I’m fed up with Political Correctness. Not the idea, you understand, just the phrase.
The idea, as far as I can tell, is a worthy one. In essence, people should speak and behave in ways that don’t offend others, To this end, insulting and hurtful words which denigrate and demean should be avoided.
Mary O’Rourke’s thank you speech to the electioneers who “worked like blacks” is insulting, for instance, because it carries with it the unspoken assumption that Africans are capable only of menial manual labour, as well as recalling slavery.
What is interesting about Political Correctness though is that no one who criticised Mary O’Rourke said she should apologise for her remarks because they were Politically Incorrect. Rather, the call was for her to apologise for making insulting or offensive remarks.
In fact, during the debates and phone-ins following her remarks, the only people I heard using the words Political Correctness were her defenders.
The entire row was an example of Political Correctness gone mad, we were told. Can anyone out there remember a single instance when something was hailed as a sane and judicious application of Political Correctness?
You can’t, because there is no Politically Correct Movement. There is no organisation, no committee, no card-carrying PCistas .Political Incorrectness is defined only by those who want to dismiss an argument as ‘Political Correctness gone mad’.
This is not an accident. There never was a Politically Correct Movement. The phrase was coined as an ironic self-mocking in-joke on the American Left (yes, it does exist) to satirise those who got lost in a maze of over-sensitivity.
In the 1990s, US Conservatives picked up the term and ran with it, applying it effectively as a pejorative term to the entire Left. To the conservatives, buffeted by criticism of the inequality and discrimination in society, the phrase was a godsend. As the popularity of the meme grew, it became unnecessary to address the arguments. They could be handwaved away as ‘more crazy Politically Correct notions’.
There is no Politically Correct Movement. There is only a label, designed to distract the listener’s attention from substantial issues of discrimination and inequality by labelling it as ‘Political Correctness gone mad.’
Isn’t it ironic then that the idea satirised as Political Correctness is itself an old concept re-labelled. If Political Correctness means anything, it is an attempt to be aware that words have power, and can shape the thoughts we think. Governments have known this for generations, which is why unpopular things get renamed. Windscale gets a reputation for being a dirty glowing hulk of radioactivity, but you don’t want to shut it down? Why then just re-brand it as Sellafield, and the problem is diminished. Kidnapping is a bad idea? Have an extraordinary rendition instead. Unemployment Benefit has too many connotations of idleness and misery? Then make the switch to the Tigerish-sounding Jobseekers Assistance.
Sometimes too, the two sides in a debate choose the words. Most newspaper style-sheets will list the protagonists in the abortion debate as Pro-choice and Pro-life, reflecting the labels both sides choose for themselves. After all, no one want to be Anti. Its just too negative.
The same idea was applied in the early 1970s to sexist and racist language, as the civil rights and feminist movements gave a voice to the powerless to point out the assumptions behind everyday language. Words like nigger disappeared from the everyday lexicon, and a good thing too.
If Political Correctness is anything, it is the notion that words that cause offence to others should be avoided. This is an old idea. It used to be called Good Manners.
Thank goodness for the re-labelling. After all, who would get away with waving away an objection to a thoughtless insult as ‘another example of good manners gone mad’?