Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Is the PC (political correctness) Movement Running out of Steam?

The top of the news this evening was a ‘story’ of Senator Joseph Biden offending Senator Barack Obama by calling him ‘articulate’. Those who still promote political correctness now want to enter this word in the PC lexicon. It is purportedly offensive because it implies that the speaker thinks not all African Americans are articulate and that Senator Obama distinguishes himself only to whites because he is perceived to be more like them.

In fact, not all white Americans are articulate—take our president, for example. Not all people are articulate. Articulate is color-blind; it means exactly what all dictionaries claim it means: “well-spoken, clearly expressing oneself” without any pejorative connotation. It is a compliment to whomever it is said to describe. Moreover, it is a quality this website and those like it encourage and (let’s hope, articulately) promote.

That anyone would mistake such a meretricious story for news is well beyond normal comprehension but, in fact, it reflects a growing obsession of the media with embarrassing public figures by misinterpreting their comments. The other ‘news’ today is that in a secret recording obtained surreptitiously from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s website, the governor called one of his political opponents ‘sick’ [sic]. Governor Schwarzenegger, like Senator Biden, immediately apologized.  For what? The opponent immediately replied that he had been called worse. Who hasn’t?

John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Al Gore have all recently been similarly accused of making offensive remarks by the media for inane comments that were overinterpreted by media personalities as articulate was today. I am sure that I have missed at least a few.

Notice that the offensive nature of all these terms derives not from the terms themselves, as in the case of the N-word and all the offensive terms for women, but from the presumed motivation of the speaker, something no one knows but the speaker (see first paragraph). The interpretation of the offensiveness of these terms is innately ad hominem.

There was a time when the US media ignored even genuinely offensive comments by public figures and focussed on the relevant issues. Today very few people in the US media are even familiar with the issues (where familiar means having read several books and dozens of articles on the subject). The result has been a rush to yellow journalism, unearthing scandals, embarrassing public officials for no ostensible reason.

The problem is that with 24-hour news and competition from every side, there simply aren’t enough scandals to fill the time and pages. So the media flog a long since dead horse and derive from the exercise nothing more than insipid vapors portrayed as news. In doing so, the media become less and less relevant.

An interesting bit of support for this last claim can be seen in the growth of the number of feature documentaries. I can remember when documentaries were considered boring films shown only in schools. Now, documentaries like “An Inconvenient Truth”, “The Corporation”, “Who Killed the Electric Car?”—to mention a few I’ve recently viewed—are receiving feature runs in commercial theaters. Why are they so popular all of a sudden? Because they bring us the news while CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC race to see which can dredge up the most inane event of the day.

4 Responses to “Is the PC (political correctness) Movement Running out of Steam?”

  1. Dirk Cable Says:

    I enjoy your blog a great deal, but as to this entry, I do not think you could be more off the mark. I’d be interested to know *where* exactly you’ve seen calls to relegate the word “articulate” to the vast list of so-called “politically incorrect” words that convey hate and disrespect for women, ethnic and cultural minorities, gays and lesbians, etc. As you say, the word “articulate” itself is a perfectly good word with no pejorative connotations, so I doubt that anyone is advocating removing it from the realm of acceptable speech.

    What really caused the controversey here is that a *great* many people, mostly African-Americans, perceived Senator Biden’s words as, at best, patronizing, and, at worst, racist. This is not “purportedly” offensive, as you say; it is most definitely offensive. Your point that plenty of white people, including our current White House occupant, are inarticulate is, well, beside the point. No one stereotypes all whites as being inarticulate, but black people have always been stereotyped as such–just part of the vast convoluted realm that is American racism.

    I think what most rankles here, in fact, is that Senator Biden was not merely recalling the general stereotype of black people as incompetent speakers of English, but was specifically implying that there had never before been an articulate black person who had ever run for President, or who had considered running. He apparently forgot about Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and Colin Powell. The difference, of course, between Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama, is that Mr. Jackson “sounds black” and Senator Obama “sounds white”–and that makes him “articulate” in many peoples’ minds.

    You might seek out an episode of Chris Rock’s HBO series, in which he discusses this exact issue with reference to Colin Powell. He expresses comical (but real) frustration that so many people are surprised that Powell is “so well spoken!”

  2. rbeard Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful rebuttal of this blog. I have thought it over and come to this conclusion. Your argument critically hinges on the assertion that the majority of whites claim, think, assume that all blacks are inarticulate. I challenge that premise until someone runs the statistics. My impression is that, with the exception of a minority of biggots, all Americans assume that blacks may be articulate or not, just as whites may be.

    That Mr. Jackson sounds black and Mr. Obama sounds white is a matter of interpretation which I also do not share. Mr. Jackson has a southern accent while Mr. Obama has a northern one. That is because Mr. Obama grew up in Hawaii and Kansas  while Mr. Jackson grew up in Greenville, SC (See our Rebel-Yankee Test). I have never heard anyone so much as insinuate that Mr. Jackson is inarticulate because of his southern drawl or the color of his skin. Judging on a linguistic basis alone (their comparative abilities at coming up with catchy phrases and names like the ‘Rainbow Coalition’), I think I could argue that Mr. Jackson is more articulate than Mr. Obama.

    Now, if I say that Jessie Jackson is more articulate than Barack Obama, whom do I offend?

  3. David Chiu Says:

    I suspect the word articulate only had meanings for joint motion and would be misrepresentation of others who were unwilling to move for that cause. I even suspect the word articulate had it’s meaning changed in recent times to include connotations to speech and was originally only about joint motion.

  4. Robert Beard Says:


    I see that I have procrastinated so long that you yourself have figured out how to register or have found someone else to register you. Sorry ’bout that.

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