Saturday, April 15, 2006

It's Political Correctness Gone Mad!

I dislike this expression so much and really thought by now that people would have stopped using it. While the phrase itself has lost all real meaning, it continues to diminish all sorts of important arguments, issues and events and I am fed up to the teeth of hearing it or seeing it written down.

A Google for the phrase "political correctness gone mad" summoned 82,000 results, compared to just 9260 results for the phrase "here is my poem" (which I thought and hoped would be far more common on the worldly widely webly). The results for the latter were far more interesting.

There are and always have been limits on freedom of expression within context. This means that there are circumstances in which it is just plain correct to use certain terms and to avoid others. This could be for many reasons from logical consistency and courtesy through to protecting people from harassment, intimidation and worse.

I think most people agree with this idea in principle. Nobody really believes you should be able to say whatever you like, wherever, whenever, and to whomsoever you like, do they? Yet obviously there are going to be vast differences in opinion about where exactly the boundaries lie. Society needs to debate this, but talk of Political Correctness trivialises such debates.

Are they trivial? Sometimes yes. I ought write to my bank and tell them the correct title among the Miss I am called on my debit card, the Ms I am called on our cheque book and the Mrs I am called on our bank statement. This is discourtesy or incompetence on their part and merely annoys me.

However, sometimes they are not at all trivial. For example, very serious issues are raised by the Race and Religious Hatred Bill – an example of something which often receives this clumsy label. Even though I disagree with the legislation, there is nothing trivial about the problem it is attempting to address. People are killed, injured and terrorised in the UK because of racial and religious hatred. It is happening now and it could get worse if we don’t act to prevent it. Once again how we go about this is up for debate, but it is not a lot of fuss about nothing.

Then again, we can’t automatically assume that all those who attempt to manipulate language do so in a genuine attempt to promote fairness, equality and justice. And there have been some examples where over-sensitivity about certain minority groups has resulted in farce - every Christmas there is some fuss about the risk of religious references offending non-Christians.

However, Political Correctness does not exist; these words don’t represent a belief or set of beliefs. It is just name-calling, not an argument in itself. Describing more sinister or excessive control as such does no-one any favours because the phrase doesn’t actually mean anything, just “This is over the top, excessive,” whether it is excessive liberalism, or excessive authoritarian controls on our language or behaviour. It is especially ridiculous with the gone mad! on the end as if the spectre of Political Correctness has been drinking and listening to Country Music for three days solid since his dog died and his wife left him and now he’s grabbed an axe and is heading into town to wreak his revenge on anyone who ever said chairman instead of chairperson.

I suppose I have a particular bugbear with this for three reasons. One is that certain family members use this phrase way too often, about almost everything; "It rained all last week; it's political correctness gawn maad!" (that's a Suffolk accent, could you tell?)

The second is that in discussions about disability issue, all sorts of opinions are dismissed in this way by those individuals who don't have the capacity to offer a reasoned disagreement. It is a very common tool of sabotage and general annoyance.

But the third is that I begin to suspect that those people who use this phrase very often are actually deeply anti-egalitarian, but cannot say so, because it would be to admit that they enjoy privilege and would like historically disadvantaged people to remain disadvantaged. But given how often I hear this, that cannot possibly be true. Can it?


midwesterntransport said...

"But the third is that I begin to suspect that those people who use this phrase very often are actually deeply anti-egalitarian, but cannot say so, because it would be to admit that they enjoy privilege and would like historically disadvantaged people to remain disadvantaged. But given how often I hear this, that cannot possibly be true. Can it?"

Sure it can, though sometimes I think it's folks spouting what they've heard from others without really thinking it through. They've heard that "political correctness" is bad so often now that they just go on repeat.

I agree, though, that use of that term is a way to sabotage legitimate conversations. And I would argue that it's folks arguing for the "right" to be total jackasses. "I don't want to think about my political assumptions, so I'm just going to sling a term at you to discredit you."

dotandcarryone said...

Surely it is legitimate to be concerned about any form of censorship?

In the name of political correctness, many discussions are first derailed and then stifled (forgive the mixed metaphor please) because someone starts objecting to the terminology used.

The Goldfish said...


Sorry, think I may have been unclear. I am very much against censorship and you're quite right about stifling debate with nit-picking. The problem with the use of the term political correctness is that

(a) It is criticising the (supposed) motive behind a move as opposed to it's logical validity and consequences. Motive is important, but it doesn't make an argument.

and (b) Nobody owns up to that motive, becuase political correctness is only ever used in a negative way, and doesn't have a clear definition. Nobody would actually claim that their actions are "in the name of political correctness".

A real life example from recent UK news. Judge says it's "Political Correctness Gone Mad" when a ten year old is summonsed to court on a racial hatred charge, for racist name-calling in the playground.

The point about this case was that the Judge was absolutely right to call this action into question - it was farcical, and neither the lad, his parents nor peers would have been taking it very seriously by the time they got to court. However, talk of political correctness just clouds the issue.

Whilst personally, I do have a problem with both the current Incitement to Racial Hatred law and the new Race and Religious Hatred bill, the motive behind these laws is about keeping the peace, as opposed to any petty issue of language. Whilst I object to these laws on principle, most of the characters who have been prosecuted under these laws have been otherwise extremely unsavoury characters.

Also, what the lad did wasn't petty; racial abuse should be taken very seriously in schools and by parents (and in fairness, I do feel it is worse than some other forms of name-calling). Just it shouldn't have been a crime.

The problem lies in the application of the law. Had this been a twenty year old man taunting a person in the street, then that's a completely different matter. Similarly you wouldn't charge a child for indecent exposure if he pulled his pants down in the playground - you would a twenty year old man.

That's the crux of the issue - talk of political correctness is a distraction from what is actually going on in this case; both the very serious nature of what the child did and the fact that someone did a very foolish thing by trying to bring a criminal prosecution.

I feel that political correctness always has this clouding effect, because it such a loose term that it is without meaning. My point wasn't a political one, but a linguistic one, I guess.

Lady Bracknell said...

In Lady Bracknell's opinion, use of the phrase, "It's political correctness gone mad", is the last refuge of the irretrievable bigot.

dotandcarryone said...

Goldfish, thank you for your explanation. I am ashamed to admit that I am not even clear what political correctness, in fact, is. I believe it originated in America, and I agree that I have only seen it used as a term of abuse in debate, but what is it, really?

The Goldfish said...

To be honest, I don't know where it sprung from. I have read somewhere that the term literally appeared in a comic strip and people started to use it jokingly to refer to the way in which certain marginalised groups sought to address discriminatory language. Somehow it grew up from humour into something folks see as a genuine and sinister movement. I have never heard it in any context other than as a dismissive term.

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Anonymous said...

Overall, I am very glad to have found your blog, including this post. Thoughtful, intelligent voices, fighting against those who want to shut down cries of "wait - what you're saying/doing is hurting or dammaging me" are infinitely valuable.

You mentioned the inevitable differences of opinion with regard to where the boundaries lie. I need to bring up one such difference:

"And there have been some examples where over-sensitivity about certain minority groups has resulted in farce - every Christmas there is some fuss about the risk of religious references offending non-Christians."

If you're not the one feeling the pain on a particular issue, I think it goes against all the kindness and atunement you generally seem to offer to label someone else's pain "oversensitivity". I will qualify all this with the fact that I live in the states, and you don't get too far here (or many parts of here) without getting some (subtle or not so sublte) message that if you're not Christian then you don't have worth, don't deserve basic respect, basically need to be fixed in this sense.

As an agnostic who's had abusive messages shoved down my throat by Christians from a very young age (from being told I'm going to hell, that I'm somehow dirty, to getting beat up, to being subjected to unending, demoralizing, condescending attempts at converstion, and on and on) I do suffer at the receipt of Christian messages.

I think those messages are fine, when shared between Christians. If you know the mind of whom you're speaking, then you can say lots of things that might be labeled "politically incorrect" if included in a general address. But it's a common presumption here (that everyone is Christian) and I know that those making it would be horrified if I started greeting people in a way that presumed and suggested that we all reject the idea of a god. And that's not what we're asking people to do, by the way. Holding back on religious messages (outside of Church, conversations with other religious friends, etc) isn't the same as denying one's faith. It's just offering some respect to people who don't share it. I painfully need that respect. Call my need what you will, but I want to remind you and anyone else who uses the word "oversensitivity": it's just an amount of sensitivity, but is still real sensitivity. I bet it usually stems from "over abuse" somewhere down the line.

Curbing that abuse, offering consideration to everyone we can, I think that's the big goal here? And if someone's needs are too difficult for us to meet at a particular moment, I hope we can offer our regrets with respect and kindness, without labels and other hurtful agents. Besides avoiding doing harm, that respect can go a long way for someone who doesn't see it often.

The Goldfish said...

You make a good point Natalie.

The example I can think of is when a town council - or at least an individual within a town council - proposed that they should find another word for Christmas (and the associated festivities, lights, concerts etc), as if the very word Christmas would offend non-Christians.

Now in the UK, as a non-Christian, it is perfectly possible to largely avoid mention of God, Jesus, Mary and Co, if you so choose. Of course there are signs outside Churches, there are carol services going on, but if an alien landed in the UK in December and you asked what the Christmas story was, it would probably suggest the narrative to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

So within this context, it does seem over-sensitive. However, if someone was trying to remove religiousity from public communal festivities, then absolutely. As a non-Christian, I feel Christmas belongs to my culture and has meaning to me even if I'm not celebrating the birth of my Saviour. And indeed, this was always the idea; they coincided the date for Christmas within a few days of the Winter Solstice so that the Christian celebration could quietly usurp the pagan one and nobody would notice the difference.

But you are quite right; as a non-Christian living in the UK, the only place I have been made to feel defensive about my agnosticism has been on the Internet coming across inidividuals who really do think that there is one, narrow path into Heaven and that the vast majority of the world ain't going to make it. This is a very rare attitude to find over here, even among the deeply religious people I know and love. We are very fortunate in that respect.

Anonymous said...

It's now 96,700 counts of "political correctness gone mad", about a year after you wrote this entry, so it seems it's getting madder.