about the UN’s Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Opinion Pieces
Reappropriating the term ‘bitch’

Reappropriating the term ‘bitch’

‘Bitch…’ Ouch, that hurt right? Most women will go out of their way to avoid being called a bitch. It is this negative term, an insult associated with being unliked and disapproved of. But why is this word interpreted as such a hurtful insult? And how does it contribute to the conditioning of women? 

Female conditioning

In her feminist podcast called UnF*ck Your Brain, Kara Loewentheil argues that society conditions our minds to follow stereotypical gender role. Specifically, she speaks about the four mindf*cks of patriarchy: imposter syndrome, perfectionism, validation seeking, and people pleasing. It is precisely that last one, people pleasing, that has attracted my attention lately.

Society conditions women to aim to please other people. It teaches them not to pursue their desires or express their opinions, in fear of hurting or disappointing other people. For example, it teaches women to visit family events even if they do not want to, just to avoid disappointing their family. Or to keep silent about that co-worker’s sexist comment because they should not ‘ruin the mood’. Or to let guys kiss or touch them, even though they do not want to, just to avoid hurting their feelings.

People pleasing behaviour tends to create anxiety and stress. After all, when you see it as your responsibility to make other people happy, you feel anxious whenever you fail to keep others happy, or when you try to prioritise yourself. But ironically, there is no guarantee that people pleasing pleases people. The truth is that you could move mountains for other people, and they could still be unhappy or not even notice our efforts at all. While you cannot control other people’s feelings and thoughts, you can control your own by prioritising your own needs.

But ironically, there is no guarantee that people pleasing pleases people.

So, if there is no reason to prioritise someone else’s needs, then what is our motive for doing it? It is the uncomfortable feeling and anxiety we encounter whenever we fight the taught need to put other people’s need first, and prioritise our own needs instead. Knowing this, just imagine what your life would be like when you would feel comfortable prioritising your own needs.

The relationship between female conditioning and the term ‘bitch’

If society has conditioned women to put other people’s needs above their own, then women are likely to experience a backlash if they fail to live up to this expectation. Being called a bitch is a form of the backlash. The truth is that women are called bitches whenever they speak up about their opinions and prioritise their own needs, especially when disagreeing or contradicting men.

Women are called bitches whenever they break the habit of people pleasing. It is an effective way of making women feel bad about not living up to the expectation for them to be accommodating to other people (especially men) and not to disturb the peace. Because women are conditioned to want to live up to societal expectations laid upon them, being called a bitch is a negative experience. They will try to avoid this experience in the future by altering their behaviour. Essentially, being called a bitch is a punishment and a crucial part to society’s conditioning of women.

The truth is that women are called bitches whenever they speak up about their opinions and prioritise their own needs, especially when disagreeing or contradicting men.

So, why should women want to re-appropriate this insult?

When suppressed groups reclaim words that were formerly used to suppress and humiliate them and give them a new positive meaning, it takes away the power of the insult, and thereby of the suppressor. Some examples of this so-called ‘appropriation’ of insults are the reclaiming of the terms ‘nasty women’ and ‘pussy’ by feminists and the terms ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ by the LGTBI community. Moreover, reappropriation does not just work for words, but also for actions. During the American civil rights movements, for example, the act of getting arrested was turned from something criminal into something heroic.

When women are aware of societies effort to condition them to conform to gender roles, the mechanisms to do so lose their effectiveness. In this process, insults lose their value and come to mean something totally different. The word ‘bitch’, for examples, comes to mean ‘a woman who expresses her opinion and prioritises her own needs, and who does not look at others for validation’.

Reappropriation has the power to change insults such as the word ‘bitch’ into compliment and a sign that you are on the right path. Or in the words of Kat D: “Being a Heartless Bitch isn’t about stepping on other people, or reality TV-style sabotage antics. It is about working hard for what you want, and knowing when to stand up for what you deserve. It is not about demoralising others; its about self-empowerment. It is not about being arrogant; it is about displaying your confidence and intellect as a badge of pride. It is not asserting any inherent superiority or self-entitlement, but recognising your own self-worth and value.”

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Opinion Pieces
News as a propaganda tool: good for no one 

News as a propaganda tool: good for no one 

Over the last decade, there have been major changes in the way news has been spread. News is now often shared via social media, where everyone is able to comment. Moreover, everyone can write and publish news, whether the information is true or false. 

But news reports can also be used as a subtle propaganda tool and a constant brainwashing technique. Slogans such as Make America Great Again, for example, spread quickly and tend to mirror shared fears and wrong assumptions. Populist politicians might use them to create a basis of fear on which to build their policies. But in truth, this form of false information results in walls between people and radicalisation of public opinion.

Access to objective news

When I have difficulty finding objective and transparent information,  I can rely on the online news sources from abroad. I use these to reassemble the puzzle of information for myself. However, for many people this is not an option. For instance, only 36% of Italians claim to be able to understand a written complex text in English.

The right to access information is a full right defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  It plays an essential role in the social and political processes in our societies. Moreover, it promotes media freedom, empowers investigative journalism, and contributes towards a more open society. So, then why do we keep manipulating information?

Developments in media reporting

Before the Internet and social media, censorship was relatively straightforward. It was sufficient to control all means of communication and to punish those who tried to bypass the system. But now basically everyone has access to information, and the problem has become more complicated. A disaster such as Chernobyl, for example could never be hidden as it was in 1986.

We are now struggling with a lack of quality control and transparency of the information that is presented to us. For example, half of daily TV newscast in Hungary is centered on the topic migration alone. This leaves little space to other news. What is more, this increased covering and framing of migration as a threat creates the illusion of a real invasion. But neither facts nor statistics support this myth.

Likewise, instead of objective reporting, we see that reporters are using strong subjective language to express government positions. Moreover, photographs and videos are used to spread narratives that might be manipulated or false. 

Fake news

Among the newest media challenges is a growing tendency to discredit unpleasant news by defining it as fake. Ironically, genuine “fake news” is gaining influence, especially on social media channels. Social media is now considered as means of communication as such. But the reliability of news on these platforms cannot be controlled, and comments are often more predominant than the story itself.

In my opinion, the issue is more complicated. The inability to be self-critical and a sense of anonymity are combined with an urge to constantly talk about things we have no clue about.

The excess of fake news and uninformed opinions

Everyone can now give his opinion and be heard on social media, even without any expertise on the topic or having read the story at all. Just look at any news article on social media, and you will find comments born out of ignorance and misinformation. 

When looking at the causes of this trend, some blame the unrestricted freedom of opinion inherent to democracies. Others blame the damaging change social media itself brought to our society. After all social media has decreased our attention span dramatically and made it okay to put our most personal stories online. Moreover, some people will now do crazy things, just to get a like on Facebook. Finally, others claim that changes to the education system created generations that are unable of critical thinking yet eager to comment on anything.

In my opinion, the issue is more complicated. The inability to be self-critical and a sense of anonymity are combined with an urge to constantly talk about things we have no clue about. Posting information and opinions on social media is free, and spreading false information is generally without risk. Therefore, the quality of information we consume and distribute is worsening, and nobody seems to care about it.

Within the already tense social situation, the vicious cycle of news and comments provides politicians with a fertile ground of fear and frustration. This can deteriorate the social balance, characterised by rising inequalities and discrimination and the rise of national populism. We experienced this over the past decade across the EU, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Italy and the Czech Republic. In short, social media as a means of communication contributes to the development of non-factual collective beliefs and the annihilation of individual rationality. This situation is damaging national and global equilibriums.

In fact, we know that manipulation of the media is beneficial to the involved political parties and their representatives, as well as correlated lobbying groups and mass media communication channels. But what about the broader picture? What about the long-term consequences of such methods for the distribution of information? Should it not be a responsibility of journalists and politicians to respect the integrity of information, not to allow fake news, and to support the spread of transparent and objective information instead?

One extreme example of manipulation of public opinion through the press is found in Hungary under the Orbán government. Here propaganda is present on TV, radio, newspapers and billboards. In 2017, 40.5 million Euros was spent on anti-Soros propaganda. George Soros is Hungary’s “number 1 enemy of the nation”. He is also known as an openly pro-refugee Jewish millionaire and founder of the Central European University (CEU) and Open Society Foundation, promoting human rights in 60 countries. This year, the following sentence was literally featured on national TV: “Soros’ NGO has the explicit purpose of gathering followers to support his biggest aim: having power over the world through his western globalisation philosophy”. Although this phrase is vague and unfounded, it seems to work; most Hungarians really believe in the so-called “Soros plan” and related “blacklist”.

In fact, the “Soros mercenaries blacklist” was first published in a pro-government magazine in early April 2018. It included the names of 200 Orbán critics. Among them are academics, civil rights activists and journalists (including those that reported on Orbán-related corruption scandals). Clearly, the list has the purpose to intimidate. This entire witch-hunt is even more paradoxical when we consider that Orbán himself benefited from a Soros-founded scholarship in the past.

What is also striking is that Orbán’s message changed radically over the past 20 years. While his political background is anti-communist, liberal and progressive, he is known today as the main illiberal and conservative Eastern-European populist representative. His propaganda style owes much to the Communist communication. Why does nobody notice or even cares about this at all, in a post-Communist country?

A recent study found an increase in the use of words related to fear, distress and war in Hungarian mass media since 2014. The main media topic, migration, is perceived and presented as a literal invasion of Muslims bringing violence and crime to Hungary. It is presented as if this invasion takes place in complicity with Soros, Brussels and Merkel, who “invited them to come to Europe”. According to this propaganda, even migration research centres should not exist, as they “provide no concrete action”. Moreover, as they state it, “it is not possible to make an alien population settle in Hungary because we must defend our national identity, sovereignty and culture”.

Not a single word is spoken about the humanitarian corridors taking place from the Horn of Africa towards Europe. Investments in social welfare and families are sometimes explicitly presented as in contrast with “spending for migrants”. It is difficult to understand why a country with a history of domination and emigration now needs to turn to migration as a scapegoat for its problems. “Hungarians first.” “America first.” “Italians first.” Can you see a pattern here?

So what now?

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”

George Orwell

As said before, propaganda dramatically affects the way people think and live. It is a tool to create a society without individual thinking, where people have the illusion of having control over their choices. “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”, George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English language” (1946). Even if it sounds like some mainstream quote from a faraway past, this still applies today. In the long run, manipulation of public information is not beneficial for anyone. It can alter social relations within countries, and jeopardise current geo-political stabilities on an international level. Eventually, it could even lead to new wars.

Open communication is a crucial for a society. Citizens want openness on all levels, from international government down to their local farmer. Transparency and trust are closely interlinked. Businesses are slowly acknowledging the benefits of openness and good ethics for consumer satisfaction. Likewise, governments that offer more transparency and accountability deliver more inclusive prosperity. If governments and media were more transparent and objective, it would prepare a foundation for a long-term, more inclusive and media manipulation-free future. As it benefits no one, what can we do to end and prevent public opinion manipulation? Why does nobody react?

The simple answer to a better society might be to be honest and transparent, but this is not in the interests of politicians in the first place. Therefore, as in many other issues, the answer might be education. We should inform ourselves on topics before spreading inaccurate information. If we all do our part as active citizens, a lot can be achieved. Instead of spreading fake news and fear, we should talk about problems in a transparent way and try to find a way to solve them.

Better information sources could contribute to creating more inclusive policies and increasing everyone’s well-being in society. After all, our grandparents already understood it back in 1948 with the writing of the International Declaration of Human Rights. We do not need another war to understand that the world is about peace and brotherhood, prosperity and progress as a society, not as individuals. Transparent, correct and inclusive communication is among our main tools for understanding and perpetuating this.

Posted by Elisa Rossetti in Opinion Pieces