Posted tagged ‘political correctness’

Mind your language!

August 27, 2009

Last year I wrote a post on political correctness, and mentioned the occasional attempts to sanitise our language of all possible suspect associations. In fact, I should say that I am not against being sensitive with language and avoiding expressions that are clearly offensive, particularly terms that were once used to dismiss ethnic or racial groups. However, all this can be taken too far. At a recent meeting which was conducted in an atmosphere of considerable gloom because of current economic conditions one participant remarked that it was a ‘black day’. His neighbour suddenly perked up and delivered himself of a long speech about how it was ‘the very worst kind of racism’ to use such offensive language so carelessly. The offending original speaker was flustered and embarrassed but subdued. Certainly not a racist, he wasn’t sure how to respond without making matters worse. I came to his defence and suggested he had a track record of being opposed to racism, and after a little more shuffling around the meeting settled happily back into the appropriate gloom about matters economic.

As a recent report noted, this kind of over-the-top concern with identifying unacceptable expressions is not uncommon, and increasingly language commissars are active in stopping us from using terms that we should find offensive even when we don’t. This brings us to the sort of verbal gymnastics that results in renaming Manchester as Personchester.

I am absolutely of the view that the use of expressions that have a history of use in discrimination or oppression is unacceptable. But equally we should not drive this kind of thing too far, and above all should avoid contrived words that take us to almost comical lengths in order to avoid associations that nobody saw in the first place. In language as in much else, we should not let go entirely of common sense. So for me it is OK to talk about a ‘black day’ (though I wish we didn’t have any), as indeed I don’t see that an accusation of a ‘whitewash’ is reprehensible as anti-white racism. In other words, we should not amend our language on the basis of the assumption that good people ought to be offended, even when they manifestly are not. We should be sensitive with our language, but we should not allow the tyranny of a language police.

Should we be politically correct?

October 18, 2008

The term ‘political correctness’ actually has a long pedigree. It is hard to be sure where it originated, though we know that Adam Smith used the term (in a critical sense) in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It was used in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and then by European radicals in the 1960s – but at that point, gradually, it began to be used ironically rather than approvingly. The term became famous from the 1980s, by which point it was adopted by conservatives to pour scorn on the perceived political purity of the dogmatic left; and as there were plenty of examples of the latter, the term stuck.

There seems to me to be little doubt that the approach to speech and discourse in the 1990s by many was quite simply stupid. I was also regularly dismayed at that time by the apparent need of progressive radicals to sugar-coat everything, so that nobody would ever be offended or challenged. The humorous lists circulating at the time of euphemisms for everything negative or unfortunate (a criminal was ‘ethically challenged’, a disabled person was ‘otherwise enabled’, and so on) were funny because they were also in part true – people did use such terms. And like many other people, I could feel a strong sense of relief when people rebelled against that and produced highly politically incorrect contributions to public debate.

It is sometimes argued that the adoption of the expression by the political right as a term of abuse for those on the left was extraordinarily successful, in the sense that it made it politically incorrect to be politically correct. But not everything about the movement to become more inclusive in public speech was bad. I for one welcome the fact that we almost never allow anyone to use the pronoun ‘he’ as a reference to humanity in general, and that we have stopped using insensitive terms for people with various handicaps. As in many things in life, it is best to observe a healthy and tolerant balance.

Universities in particular need on the one hand to support and protect free speech, but also to ensure that public discourse does not become a vehicle for judgement and discrimination. So while I am glad that the old political correctness is not what we aspire to, I hope we will not lose the benefits which, at least in some respects and contexts, it produced for us.