In praise of political correctness

hate-week
Still from the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984

Political correctness gone mad.

How many times have you heard this phrase? Me, I’ve lost count, but I could almost guarantee that the person speaking it has it in mind to say something outrageous about how wrong it is to try to be a decent human being. (It’s the same as when somebody declares, “I’m not racist, but …” — though, regretfully, that’s a topic for another time.)

Here are two definitions I’ve culled from the ether of political correctness which to me reflect the original concept of the phrase:

[T]he avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.

The second definition is couched in similar terms:

[L]anguage, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offence or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society.

Words are tricksy things, aren’t they? Concepts like prejudice and discrimination can be positive or negative depending on the context and, in particular, who’s using it about whom. So political correctness — which originally suggested the most morally appropriate way to deal with social difference — is now more commonly used as a stick to beat those who support the disadvantaged in any particular social situation. It’s become a pejorative term. And as with “I’m not a racist, but…” you just know that the person out of whose mouth drops the phrase is going to offer an intolerant rant.

Just try this: type political correctness into any search engine and trawl through the images. Nine out of ten of the images, nearly all emanating from US sites, will be anti-PC. They’ll quote rightwing critics of PC — Charleston Heston (“tyranny with manners”) or Donald Trump (“killing our country”) — or they’ll imply that it interferes with free speech (“cultural Marxism”). You’ll note that they’ll suggest that the people who are unhappy about gratuitous insults being thrown around are somehow the aggressors and the opinionated abusers are most definitely the victims. Ironic, isn’t it?

Some stand-up comedians are unhappy about political correctness too. Much humour is built on aggression of one sort or another, laughing at the disadvantaged (slapstick is almost exclusively so) and at those who are different from the perceived norm. The gentlest humour is that which is self-deprecating, poking fun at us so that we take ourselves a little less seriously; but aggressive humour picks on whoever is seen as the outsider, usually for the sin of being of a different sexual orientation, skin pigment or hair colour, or religion (or none), or having a physical or mental disability. Yet there are those satirists who, while superficially poking fun and launching barbs at PC-ness, are more subtly getting us to examine our own ill-thought out preconceptions and confront our hidden prejudices.

big-brotherStill, we’ve seen this kind of bullying before and we know where, unchecked, it inevitably leads, so I don’t need to spell it out. But all those who gleefully proclaim that they’re proud to be politically incorrect, who dub anyone sensitive to insults as a snowflake: beware! Those who jump on the anti-PC bandwagon and implicitly or explicitly declare their support for the latest bullyboy by persecuting these PC snowflake types should know their history. Give too much power to an clique or individual and they pretty soon turn on you if you show the slightest hint that you are not “one of us”. And even being a dyed-in-the-wool henchman is no guarantee that you won’t be stabbed in the back if you pose any kind of threat to that political power. If you’re in any doubt, see Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea for confirmation.

To praise political correctness is to celebrate diversity, not limit it; we all share a common humanity, but if we seek to define what is normal with arbitrary benchmarks (and, believe me, bullies are entirely arbitrary in their criteria for what constitutes normality) then many common human traits will be redefined as abnormal, subnormal, subhuman and even devilish.

And then heaven help us all.

big-brother

I’ve used stills from the 1956 film version of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as the most immediately memorable piece of literature dealing with totalitarianism, but it’s not the only apposite one that springs to mind at present 

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21 thoughts on “In praise of political correctness

    1. I was shocked by the absolute virulence of the memes and slogans and quotes that were anti any form of political correctness, as though insults, bullying and uninformed opinion are greater human virtues than compliments, kindness and thoughfulness.

      Depressing. But resistence is never useless!

  1. I’m reading a book right now — Dark Money by Jane Mayer — which, among other things, illuminates how conservatives were able to make “political correctness” so unacceptable while infiltrating the mainstream with their own disguised hatespeak and antisocial thinking. The funding of think tanks and largely unregulated private foundations by ultra-conservative billionaires has a lot to do with it; they actively and consciously have sought to undermine the educational system which was tending to support more “liberal” thinking — perhaps because that’s the kind of thinking that actually leads to the betterment of the world, instead of just the profit of billionaires.

    I’ll be posting more about the book soon, but I definitely recommend it for all who are scratching their heads right now and saying “How did this happen?”

    1. What you say about Mayer’s thesis confirms the impression I’ve had for many years, that this anti-PC meme is not just a popular reaction but one whipped up by a rightwing press opposed to any restrictions on their freedom to make money at the expense of the many.

      In the UK this antagonism is directed at Health & Safety regulations (lots of scare stories about children unable to play traditional games) and EU rules (the old chestnut about ‘straight bananas’ is bound to emerge whenever Europe is mentioned in politically mixed company). And of course too many rightwing politicians are happy to capitalise on popular fears, whether well grounded or not.

  2. Very timely, and nicely put! I’ve enjoyed the recent rise to prominence of the U.S. Merriam Webster dictionary as a source of clarification and gentle humour as the confused Americans search for the meaning of ‘alternative facts’, and even, you’ll be pleased to see ‘snowflake’!

    M.W.describe the original slang use:
    “In Missouri in the early 1860s, a ‘snowflake’ was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery—the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people. This use seems not to have endured.”

    Much fun to be had here:
    http://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2017/02/14/how-dusty-merriam-webster-dictionary-reinvented-itself-bigly/Knytvd8ZHBjHismFi4fK9N/story.html

    1. Interesting link, Lizza, thanks! Particularly so as I’ve been ruminating in recent days on composing a post about … dictionaries!

      On my mobile WordPress has been kindly pointing the way to other posts on PC, and it’s noteworthy that left of centre bloggers are searching for alternative terms for it while still standing up for common human decency and respect. In the US, at least, PC appears to have a rather different history and present legacy to what some of us in the Anglocentric world may be used to.

      The change in the meaning of ‘snowflake’ was new to me. In fact I assumed that the insult was to denigrate lefties as delicate creations who would melt under the glare of ‘truth-tellers’, over-sensitive namby-pambies who needed to get out of the kitchen if they couldn’t stand the heat. Maybe it means that as well.

  3. Yes, that is how it is currently being used, the other use was historical, but adds nice colour!
    MW also came up with a correction for the new US Education secretary who misused this word – saying Trump’s inauguration was historical when she should have said historic ( or maybe hysterical?)
    I’m having to use the dictionary much more often with all this word abuse flying around – but it’s good. Save our words!!!

    1. I think a lot of us wish that Trump’s inauguration was ‘historical’ — that is, it happened some time in the past and that his presidency was all done and over with now — but while it’s shocking that an Education Secretary can’t use the appropriate word, nothing about this administration seems to surprise us any more.

      Words and phrases change over time, and that’s evolution, but this revolution in favour of Humpty-Dumptyism** is doing all our heads in.

      ** On Humpty-Dumptyism see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumptyism and http://wp.me/s2oNj1-struth

  4. My point of view is that it becomes intensely irritating when words or phrases used in all innocence suddenly become verboten because somebody or somebodies decide that they might be regarded as offensive to certain sectors (often those sectors haven’t personally noticed it), I had no idea ‘slant’ was any more than an incline until it was blown up in Top Gear.

    Or when the PC mania goes so far as to attack things like Blonde jokes (the stereotypical blondes still enjoy them, and those with doctorates enjoy them even more). I don’t believe it is a good thing when we start analysing everything we write or say in case it contains something someone somewhere might find offensive. Indeed, some sayings and writings are meant to offend because the targets are offensive.

    The effect of demonising a lot of these things is often to blow them up out of all proportion, thus making a malignant wart out of a pimple, and they don’t really change the mindset of the bigoted but merely hide it from view — which is not necessarily a good thing.

    No, I contend that PC should be applied with a light brush.

    1. As ever, Leslie, you say much that I agree with — though with rather more acerbic force than I would use — along with the occasional faint echo of Genghis Khan! But the thrust of what you say is, I believe, that a sensible balance should be struck where sensitivities are concerned, the ‘light brush’ you refer to.

      Here’s my take on the issue: we should listen to those who are targeted with epithets and be minded of how they’d really like to be referred to. Red Indians are neither particularly red (just as rednecks are not always so) nor are they Indians: they are the indigenous peoples of North America and have been so for millennia. Inuit and Yupik peoples of the Arctic regions accept but prefer not to be called Eskimos, an arbitrary name applied to them by immigrants. People on the autism spectrum would rather not be called imbeciles or ‘feebleminded’ as was formerly the case,even within living memory.

      This is just simple respect. Rather than making a malignant wart out of a pimple, using whatever is the preferred term is a mark of respect, and not to do so is deliberate aggression. The ‘free speech’ that apologists demand is their right neglects to consider the concomittant requirement of responsibility.

      But, as you say, all this is not going to change the mindset of the bigoted. Compassion, for some, seems an impossible virtue to acquire; and, for the rest of us, difficult to maintain in the face of sustained antagonism.

      1. We are at one with these sentiments. It is richly ironic, though, that not enough thought is given to ‘substitute’ names. Take ‘African American’ or ‘Native American’ for example. Many of the former did not originate in African, and the latter were in the country ages before Vespucci was born. Sensible terms have been demonised and dropped, like ‘native’ in South Africa, now taken to be derogatory, or ‘aboriginals’ in Oz, ditto.

  5. I could write a book about how the most objectionable elements of the Aus political scene throw around the term “political correctness”. Anyone who advocates less than all-out war on Islam is just being politically correct. Anyone who objects to vilification on the ground of race is just being pc. As is anyone who objects to insults against gay people. And the pc band, in this view, is a mindless group of lefties who are too brainwashed or too smug to see reality. “Free speech” means you can say anything you like. Strangely enough, such people are very quick to sue when they’re offended!

    1. Yes, Humpty Trumpty hates being treated the way he treats others. Sad!

      It seems likely that a significant proportion of any nation is going to feel bowed down by PC values, ready to bob up out of their murky waters at the first sign of any ‘legitimising’ of their point of view. Brexit has done that in the UK, Trump has voiced the instincts of what Clinton ill-advisedly (though possibly truthfully) called a ‘basket of deplorables,’ and I’ve heard enough news items about Aus to confirm that you have your basketcases too. (And, yes, that too is a rabidly insulting term I now withdraw unreservedly.)

  6. It’s a hard line to get right. I’m not really a supporter of censorship, but we should all be intelligent enough to know when to censor ourselves and to realise that what we say in our heads isn’t always a wise and kind thing to say aloud.
    I hate the way pc has become a stick to bash lefties too. Pc was a reaction to all the hate filled bile that was allowed to run unchecked when you and I were still kids – a study of 1970s TV shows how long it all lasted. And yes, we all have to try to keep a sense of perspective and a good sense of humour too, but being derogatory about people due to their colour or race or gender or disability does just reinforce the idea that people are different and lesser to the majority.
    A great post, Chris. Timely, sensible and balanced

    1. Thanks, Lynn, yes to everything you said. I too remember all those unfunny ‘On the Buses’ type sitcoms that really made me feel uncomfortable, and just about remember the ‘colour bar’ on Bristol buses that rightly stoked public indignation a little earlier in the 60s. What a world away that seems now, and yet that demonisation of those regarded by too many benighted bigots as outsiders has really returned with a vengeance. It’s all so dispiriting.

      1. All true, Chris. But surely, even though we have taken a step back, we’ve still moved on from where we were back then. At least the law has changed, enshrining basic rights, even of many people’s world view is shrinking

  7. I agree with the points both gertloveday and Lynne Love ( both names contain the word “love”! Coincidence??) made.

    Whilst i wholeheartedly support the idea of trying our best to not be offensive or insulting (that’s just basic decency, really), i’m not comfortable with things getting *too* censorial, either. Not because i agree in any way with any of the awful, hateful things i hear, but because it keeps the people saying the hateful things visible. Even if they’re not allowed to speak their opinions, they’ll still be thinking them. Then all the while growing more and more resentful of the “PC brigade” (ie anyone against greed and cruelty). A dangerous situation, i feel. However, at the moment it does seem that these people have ample platform for their hate, while the targets of the hate don’t often have that advantage…hence the necessity of a bit o’ PCness.

    I think many people are scared of the idea of PCness because they think it suggests that you can’t have a sense of humour or irreverence. And to a point, i do understand that fear. There’s a big difference between being a bit cheeky and contributing to the oppression of the oppressed, after all. But it can be difficult to agree where the line is. What’s offensive to, say, me as a woman, will not be offensive to another woman, or vice versa. What seems merely cheeky to me might reek of sexism/ apologism to another. Who gets to decide? Definitely not anybody who doesn’t actually belong to the group of people in question, that’s for sure. But it can be a grey area. Sometimes a person isn’t being oppressive, but simply very rude. And while i don’t advocate rudeness, we can’t regulate people’s personalities (for better or for worse!).

    On the other hand, it would be nice if we could stop making idiots famous, so we don’t all have to HEAR their rude bullshit. (And i’m talking about certain TV personalities / some movie stars etc here, NOT clearly racist, sexist, homophobic, greedy, ignorant, hateful, narcissistic politicians.)

    Another thing which i think people fear is having their ignorance (and we all have some of this; none of us know everything, after all) interpreted as hate or malice. Again though,the difference between these is generally quite obvious to most. And in the event that you’ve said something stupid which inadvertently offended, then at least if you’re called out on it, you know, and can use the information to inform your future actions (or words). It doesn’t hurt to be aware.

    Clearly, i don’t have any wisdom to offer here. But it’s vital that we discuss such things, and to be open to a broad spectrum of opinions. And that’s really what political correctness aims to do; to bring a platform to those who’ve never had access to one which allows their voices to be heard. It might not be perfect (nothing is), but we do need it. After all, the bullies have been very loud for a very long time.

    1. The whole thing about PC should be that it is about balance. When either extreme, whether neofascists or thought police, play up their different viewpoints as the only true one, they forget the common human decency that you’ve already mentioned elsewhere. I agree with all you say about the grey areas, and the fear that people cover up and the lack of humour that some seem to have — all good stuff, thanks.

      PS More ‘coincidence’ to add to Gert Loveday and Lynn Love: my surname is Lovegrove. 🙂

      1. Yes, definitely. What the people opposed to PC seem to forget is that they’ve been hogging the loudspeaker themselves for so long. They become indignant when one of the little people tries to use it for 2 minutes.
        Ha! I think that nice little synchronicity is a sign that love may prevail yet! Well, that’s how i’m going to interpret it, anyway 🙂

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