Unseen Text: Language in a Politically Correct 2020
Text Type: Opinion Piece
Guiding Question: Comment on the opinions conveyed, and the methods used to convince the reader, in this piece.
One of the most difficult – but often the most crucial – elements of a text to analyse and understand is tone of voice. When listening to a speaker speak, tone can be conveyed in a variety of ways; voice inflection, emphasis, pace, volume, body language and more. When reading words on a page, you can’t hear the writer’s tone of voice. Nevertheless, tone is integral to meaning, so you need to be able to make good inferences. Practicing by reading opinion columns is a good way to attune your ear to the subtleties of tone. Opinion columns can be challenging or conciliatory, strident or nuanced, forceful or subtle, assertive or balanced. Sometimes a writer might use sarcasm or irony to make a point – misunderstand this and you will misunderstand the entire meaning of a text. Take a look at this article, about the contentious topic of political correctness, and identify areas where you believe the writer’s tone is particularly clear – then read the sample response below and see if your ideas match up. Of course, this is only one possible answer; alternative responses can be equally valid.
The given text is an opinion column published in The Michigan Daily and written by this newspaper’s in-house columnist, Valentina House. As an up-to-date opinion column published in 2020, the topic of the article is relevant and topical for a wide American readership. In recent years, American people – and people around the world – have witnessed a shift towards a more combative and direct tone of political dialogue, so the issue of political correctness is currently in the spotlight. People disagree about the ideas of ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘political correctness’: on one hand, some support their right to express opinions in any kind of language, whether or not their words cause offence. Others believe that with freedom of speech comes the responsibility to use language carefully. Valentina House’s column strongly argues the former: that the words used don’t matter as long as the intention behind the words is good. In her opinion, people should be judged by their actions, not by their words.
The structure and format of the article helps to assert this opinion strongly from the very start. Before the article, there is a pull-quote printed in large font with design features around it. These features both draw attention to the main point of the article and help to give Valentina’s strong opinion extra weight. The key argument is that ‘those who are politically correct can be just as bigoted… than those who aren’t.’ Valentina makes an important point about politically correct and euphemistic language: that it not just softens the rough edges of reality but conceals the truth about the world. She phrases this act of concealment as ‘the lack of transparency.’ Opening her piece with a strong argument is a good way of getting readers onside right from the very start.
In the first paragraph of the article, Valentina is sure to present her argument in a strident and authoritative tone. Her key sentence is ‘every day, an angry mob… is imposing limits on free speech… more powerful than any law.’ Her use of assertion – ‘is’ – makes it seem like her subjective position on the issue is a statement of fact. In fact, assertion can be seen throughout the text in statements such as ‘Black unemployment is at an all time low’ and ‘the term political correctness does little more than censor or silence people.’ Through little words such as ‘is’ and ‘does’, these opinions are stated as facts, with no citation provided for the ‘fact’ about low unemployment. Furthermore, the way she describes her opponents as ‘an angry mob’ makes them seem like they react emotionally and irrationally or only care about attacking others or causing trouble, when they may actually have genuine and important concerns.
Throughout the text, Valentina uses modality to strengthen the force of her arguments. An example can be seen in the sentence ‘actions will always shine through and mirror one’s character.’ The word ‘will’ combines with the word ‘always’ to make her tone highly assertive, as if her opinion on the matter must be right. Words like ‘permanently’ in the second paragraph and ‘virtually’ in the first create a similar effect. Perhaps the most egregious use of the word ‘always’ is in the last paragraph: ‘the end result of political correctness is always an approved form of speech’. Again, the writer asserts her opinion in so confident a way that it comes across as an unassailable fact rather than a position in a debate.
While perhaps over-assertive in tone, Valentina does, however, back-up her assertions in various ways. She aligns her point of view with that of George Orwell, the writer of 1984. Many readers of this article will recognise the allusion to ‘thoughtcrime’ and to the restricted way people in Orwell’s novel were forced to speak by their political masters. Valentina wants her readers to believe that those who champion a politically correct way to speak want to control society to a similar extent. She even coins her own neologism – ‘speak right’ – that reminds me of Orwell’s ‘newspeak’ in this novel. Alongside Orwell, she also quotes Hillary Clinton calling young black criminals ‘superpredators’. In this example, she is highlighting the double standards of people who call for political correctness in speech – unless someone they support happens to use language in a racist way, in which case it will ‘be largely ignored’. Even someone who may not support her extremely one-sided position on politically correct speech may find it hard to disagree with Valentina’s point in this instance.
A common convention of opinion columns is the use of anecdote (a short story from the writer’s own personal experience) to support the point of view being argued. Valentina provides an anecdote in the fifth paragraph, of a time when she was in a creative writing class and the professor judged a piece of writing purely on the basis of its lack of a ‘politically correct’ storyline. Here, Valentina uses strong language to discredit the professor, saying he was ‘ripping my friend’s story apart.’ As in the example of an angry mob, Valentina’s own use of language paints a picture of her opponents in this debate as aggressive, attacking others on the basis of their own biases and prejudices. It’s a clever way of swinging neutral readers onto her side.
In conclusion, Valentina House’s article is cleverly written to convince the reader that her subjective point of view on the issue of politically correct language is right. Actually, at one point she offers the concession that ‘political correctness in general is subjective’ – a sentence which admits that other people’s opinions can be equally valid. However, in the same paragraph she quickly returns to her own line of reasoning, arguing that ‘it is more fruitful to look… to people’s underlying intentions.’ And a reader need look no further than the final line of the extract to exemplify the strong and assertive way in which she conveys her opinion overall: ‘the only way to combat ignorance is to let people speak freely.’
Categories:Paper 1 Analysis