Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Short PC Essay

I'm going to have to admit that the tide is coming in. My feet are wet and there is no stopping it. The world has decided to use the term political correctness to describe any act of apparently excessive inclusiveness and I can't stop it. Would that I could.

What is the current definition? Wikipedia, not always right but usually current, says, '...a term used to describe language, or behaviour, which is claimed to be calculated to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to the racial, cultural, or other identity groups being described.'

The truth hiding in this definition is based on the linguistic theory (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that the language we use shapes our ideals. So if we say 'man' instead of 'person' we are unwittingly giving away our gender bias. The popularity of this hypothesis in the early 80s led to many examples of useful change in areas of disability, education and even liturgy. We stopped sinning against our fellow men and erred and strayed against 'others' or 'other people.' This grated for a bit. Changing single words in well-known hymns and prayers annoyed people who had known the words and used them regularly for many years. Things didn't really improve until a new army of liturgists, steeped in the need for inclusivity, devised totally new material.

I was watching TV a few months ago and an item on local news about the loss of permission for a World War 2 bomber to fly over Coventry and its suburbs. A representative of the airshow the plane was part of clearly explained that they had been unable to obtain insurance this year. This didn't stop the reporters doing a vox pop and eliciting the quote, 'Is this that political correctness then?'

A little later Leamington Town Council delayed putting up its summer hanging baskets until they had done stress tests on all the lamp-post brackets. 'Political correctness gone mad,' said voices in the street. Er no. It's a litigious society who will sue the council for lost wages after cracking a fingernail following a minor tumble on a bit of water that hasn't soaked away in seconds. The whole population will hardly agree to withdraw their rights to action if nutted by a falling hanging basket and so the council was right.

Now other issues are raised by this. 'To make everything yield to considerations of safety is to invite a different risk: that of living without opportunity, progress or growth.' (A.C. Grayling - The Reason of Things.) One of the reasons I felt the need to get out of doing summer camps for teenagers was that I felt I was spending too long on covering my back in case I was sued and not long enough actually being safe.

Writing in The Independent in 2004, Miles Kington defined political correctness as, '...the demand that we should treat every disadvantage as if it conferred dignity upon the sufferer.' This was brilliant. It was actually a politically correct definition of political correctness. There was a danger at the time that, in trying to be inclusive, we were only seeing the disadvantaged as a disadvantage, rather than as people.

So I believe I have lost and we will for ever define political correctness as a bad thing. But let's not chuck out the bath with the bath water (the baby's long gone). There is a need for inclusivity, welcome and hospitality in this world and correcting the way we talk about people makes us stop and think every time we try to include them. We may stumble over our words but language learners stumble lots. Baa baa black sheep was never as offensive to Afro-Carribeans as some right on 1980s lefty political thinkers thought it was. Neither were black boards or black-outs. But gollywogs were and rightly disappeared.

Saying 'It's political correctness gone mad' betrays our unwillingness to go on thinking inclusively these days. It's plain lazy. Let's plumb the bath back in and start over.


Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, my wife (Gill) put me on to your blog. I am enjoying it, and hope to make it to 'men in Pub' sometime soon. Gill and I were in Windsor the other day window shopping - and in the Bear shop we saw - a number of Golly Wogs - I like you thought they had dissappeared - there was even an article on display refereing to WOGS as Workers on Government Service - there was no evidence of anyone throwing things at the shop or holding vigils outside - just thought I should let you know.

St said...

My Dad told me it stood for Worthy Oriental Gentleman, back in the days when I laughed at stuff like that. Now I feel uncomfortable even writing it.