Debra Allcock Tyler: Political correctness is about being decent human beings, not stifling free speech

Minding your language is simply good manners and kindness, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I have a longing for violet hair. It’s all the rage with the young folk at the moment and I think it’s terribly pretty. I cautiously suggested to my hairdresser that we might dye my hair violet – you know, to be on trend. "Dear me, no!" she said, aghast. "You’re exactly the wrong sort of age for violet hair. You need to be under 40 or over 60 to carry it off. At your time of life it’s terribly ageing."

Affronted, I went home and downloaded one of those apps that allows you to try out different hairstyles and colours to see what suits. Well, it turns out I look hideous with violet hair. More like the love child of an ancient Shakespearean hag who had an ill-judged one-night stand with one of the purple-haired, villainous minions in Despicable Me 2 than a super cool, on-trend woman of middling years. I was crushed, but forced to concede she had a point.

Which brings me to the issue of honesty. Apparently the compere at the Presidents Club fiasco began the evening by saying something like "welcome to the most un-PC night of your life". Glossing over the particular awfulness of that remark at a charity dinner of all things, it got me thinking about what it is about the phrase "political correctness" that seems to imply that somehow or other it is holding folk back from saying what they really think. Phrases such as "the PC brigade" are bandied about as if they’re some sort of insult or as if political correctness is a threat to freedom of speech – that somehow sexist, racist or homophobic language is being unfairly stifled by a band of do-gooders.

For me, minding your language is about good manners and kindness. It’s bad manners and unkind to deliberately use language and phrases about race, religion, sexuality or background that others find hurtful or demeaning. Why would you do that? Even when speaking generically, if you’re a decent human being you don’t deliberately set out to be rude about someone else, do you? I wonder what the outcome of that dreadful dinner might have been if the compere had said "welcome to the most ignorant, rude, bad-mannered night of your life". It would certainly have been a more accurate description of what was about to occur.

Being PC is not to say that folk shouldn’t say what they think. It’s about speaking in a way that is a true representation of your view while being respectful of others. If you’re deliberately saying something that you know will offend or shock but claiming that you’re simply being honest (or, worse, "only joking"), then you’re channelling the worst sort of shock jock from Radio DFR*. I admit it is hard work to check yourself for kindness, and I don’t always get it right. But I do think it would help if we stopped talking about being PC and talked instead about being decent human beings. In my case, one day with purple hair.

*Desperate For Ratings

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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