Defending Political Correctness

There seems many an implied or direct criticism of being ‘overly political correct’ – people find some random and strange judgement and laughingly refer to ‘political correctness gone mad’ amid the sniggers with many of the facts being wholly absent.

The Daily Mail (there’s a surprise) gives some examples of how ‘far’ politically correctness can go – thereby diminishing it’s worth

Police in Cornwall told a witness they could not use the phrase “gypsy skirt”to describe the long floating skirt that someone involved in an incident had been wearing and instead insisted that it had to be referred to as a “traveller skirt”.

Staff on a training course were told that if a colleague said that he was going for a ‘quick half’, for some ‘amber nectar’ or for a ‘swift bevvy’ he could well be an alcoholic

The signs on the Mersey Tunnel were changed from Manned and Unmanned to Staffed and Unstaffed in case they upset women.

MP Philip Davies in his maiden speech to Parliament said: ‘Whoever said ‘the customer is always right’ never worked for Asda. I encountered the customer who accused Asda of being racist towards Irish people because we sold “thick Irish sausages”. Trying to persuade her that “thick” related to the sausages and not to the Irish was beyond me.’

Just a few of the examples provided in the article – and for the record, I can see the element of offence in each of those examples – in the last example, it is more about making a mockery of those who are offended which is absolutely needless and further reinforces the point.

image Sidelong at Flickr

I’m all for clarity of speech but I think we can find many many more examples where language does offend more openly – this article that was published in the Times at the weekend, for example, which goes back to the recent survey about mental health among MPs and explains the current position in, what I’d consider to be unnecessary terms, saying

Ministers are preparing to allow people labelled “idiots” and “lunatics” by archaic laws to stand for parliament.

Though it may come as a surprise to voters, laws dating back to Elizabethan times bar this category of people from becoming MPs.

Idiots are defined as those “incapable of gaining reason” and lunatics as people only “capable of periods of lucidity”.

The rules ban lunatics from standing as MPs in “their non lucid intervals”. They also ban anyone sectioned under the Mental Health Act from standing for parliament, even if they have made a recovery.

I mean would it really have been so difficult to write up the article without needing to refer to idiots and lunatics?

Couldn’t the journalist just have written a straight piece about the move for change? OK, it might not have been so ‘funny’ but if you look at the comments under the article, most seem to be jumping to the bait and saying that ‘the MPs are all mad anyway – see what laws they pass’.

Personally I think it’s an irresponsible trivialisation but it indicates the importance of language.

Political Correctness has been demonised. Wrongly in  my opinion. Language has enormous power to influence our thoughts and our attitudes. Lack of thought of the implications of language indicates a lack of respect to those who might find offence.

Yes, we can all find ‘silly’ examples because any rule administered blankly will have exceptions – just as any law will – but to diminish the good work done in changing discourse and language by emphasising the ridiculous panders, I believe to a right wing agenda.

It’s interesting that one of the first links I found relating to ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘anti-political correctness’ had a large ‘Vote BNP’ (British National Party)  banner on the site – and is an apologist site for far right racist politics (I think the reasons for me not linking are obvious!).

It’s interesting how language has been turned into a part of the battle between right and left and making the politically correct debate seem trivial and unnecessary puts power back in the hands of the dangerously far right.

So political correctness is about more than changing nursery rhymes from ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ to ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’ so as not to cause offence and giggling at those ‘silly’ enough to find offence in mere language.

It is providing political debate with a discourse about the use of language to offend and making assumptions about the language we  have always used without thought of the implication.

More power to the politically correct, I say – in a desperate bid to reclaim it as a positive rather than a pejorative term.

6 thoughts on “Defending Political Correctness

  1. I think language is always at the forefront of changing culture – from racist and homophobic gibes to politically correct terminology. Unfortunately political correctness is all about using the ‘correct’ words and tends to miss the fact that language is about more than words, it’s more to do with the meaning attached and the motive of the user. Political correctness has been about treating the symptoms of problems – people may use politically correct terms but it doesn’t change their attitude. I agree that certain terms are derogatory or abusive, that they shouldn’t be tolerated, but the best way is to deal with the issues. Then PC terms, where they’re a good thing, will follow naturally.

  2. I used to agree with you on this, but something that happened in one of my summer classes this year made me see things a little bit from the other side. We were discussing Feminist Liberation Theology, and how the feminist movement teaches ‘moral relativism,’ that is, that there is no clear cut ‘right or wrong,’ and that this all depends on the cultural framework. Someone raised their hand and said that, for example, incest is more acceptable amont the inuit because it is more commonplace. What???! To me, that’s an example of political correctness gone wrong. We still have to use our heads. But to call people “lunatics” is a bit ridiculous. Unfortunately, mental illness is one of those topics where people still seem to hold archaic ideas.

  3. Chuckle, I think you are right that the issues of course need to be tackled but language can shape perceptions and there’s no harm in dual-tracking!

    Kiwi – I was really referring to language specifically but of course in your example, it is a red herring to use political correctness to excuse abusive behaviour. It should never be tolerated – here, in the UK, there have been these debates as some cases have ended tragically when child protection social workers have said that they were respecting the cultural heritage of the parents. This is something that I hope has lessened with time. There is an absolute but I wouldn’t call that political correctness, rather it is a poorly trained workforce that is not well-supervised!

    And we never discussed Feminist Liberation Theories very much – shame really I think I might have enjoyed the debate!

  4. People are “politically correct” but often when you scratch the surface it is only lip service and not what they truly believe.

  5. Thank you, cb, for your insightful comments on an issue I hold dear. I especially agree with your interpretation of the demonization of political correctness as an active agenda item for the right wing. It is so easy to do away with something when we can make a joke of it, and the jokes have abounded.

    I think there are few tools as powerful as language that purposefully dignifies human subjects. That’s what I see in politically correct language. It is not a burden, but a privilege and a joy to describe people in the way that honors them.

    Notwithstanding a few obviously over-the-top examples, I do agree that those who see politically correct language as a burden or a joke general must posses some level of cultural incompetence. Or perhaps it’s even fear or insecurity.

    Regardless, I agree with cb on the dual tracking. Whenever I hear about the growing need for societal edification and skill building, I try to bring it back to Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That way I get too lazy. Modeling the right thing can be powerful, especially if one never bothers to remind one’s company that what they are witnessing is politically correct.

  6. Silva – better than being downright offensive but of course, just as Chuckles said, the ideal would be for the underlying prejudice to change.
    And thanks for that BJ, I do like that Ghandi quote – to my shame, I don’t think I’ve come across it before but will make a note of it. I like it a lot!

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