Friday, 27 April 2012

Politically Correct

Once upon a time, "PC" in Britain meant "Police Constable". It still does. However, now it may also mean "Personal Computer" or "politically correct", so you could have a PC PC with a PC. Interesting though police constables and personal computers are, I want to focus on those two devious words "politically correct". I believe the term originated in the U.S.A. as a reaction against tight social or organisational control on what people could say. While essentially the same issues of racism, sexism, disablism and so on exist in the U.S. and the U.K., together with the same approaches to opposing them, it seems clear that the U.S. culture has been more prescriptive and restrictive than the U.K.'s: things that very few people would object to someone saying in the U.K. would meet with shock and condemnation in the U.S., and I'm not talking about grossly racist or sexist language. In its origin, then, the term may have been a healthy revolt against too much unthinking prescription. The culture of "political correctness", correctly understood, is not a matter of challenging possibly hurtful or contemptuous words, but of ruling them socially inadmissable, thus preventing debate and open learning. The term crossed the Atlantic at a time when we in the U.K. had come nearer to an orthodoxy of language on sensitive issues than before or after. It was used vigorously in the media to hold up to ridicule people who said terms like "manhole cover" or "history" were sexist or that a local council should not talk about "Christmas". However, most of the examples which hit the tabloid press were invented, the ban on talking about manhole covers being a classic example. There was indeed, I know, an attempt to rename women's history as herstory (a misunderstanding, as "history" is from Latin "historia", a story, and nothing to do with male gender) - but the draft council document concerned was promptly changed, with down-to-earth criticism, by the committed feminist councillor it went to for approval. History survived. The orthodoxy of language declined, except in the field of disability issues. Now on both sides of the Atlantic it's used almost entirely to sneer. Object to offensive language and it's very likely someone will say, "Oh, right - political correctness!" To question why there are no Black people working in reception, or no women in senior management, is "politically correct" - and as soon as the dread two words have been uttered, people think the argument can be dismissed. So what started as a challenge to unthinking orthodoxy has become unthinking orthodoxy itself. Such is life. This is not to say that there aren't still reasonable points that end to get frowned at (the unreasonable ones should be easy to rebut in argument). For example, there is undoubtedly racial and religious discrimination in the U.K., but does either explain why the socio-economic profile of ethnic Bangladeshi Muslims has been improving while that of Pakistani Muslims has flatlined - or in particular why Bangladeshi women are improving their work status faster than their Pakistani counterparts? Might there not be a factor to do with those communities? I can think of places where saying this would make one to be looked at with great suspicion - but far more places where challenging the term "Paki" would be unpopular. Now the term "political correctness" is being used to disparage any kind of political values or commitment. I recently went on a trip to a brew-pub which was strongly committed to environmentally responsible practices. On the way back someone commented that the brewer's methods were "not just politically correct, they make money." From the way "politically correct" was pronounced, I gathered that it was odd or ridiculous to want to reduce your negative impact on the environment, but fine to be motivated by profit. So it may be politically incorrect to say so, but I wish we'd stop taking about political correctness.

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