It is always slightly annoying when someone makes a pithier version of your point, although Howard Jacobson only published this in yesterday’s Independent, so I have a few days head start on him:
… however much we dispise the uses to which political correctness has declined, it originated in the sound conviction that our inherited grammar and vocabulary shape our ideas and deed, and that by drawing attention to the biases implicit in language we can eliminate them to the benefit of everybody.
Is Political Correctness a noble cause? I claimed it was, but Talk Politics disagrees:
I wonder if Robert realises or appreciates just how sinister a concept he’s putting forward when he talks of the purpose of political correctness being to identify and eliminate ‘discrimination in our everyday language’ for there is far more to this particular idea than merely the removal from common parlance of certain words
I promised a short response to this.
First, I don’t think that refinement of language is the same thing as Orwellian Newspeak. The language that Political Correctness advocates against is still understood, and the concepts they express still exist. I am thinking here of the casual language that actually demeans and therefore harms other people, who we are supposed to be co-existing with in the Polis. For example, I think magazines like Nuts and Zoo are ‘un-PC’. Why? Because I think they endorse a casual objectification of women. That they then delight in this un-PC reputation makes them even more preposterous. Another more subtle example of this is the language surrounding asylum seekers, as Katherine Houreld explained in the LIP. They are often branded as ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ in the press, despite being neither, by definition. They are not illegal immigrants.
The crucial phrase from my previous post was “everyday language”. We are not advocating the elimination of certain thoughts and phrases completely… far from it. Who does ‘Political Correctness’ apply to? The answer is surely not ‘everyone’, but those who wish to participate and be taken seriously in political debate.
Thus ministers, government bodies at all levels and their agencies are more or less obliged to toe- the-PC-line, because they are supposed to be speaking for everyone. The media keeps to the guidelines too, because journalists hope to be speaking to or for everyone. We are very particular about who should and should not be Politically Correct. Robert Kilroy-Silk the TV presenter must be PC, but Robert Kilroy-Silk the fringe-politician can say what he wants. How ironic we took him seriously when he claimed we should not, then could not take him seriously when he asked that we should.
The other group of people to whom PC should matter are those who value diversity, friendship, and the concept of human equality. Why use language that offsets this equality? Why not use the names that people have chosen for themselves? And why not be extra sensitive to how particular groups of people are portrayed in the media? It is indeed the ‘elimination’ of undesirable phrases and patterns of thought from one’s vocabulary, but I don’t see this as sinister, just something like good manners. Howard Jacobson again:
Anyone who finds fault with that must never have paused before his own selection of a word, never reordered a thought to suit the company or occasion… some call [this process] self censorship but which it would be wiser to think of as judgement.
To use Politically Correct lanaguage is to think before you speak. The triumph of reason over impulse. Clearly there is a place for the latter (the boy shouting at the naked Emperor, or heckling Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989), but political policy-making tends to require more sober debate.
However, the ‘Politically Correct’ battle I would rather fight is not over language, but over the problem Anthony Browne and others have with “self hating white liberals”, a cod-psycological slur for those who dare to criticise mainstream British culture and history. This is rich, given the frequency with which, say, the black or muslim ‘community’ are told to embark on some sort of self-criticism. Why should the majority not embark on similar introspection?