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But why do it matter? Offensive comparisons and political correctness

December 5, 2015

One of the problems of living in a society where political correctness is an accepted norm is that there are certain questions we become afraid to ask. “Why” is one. “Why” is a perfectly acceptable question, but one that is being discouraged in some contexts. In particular: “Why does it matter?” When we’re children, we always want to know why it matters, and adults sometimes have a hard time telling us. When we ourselves reach adulthood, we have adopted a number of attitudes which we cannot explain to our children.

Language is particularly tricky, because it is a living thing; it moves and changes, grows and evolves. It’s multifaceted and confusing. We need it, yet it changes around us and leaves us behind. The frustration of that puts us on the defensive, always wanting to know how this change has, apparently, suddenly happened; who has decided language should become this way? That is how we get into fierce arguments about political correctness which roundly miss the point.

The individual problem is ignored, and the broader issues of courtesy or racism / xenophobia are addressed; you are impolite if you do X, racist if you do Y. We’re often expected to accept this without question, otherwise we look all the ruder and more prejudiced. So, slowly we ask “why” less, even when it is a legitimate question; a question, moreover, that should have been answered in childhood but was wrongly snubbed, probably because the answer was considered too complicated.

I can’t talk generally about why something is offensive, or inoffensive. As I mentioned, the answer varies depending on the scenario. The scenario I’ll focus on is the comparison of two similar-looking objects, used in different cultures for distinctly different functions. For example, tea towels versus keffiyehs and lamp shades versus //rice paddy hats//.

No doubt, most people reading would look incredulously at any adult who made such a comparison, before starting to consider why. For children, we accept, these comparisons to some extent. I distinctly remember the Aryan Librarian trotting around with a biscuit tin lid on his head at the age of 10, claiming to be “Chinese”. We accept this because we know children are not capable of racism, in the sense we understand it; they are beings born innocent of complex prejudice. Prejudice must be imparted on them.

Instead, their innocence suggests a curiosity. They measure their entire world by objects they already know in order to understand them better. In fact, everyone does – we are forever comparing new objects to old ones, in order to interpret what they are and how they might work. The difference is that children’s’ knowledge is limited by their limited years. Their comparison objects are few, so a large number of unrelated objects appear to resemble the ones closest. Arguably, this ability to compare things which to older eyes look distinctly different is an important part of imagination.

In adulthood, these comparisons become unacceptable, because we expect adults to have a broader range of comparative objects. I think it would be fair to say that people who make these simplistic comparisons lack worldliness; it is unlikely that someone well-travelled would ever describe a keffiyeh as resembling a tea towel. More likely, they would compare it to some other clothing item found in another culture or point in history.

That means that to use such a description is immature. But it is more than that; it betrays a lack of lateral thinking. If we think that a keffiyeh resembles a tea towel, the obvious question is again, why. A rational person might assume that it is because the difference in function between the two is not as great as it first seems; both absorb dampness, albeit in different contexts.

Without knowing for a fact, I entertain the possibility that the tea towel was in some distant way derived from the keffiyeh. I would never assume that the keffiyeh is derived from the tea towel because the keffiyeh is the older object. It is also an object of greater importance, and an object that a larger selection of people (in the history mankind) have been exposed to, in one form or another.

Defining cultural clothing or important items like protective head gear by the yardstick of mundane objects shows a tendency to think of the tea-towel-inventing culture as being the dominant culture. We, with our tea towels, are more important than they, with their keffiyehs. Therefore, tea towels are not like keffiyehs, but keffiyehs are like tea towels.

Thinking that mundane items of the West, the middle classes and the rich are the starting point for defining any object shows how closeted the thinking of more “advanced” civilisations can be. Acknowledging that two cultures use a similar-looking item differently is not in itself prejudiced. It is only the way of expressing it that suggests that the speaker thinks, somewhere in the back of their mind, that Western influences and cultures come first, and all others are behind and backwards.

To do so is to fail to notice the shape, material and engineering of a man-made object. When I highlighted earlier that both the keffiyeh and the tea towel serve the same purpose, I was acknowledging – without having any advanced knowledge of physics or chemistry – that both are specifically and carefully designed to serve a function. In our every day life, we often overlook the extent to which ancient and everyday objects have been carefully engineered, based on observations and principles. Moreover, they continue to be so today, leading to their improvement.

When we realise this, we tend to automatically start to see items not part of our current culture in a different light. We see them as feats of human ingenuity, not merely the arbitrary decision of foreign people, who “don’t do things how we do.” While culture is indeed by its nature arbitrarily determined, all culturally specific practises have a root. Without understanding the root, there is no understanding the culture. There may be acceptance, but not understanding; I think our “why do they wear tea towels” friends are simply people who demand understanding before they will give acceptance, and find themselves unable to get at it, thanks to purposeful roadblocks in conversations that the group fears will become impolite.

All that can be done is to encourage others, especially children, to understand why certain objects are designed the way they are – in the simplest terms we can considering there are concepts of science and engineering at work. Television programmes and YouTube videos about how things are made serve two purposes; 1) increases your overall object knowledge, leading to a greater and thus more accurate comparison database in your brain 2) teaches you the nature and design of objects; plus perhaps their history and their possible influence on the future, making the decisions and directions of other cultures appear for the first time rational, as opposed to weird.

From analysing of my own responses, I observe that examining objects and questioning the nature of them is a major key to tackling certain types of presumptions and prejudiced language. It’s easy to assume you’re a member of the most advanced culture on earth when within it, a complex range of contraptions work without anyone owning a complete knowledge as to how or why. Bluntly put, if we knew how stupid we were, we would be less inclined to assume the stupidity of other people. We barely know the complexity of simple objects; we think we know how a towel works, without actually having any idea. Why is it absorbent? Not many people know the answer.

Understanding how a towel works and where it comes from isn’t difficult to understand, even if it isn’t commonly known; knowing it revitalises respect for the people who discovered it. Until we know what contribution people of other cultures have made to our everyday lives, from the mundane to the exciting, we tend to consider them irrelevant. The understanding makes relevant people who we may never have thought about before – people of the past and, more often than not, of other cultures.


From → Leftism

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