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Has political correctness gone mad?

March 9, 2015

My blood pressure rises slightly when I hear people use that phrase, usually because it indicates some laziness on behalf of the speaker. Why should I have to change my language in reference to gender / race / sexuality / class / ability? It’s political correctness gone mad! Oh yes, it would be horrible if we were to inconvenience all the able bodied straight middle class white men, wouldn’t it. Tragic indeed that the most advantaged of our society should have to lift a finger to be more mindful of those less advantaged.

It is also a misused term. Because it has become such a hot topic, certain politicians have seen fit to use “political correctness” to describe behaviours rather than words, in order to discredit a concept he dislikes.

There is something inherently racist about saying that political correctness in relation to colour doesn’t matter. What’s being implied is that words don’t matter. Racist language doesn’t matter. Once again, this is a white person’s argument amongst white people; what’s really being said is, it doesn’t matter between us, which is not the same as saying it doesn’t matter, but is taken as such, suggesting an underlying lack of consideration about anyone who isn’t white. White people argue against the existence of racism against black people who would really know better.

But what is most infuriating about the more conservative Conservatives assassinating political correctness is that it overshadows a genuine issue. They have no excuse, as politicians representing the country, not to try their level best to be aware of the effects of prejudice on our society. Their thoughts, however, affect the minds of people fundamentally different to them and seem justified because of it; I’m talking about people far removed from the corporate and political world, people isolated from the changes decided from higher up the socio-economic chain.

I’ve been saying for a while now how important it is to make a distinction between intention and effect. Not to ignore one and focus only on the other, but to embrace the importance of both equally, while giving credit where credit’s due and deducting it where it deserves deducting. There are many people in the world who are not politically correct, not because of a lack of consideration, but because of the difficulty in doing it. It is not laziness that starts the problem; the apparent laziness is only an excuse used after an event, when someone makes a mistake, in innocence, which is not received gracefully, they are made to feel small and silly which makes them resistant to change. It is people who are not in positions of power and authority that most make these mistakes and yet are held to account more often.

I think back to an anecdote of my teenage years. I have long been interested in mental health issues and at that time, the sister of friend of mine had to be institutionalised for severe mental health problems. That’s the word: “institution”. Not “asylum”, which is the word which came out of my mouth. We were both studying classic literature in our A-level English Literature class and asylum was the word that was used in the fiction we were reading, so got somewhat stuck in my head.

This friend of mine took offence, as she was wont to do. In the face of my protests, she explained (much to my annoyance) about negative connotations, which we had both learned at the same time that week in that same A-level English Literature class. I knew I’d used the wrong word, but her reaction, far from making me want to apologise, instead made my mind race around asking questions as to why I was apparently wrong and she right.

Connotations are tricky. Historical events can long effect language well after they are relevant. An asylum seeker is someone who seeks safety from harm in their home country by moving abroad. Asylum was granted in churches to give lay people protection from harm in the outside world. Asylum, meaning safety, has a long history of varied usage and is not a negative word; a mental asylum, let’s assume, originally meant a safe place for people with mental health difficulties.

Only, “mental health difficulties” was not a thing, then – rather, “insane” was the term. It is a word which, oddly, we still use in an increasingly trivial fashion. If I’d used it to refer to my friend’s sister, it would have been offensive without doubt because it would have demonstrated on my part a deep lack of understanding about the reality of mental health problems. Insane is a fixed, seemingly untreatable state. Few people find themselves in this state and we are lucky enough to live in a society that favours treatment and integration to institutionalisation.

“Institutionalisation”… There’s a horrible word. It suggests putting someone away somewhere out of site, not for the safety of themselves, but for the safety of others. A prison or borstal is an institution. Rehab is an institution. These stripped, clinical terms are not the aids of empathy. They are by-products of a political correctness which, however well-meaning of its champions, occasionally misses its mark.

There was never any problem with the word “asylum” just as there was never any problem with referring to non-white people as “coloured”. The proof of this, if there can be such a thing, is in the fact that the politically correct term for that is now “people of colour”. How do they differ, other than the latter being far clunkier? One is new, the other is old. One has not (yet) become a negatively connotated term, whereas the other has. The syntactical difference has been analysed to the nth degree, given weight and significance to an extent that would make James Joyce cringe.

Understanding that words and their connotations have precise historical context is not the same as demanding that political correctness always be observed. An association of an attitude with a word is a useful way of determining stigma, up to a point. Certain serious words almost always indicate this, and are intended to by the users. This begs the question of whether it gives too much power to people who wish to offend and strips too much from people who would otherwise be thick skinned. On balance, I think being able to easily identify prejudice or burgeoning prejudice is useful for keeping it in check and that care with language is essential.

However, we must be careful not to think that care with language means care never to use particular words. Let me recount yet another conversation I had only recently, which shows the gigantic difference between words themselves and their use.

In casual conversation, I was recalling to colleagues how, once upon a time, an item that was left outside my family home went mysteriously missing overnight. It was nothing important, some metal frame that was a bit worn down. Collectively, my family and I reached the conclusion that due to the increasing prevalence of them in our area, it was probably mistaken for scrap metal by “gypsies” and taken away. I immediately apologised slightly for my use of the word gypsy, as the politically correct term had momentarily escaped me. Whereupon one of my audience hitched upon her face a look of the utmost disdain and said dismissively: “Gypsies are gypsies.”

You can see a distinct difference. My awareness of my own lack of political correctness, by way of apology, was my way of illustrating that I didn’t mean offence. I didn’t have to do that; I knew I was surrounded by people who, even if they cared, would be unlikely to challenge me. I apologised mainly for myself, not wishing to contribute to a culture of casually peddling out the language of prejudice, thus further creating the impression that we can say what we like without concern or empathy for others.

I don’t have an issue with the travelling community. The person I was speaking to, however, did. She indicated this clearly with her direct indication that I shouldn’t care or worry how I refer to the travelling community because, well, “Gypsies are gypsies,” and don’t deserve my respect. The words we used meant nothing. The way we used them meant everything. In the newspapers and in the words of politicians, the most politically correct language in the world can be used to disguise prejudice, because the language of prejudice is not determined by one-word descriptions.

There is no difference between these statements:

“The criminal, who was a person of colour…”

“The criminal, who was a coloured man…”

The relevant point in both examples is that a false connection has been made between the colour of someone’s skin and the crime they committed. This is the language of prejudice; far more nuanced than any one word thrown out at random by mistake. Indeed, the current political correctness policing has a tendency to protect people who have the resources and wherewithal to make sure that their language stays strictly within the boundaries of current trends in politically correct words and phrases, whatever their attitudes. It penalises people who live day to day, who do not move in the circles required to make sense of all the finicky changes in syntax from “X people” to “people of/with X” that come from the heightened sensibilities of middle class people living in California who have too much time on their hands.

How long before:

People with lesbianism

People of foreign heritage

People of the gay persuasion

Like with euphemisms, it is possible while in the process of seeking politically correct language, to find that the language previously constructed for euphemistic reasons or political correctness become inadequate as they are appropriated by other people with different thoughts in mind. Currently, “people of the gay persuasion” is such a ridiculous term it seems unlikely anyone would use it in prejudice, since it requires the extra thought and effort the bluntest of terms never have.

However, this depends too much on cultural sensibilities. In the next ten years, if “people of the gay persuasion” takes off, might not wordier people who fancy themselves intelligent use it ironically, only to follow it with a pervasive damaging stereotype? I suggest, in fact, that the more separate from the day to day reality of casual, friendly personal speech we become with these terms, the more these concepts become alien. They become ineffable. There is no way to say them without sounding like either a brute or a scientist and a wish to sound like neither runs the risk of eradicating the discussion of various social issues.

For someone who genuinely desires an open discussion on a topic such as gay health, welfare or protection from hate crime, no speaker should find they are unable to speak freely on behalf of the group because the words they would use for ease and convenience have been replaced with clunky constructions that seem almost to have been designed never to be spoken. The only other way around this is to make sure that the only people who ever speak on the subject are people who are part of the group under discussion and thus at liberty to use the terms they like. I can’t deny that I think there is call for the people affected by the issue to be consulted more. I notice with race issues particularly, you will usually witness a black person debating with a white person. The debate should be between two black people – not even two people of colour, because the racism experienced by one race is not exactly the same as the other.

That is another problem with the language of political correctness. It reduces, rather than expands, our lexicon and makes it general where it ought to be specific. Coloured people was a term that ceased to be appropriate, I imagine in part because of its tendency to lump together people of all cultures and colours who were not white. Since this sensibility was drawn from the idea of white superiority, it made sense to get rid of it. However, with the introduction of the term “people of colour”, we are recognising something else; different they might be, but for various reasons all people of colour experience problems of racism in their society at the hands of white people and should thus be considered in the oppressed category.

This is acceptable as a starting point, but it rather gets in the way of conversations about race. For race does not just mean black, though it is largely considered to. There’s almost a darkness prerogative – the darker you are, the more racism you must encounter so the more qualified you must be to talk on racism. I doubt it is this simple, and in parts of the world it is relevant to discuss how different races respond to each other, as racism between other races can be just as pervasive as racism to PoC from white people.

The white agenda of our news makes it difficult for us to appreciate that not all conversations about race have to include, or be about white people. We should change media coverage to reflect the idea that race is not a always a question of White People VS X, so that white people aren’t always so infernally convinced that every discussion of race is theirs to have in preference to anyone else. The language of political correctness, lumping all people of colour in together all the time, will not help with this. It is similar for disability; the needs of a deaf person are not the same as the needs of paraplegics. Or maybe should that be: people with deafness and people with paraplegia.

Meanwhile, those who are genuinely prejudiced get to hide in the protection of their carefully chosen words, equally quite as prejudiced as anyone who makes a verbal slip-up in conversation with friends. This is more dangerous than any one word; not outing themselves directly, their prejudice shows itself in more subtle ways that we overlook because that person doesn’t appear to be overtly prejudiced. Since people like journalists and politicians are in positions of power and authority, they can change minds – and in the case of state powers, change legislation and policies – to suit their prejudiced thinking and agenda.

This may remain unchecked because they have not yet outed themselves as prejudiced by using the wrong individual words. They may convince themselves of their own lack of prejudice because they have sensibilities about what words “should” be used. Is there any value in knowing what term someone “should” be known as, when regardless of how they are known, you still suspect a particular social group of tendencies towards wrongdoing they have never be satisfactorily linked with?

An accusation of prejudice on such a person will cause great affront, but this can easily be posturing – indeed, however much they may not be prejudiced, their reaction to any slight suggestion that they do not entirely have the best interests of another social group at heart will be met with such an overblown reaction I suspect that it is mainly for show. For one cannot be seen to be prejudiced, and this has become the key point in our public figures, and political correctness of a kind; one cannot be seen to be thinking something, even if one is doing so.

It may be argued that we cannot police thought. True, it would be a draconian state indeed that tried to sanction unshared thoughts, should it ever become possible, just as it would be draconian to jail people for sneezing. That is if you think of thoughts as a sneeze – a sporadic response to a stimulus that cannot be prevented. My opinion is that some thought is like this. We call it a gut reaction. Gut reactions give little indication as to the logical understandings of your surroundings and conscious thought. You can “sneeze” a racist stereotype in your mind and scold yourself for it, and I have no doubt many people do. The type of thought I’m concerned with is the person than sneezes and thinks the contents of his hanky are liquid gold. Unfortunately, there are plenty of those, too.

This is the type of thought I propose “controlling”, not in any draconian sense, but in the politically correct sense of observing the problems, however well they are hidden, and challenging modes and attitudes. Anyone who thinks this method of policing thought, if it is to be viewed this way, is an infringement on freedom, is essentially against the concept of education. Education involves challenging preconceptions. Wanting to challenge preconceptions on social issues is normal and those who are “policing thought” are not committing any cardinal sin by suggesting that certain patterns of thought are faulty and destructive and must be challenged.

Since we are already against freedom of expression more than we like to think, because we ban the language of hatred, attempting to change the thoughts of people who think the thoughts of hatred does not seem such an impeachment. For after all, what good does it serve for someone to no longer express their prejudiced view, when they still have it? Not sharing it allows it to pass unchecked until it solidifies beyond repair.

The effect of their prejudice is further reaching than the words they say. Without being conscious of them, their attitudes will affect their behaviour and interaction with people on the receiving end of their prejudice. By blocking all types of language, we may be reducing the effect of the language of hate; but we are also blocking our own attempts to recognise the prevalence of faulty attitudes and work towards preventing them. It has become so taboo to be prejudiced, we are out of the habit of asking where prejudices come from and how we can change them, instead preferring to plot together on how best to shame someone who is “caught out” as a prejudiced person.

We have become a society of spies, attempting to trip each other up, distrusting and suspicious, sneaking around and hiding behind words. Because prejudice fills us with such horror, we forget that it is a sliding scale between virulent, violent racism and mild stereotyping, and most people fall between these two points. Whereas is is always acceptable to take people up on what they say in order to question attitudes, I wonder about the merit of taking people up on what the words they use simply because of some status the word has picked up over the years – or, in the information age, months and weeks.

In mind should be the wider benefit of educating another person away from the lines of thought that caused them to say the words in the first place, if there were any. Block the words, and you will not find the line of thinking. Open conversations about people’s preconceptions are important for our development; when these conversations are muffled behind hands, they must be held many more times than when they are spoken from a platform.

The language of discrimination is complex, far beyond our ability to affix connotations to individual words. Words used in cultures and for the purposes of art indicate nothing of the prejudice of the person using them. In rap music, we overlook certain words as they refer to a specific cultural usage that is supposed to be accessible to a certain type of audience and is only offensive to people outside of it. It only becomes the language of prejudice when it describes discriminatory action towards an outgroup.

Our tendency to focus on specific words is a distraction. It silences people prematurely and brands them as ignorant when they are making a social point, or attempting to work through their own burgeoning thoughts on the matter. Without knowing anything of a person’s background or intentions, we feel free to make assumptions based on the occasional verbal misstep, which may be thanks to having been left out of the loop by constant changes in language.

I would dare to say that our current view on political correctness is inherently classist. It overlooks the possibility that there are people who have not the time, energy, motivation or inclination to be politically correct about every word, that they have their own work culture which probably does not (perhaps cannot, for social or practical reasons) involve excessively long or flowery phrases – under which heading the phrase “people of colour” may count.

It may well be that the types of discussions that lend themselves to the phrase are more office-based and middle class: where much is spoken and discussed; where there is time to comb over words because words make up the basis of work; where businesslike and formal conversation is so important to the work culture that there is necessity to pick at words and form a lexicon of jargon and carefully selected words; where civil suits can be brought against people for small reasons, because people have the money to do it. Wherever none of this is true, you can reasonably expect work language to be significantly different.

I can well understand why someone who is not accustomed to measuring and monitoring their speech constantly in a corporate environment, but rather speaks the words which give the most information most directly, would question what great difference is served by a change in syntax. The argument is that you are emphasising the word “people” first; one might counter that “people” is a given, since we are talking about a human specific notion. So, the emphasis of “people” is unnecessary and pedantic.

Unnecessary and pedantic are two things which proper political correctness or discussions about prejudice are not. These discussions, almost always had by higher income or middle class people, alienate others who are not involved in the discussion. Television debates, for example, tend to pick up an audience that share characteristics with the people on the debate; if both are middle class, fewer working class people will be watching it.

Therefore, the altogether more nuanced points made by middle class people of colour in response to their experiences of subtle racism are lost, in favour of a Chinese whispers whittling down of the points into the blunt idea that there are certain words someone shouldn’t say any more. How are working class people supposed to respond to this invasion of their world by people who don’t share it, making demands on them and attempting to change their lexicon for reasons no one bothers to properly explain? It must look pompous, presumptuous and didactic. People use ridiculous examples to illustrate the point for a reason; they find it quite as ridiculous as the example.

“If someone came to your door telling you to call bananas ‘curved fruits of yellow colouring’, you’d tell them to naff off.”

That racism and banana defining aren’t the same kettle of fish is something which has to be proved with anecdotal evidence by people of colour themselves, and this kind of education – while these days technically available to everyone via the internet – typically does not reach people before the bald conclusion of “this word is bad”, just as strange urban myths arrive at people’s consciousness before the context behind them does. Restrictions on language do not work in isolation because they forget that not everyone speaks the same language, and an outsider group dictating terms on which words can and can’t be used will never go down well, understandably so, with another oppressed group that is constantly having its language interfered with for one reason or another.

I question if such people can be expected to appreciate the difference between being told not to say “ain’t” and being told not to say other, more offensive, words. When it comes without context, it must sound like some construction, something that’s been made up for no reason except for amusement or to ease the sensibilities of some white collar. Perhaps if us RP speaking middle class people were less insistent that everyone speak our way for the most trivial of reasons, others would be more inclined to listen to thinking on the language of prejudice. It would not simply be another example of the toffs pontificating on how other people should speak.

There is a certain ageism to our kind of political correctness, too. Is an old timer who describes someone as “coloured” or even “negro” really prejudiced? Those were the words of his day. If he had wanted to be offensive, there were others far worse. Just because he lived though a time of casual prejudice, that does not mean he was prejudiced himself. That word he uses is used because in his memory, there is no other. Similarly, the language of humour, though a thorny issue, does account for some use of “offensive” terms. It very much depends who the joke is targeted at and how clear this is.

It’s fine to say: “I prefer to be known as X” or “Such-and-such a group now prefers to be known as X”. If that person refuses to make any slight attempt to alter their speech, they may be prejudiced, or more likely just selfish, including if they are attempting to be humourous. It is the rest of the conversation that holds most of the indication of prejudice. I fear that, in our hasty society, filled with tweets and tumblr messages, we have a tendency to jump the gun and assume prejudice when there is only a failure in vocabulary.

It is a problem of association. Because a certain word was used in a time of universal bad attitudes, we attribute weight to the word itself. Those words mean nothing bad or good on their own, they are simply the words of the period. We can stop using them and switch them out for more euphemistic ones, optimistic that we will never encounter that particular prejudice again.

Alas, we do. Racial prejudice has gone nowhere and in order to wheedle out racists, more and more terms become identified as racist. Different ones have to be constructed, as if the terms carry an infectious disease. The focus on changing language becomes all encompassing; rather than adjusting definitions so that they are more accurate, such as adjusting “insane” to “mentally ill”, we come up with endless synonyms that add nothing. Rather than focusing on the varied route causes of racism, we decide that everyone is indicating the same line of thinking by using the same words.

Clearly, ignoring language is no answer. We know from past experience that tolerance of language can indicate tolerance of steadily worsening prejudices. We should also be mindful that even if we mean nothing by what we are saying, it can be uncomfortable for other people, which amounts to a form of oppression.

Yet we should all understand that at some point, it may be better for us to consider a statue of limitations on old offensive terms, if the words indicate nothing inaccurate. It’s a bit too soon to start bandying about our most overtly racist term left right and centre (though I believe that day will come), but “asylum” is so old, so out of touch with anything anyone living has experienced, that the restrictions could be relaxed.

We could recognise that there is nothing to be gained from being afraid of language or history and that social banning of old words traps us from being able to engage with the concepts they described. “Asylum” is archaic, not offensive. If we’re going to tackle vocabulary in relation to mental health, we should scrutinise words like “crazy”, “nutcase” and “psycho” – currently used words that describe people still existing, not long since destroyed buildings and systems.

I conclude that it’s part of our social responsibility to be careful with language, to the best of our ability. It is polite to accept that the words you or I might use may not suit other people. On the other hand, to paraphrase what better minds have already said, no one has to right never to be offended. That is impossible. It is the responsibility of the offended to try, to the best of their capability, to stay level headed.


From → Leftism

  1. People have a right to say what they want. It doesn’t mean I have to listen to the ignorance. Furthermore if racially charged words are all bad then why do we still have the “Washington Redskins”. You know redskin meant red nigger. We have selective political correctness in this country. In reality you do not have any right to NOT be offended. You do have a right to say what you like, counter the stupidity of racism and other bigotry but nowhere does the first amendment promise you won’t be offended. As a matter of fact the 1st Amendment only protects your right to say anything you want.

    People get so hung up on being offended. I prefer to take control. Just like a radio I have choices. If say Glenn the train wreck Beck is saying his usually bullshit I have the right to change the channel or turn off my radio. But I don’t have a right to be offended. He has a right to say what he likes, I have a right to not listen to him, to think him a moron or to turn him off.

    Whenever we step on the rights of another we’ve also stepped on our own.


    “Sometimes it’s better to keep our mouths closed and be thought the fool than to open our mouths and illuminate all doubt.”

    My soldier friends have it right. I may not agree with what you have to say but I’ll defend your right to say it. Political correctness is a pox on this nation because common sense died before it.

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