This study investigates the discursive construction of political correctness (PC) in everyday written interaction on social media. The notion of PC has emerged as a contentious emblem of polarized political discourse in the Left–Right and progressive–conservative interfaces, recently perhaps especially in the light of social media campaigns for social justice such as 16 MOOD – S 2016 – Book of Abstracts #BlackLivesMatter. As the OED notes, PC may in contemporary, typically depreciative, usage be taken to mean “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, usually characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc., considered discriminatory or offensive”(Politically, n.d.). Commentators, critics, and scholars exhibit a range of perspectives on the meanings and functions of PC (see e.g. D’Souza, 1991; Wilson, 1995; Lakoff, 2000; Fairclough, 2003), but naturalistic empirical work on PC as a discursive entity in everyday language is largely lacking (Granath & Ullén, forthcoming).
The present study aims to contribute to an empirically grounded understanding of PC via analysis of the meanings and functions of labeling something or someone as politically correct on Twitter. To this end, a dataset of 159 conversations (i.e., reply chains automatically marked as conversations by Twitter) featuring the exact phrase “politically correct” was collected. The focus on conversational tweets comes with some limitations, but yielded a material of Twitter users interacting with one another on political topics, responding to news events, commenting on pictures, et cetera, revealing how these discourse participants reproduce, contest, and negotiate notions of PC. In a context partly defined by context collapse (Marwick & boyd, 2011), some Twitter users situate their construals of PC in public discourse by @-addressing public figures or using hashtags, whereas others deploy joking accusations of PC in more “private” interactions. Conversations range from playful to heated, sometimes in the course of a single exchange.
In its analytical approach, this study attempts to square the circle of respecting the perspectives of discourse participants, while retaining a critical political engagement (Bucholtz & Hall, 2008). It is argued that empirical attention paid to the functional flexibility of the PC label in a social media context may help elucidate, if not resolve, the apparent intractability of both public and private ideological disputes which are variously viewed as stifled by political correctness or stifled by accusations of political correctness.
2016 Symposium for Micro-Analysis of Online Data, MOOD-S, Manchester, UK, 15-16 September 2016