Friday, November 11, 2005

PC/BC - Appendix 2

When I was growing up, the children's TV show "Vision On" was interpreted in sign-language for the benefit of the "deaf and dumb". Christmas cards were sold in aid of the "spastics society"; and certain children were routinely described as "mongols". Newspapers openly used the word "pooftah" (in the sense of "10 ways to spot if your neigbour is a pooftah") All of that would be pretty unthinkable today.

I don't know whether the change in language reflected a change in social reality; or whether the social change was made possible because language had changed. Did our decision to start saying "paramedic" make it easier for women to enter that profession -- easier for little girls to imagine it as a profession that they could possibly aspire to? Or was it just that we started to feel silly using the term "Ambulance-Bloke" when it was obvious that the person applying the bandage was an "Ambulance-Bird"?

Similarly, the BBC used to think it acceptable to have a TV show called "The Black and White Minstrels" in which white performers put on black make-up and curly wigs and sang middle-brow pop-songs. They don't do that any more. Spike Milligan did sketches about a family of Pakistani Daleks, who said "Put them in the curry! Put them in the curry!"(*) instead of "Exterminate!"; Benny Hill did sketches about dirty old men and school girls which now look like borderline child-porn; and Jim Davidson made jokes about dis black guy called Chalkie who had de very long penis. You wouldn't get away with any of that today.

Again, it is hard to know whether we became a more racially inclusive society because we stopped insulting black people on TV, or whether we stopped insulting black people on TV because we had become more a more racially inclusive society.

So: there are certainly words that we used to use but don't use any more, and there are certainly TV programmes that we used to watch but don't watch any more; and if that's what you mean by "political correctness" then a movement towards "political correctness" certainly happened in the 1980s. And some of it may have been over-zealous. For example....let me I was at college, someone in the Student Union got very uptight about the fact that the lavatories were labeled "Ladies" and "Gentlemen" rather than "Male" and "Female." And I once heard someone refer to a wheelchair user as "differently abled". But actual examples of people saying "vertically challenged" and "chronologically superior" are embarrassingly difficult to come by.

I am extremely skeptical about whether any of this can be laid at the door of an identifiable movement, let alone one that consciously identified itself as "politically correct". I think that it is more likely that "political correctness" was an invented label, applied to a number of different activities by people who disapproved of them. Even supposing a more or less cohesive Movement For Political Correctness, I find it hard to see why "campaigning about racial and sexual exclusion" should be defined as "leftist".

The "PC" that I'm conceding the existence of has almost nothing to do with the purely imaginary PC Brigade from the Daily Express, of course.

(*) Okay, I admit that one has a certain surrealistic charm


On 21st October a group of my old college-type friends met up in Portsmouth, and starting out in a plasticated chain-pub called "The Trafalgar" worked our way around half a dozen pubs, drinking a pint of Real Ale in each. We had lunch in place called the Still and West which serves some of the best Fish-and-Chips in England. It adjoined the docks, and if we strained our necks a bit, we could see the masts of the Victory with the "England Expects..." flags blowing in the wind. I even put on a Union Jack tie for the occasion. At the end of the evening, we toasted Lord Nelson. Actually, a double rum on top of all that beer and fish and chips was probably a mistake. We rounded out the night with a traditional English curry from a traditional English Indian.

So yes, I value English Culture in the same way that one values one's old armchair or one's ancient and much loved teddy-bear: it's yours, you've got used to it; you feel comfortable with it; and you wouldn't want anyone to take it away from you.

One of the bits of English Culture I find quite endearing is the tradition of Morris Dancing -- a sort of heavily stylised country dance, in peasant costume with much waving of hankerchieves, generally done by hulking great beery men in clogs. (By "find endearing" I mean "when I came upon some Morris Dancers outside the town hall a few weeks ago, I watched a dance and put 50p in their bucket.") A few Morris "sides" maintain the tradition of, er, blacking up their faces with boot-polish. (The were originally "Moorish Dancers". Possibly.) If someone were to say "That's actually highly offensive to black people" then I don't think "We've been doing this dance since before black people were invented" would necessarily be a good answer. (The town of Lewes takes bonfire night more seriously than most, with people dressing up in Puritan costume, carrying banners saying "No Popery" and burning a firework filled effigy of the present Pope. If anyone were to say "This is in questionable taste" then I don't think "It's a longstanding tradition" would settle the question.)

Do minorities or incomers have the right to tell the majorities or natives how to behave? Provided we only mean "how to behave in public" then I think possibly they do. If I wish to display a racist caricature of a Ruritanian in my own front room, then I think that I have a perfect right to do so; but if I display it on a public hoarding, I think my Ruritanian neighbour has a right to complain, even if he's the only Ruritanian in the village. "Ah, but in this village, we've been abusing Ruritanians for a very, very long time" is neither here nor there.

I don't think that the British should maintain British culture "as a default", because I don't think that there is any such thing as "British culture". There are, and have always been, a large number of different "cultures" in these islands. I don't think that an English member of the house of Lords who went to Eton, attends his parish church and tortures foxes in his spare time shares more culture with a working class Catholic from Glasgow than either of them do with a British Hindu from Tooting Bec.

If someone had told me to take off my Union Jack on Trafalgar Day, I would have been very aggrieved, just as I would have been if someone had taken away my armchair or my teddy-bear. I would have been more annoyed if they had taken away some part of my Englishness that I value more highly than my tie, say, Glastonbury Tor or the works of Shakespeare. Whether we are parts of a majority or minority culture, we should be free to practice our made-up rituals and festivals, unless and until they proven harmful to someone else's welfare. Or that of the fox. Try to stop us, and we have every right to get cross.

But no-one is. The same issue of the Daily Express which carried the "JESUS BANS CHEDDAR CAVES" headline contained an op-ed piece which spent five columns listing those aspects of British culture which have been "banned".

"Christmas Trees and carols are now widely banned in public places...carol concerts have all but disappeared.... displays of the Union or St George's flag are regularly challenged by officials... crackdowns on bonfires and firework displays with the result that the excitement of November 5th has all but disappeared... this month that shining symbol of London individualism, the open-backed Routemaster bus was withdrawn..."

Every word of it total fantasy (except for the bit about the London buses, which are very old and being replaced by modern, safer ones). If British culture was under attack, the Denby-Scholes of this world would be right to be angry; in the same way that if there were Vampires in London, I'd be right to get some garlic.

But there aren't.


I think that there are Christian hegemonists who would like every school lesson to open with a prayer; "Thought for the Day" to go out at prime time, and TV shows critical or disrespectful towards Christianity to be more or less banned.

And, sadly, there are also Secular hegemonists who would like all religious discourse banished from the public sphere, to the extent that they feel horribly oppressed by the existance of "Songs of Praise".

The other 99% of the universe are secular pluralists, who think that Jonathon Miller and Peter Owen-Jones can live happily together on BBC 2.

The Arch-Druids point, I think, was that some of those who say that we shouldn't dispaly Christian symbols for fear that it might offend people of Other Religions are really secular hegemonists who think that we shouldn't display any religious symbols at all.

I think that he theory may have some hypothetical merit; but he appears to have been speaking in response to a Daily Prophet journalist asking him what he thought about "some councils prohbiting traditional festive symbols" - which they aren't. It was a plausible theory about a non-existant problem.

Do non-religious folks really feel offended and excluded if someone hangs up a picture of Babyjesus in their shop-window, by the way?


Eric Spratling said...

Andrew, maybe I'm just tired and a slightly hungover, but from how I see it now it seems like you're only looking at it from black-and-white extremes. PC seems to either mean "an imaginary boogeyman invented by right-wing scaremongers to get people riled up over nothing at all" or "respecting the human dignity of those who are different from you." I know you admit at the end that you know the two are separate entities, but still you don't have to careen off to the extreme like that just to prove a point. I think I more or less understand what you're saying, though.

And my grandmother back in Alabama used to watch Benny Hill back when she was alive and we would visit. I'm lucky I was young enough not to realize how absolutely insane they were and therefore be traumatized.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Before I loose my train of thought--

It is my experience that changing the term for a thing doesn't change the thing itself. Often, it just kills another word.

For instance, somehow people decided to use the latinate term "copulation" instead of the common, "crude" term. Then that sounded crude, so they used the term "sexual intercourse." Now we (in America) just say "sex," but we aren't that prudish so we stick with that word.

The same thing is true with the term "mentally retarded," which is ironically being replaced with the term "developmentally delayed" which is merely an enlarged term. Perhaps in 50 years, 8-year-olds will call eachother "developmental" in order to be mean.

So, in short, I'd say that the only useful language change is that which either follows culture or gives us a new way of looking at the world. (African Americans, though a problematic term when white people live in Africa and black people live outside America, could be an example of the latter.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

"Whether we are parts of a majority or minority culture, we should be free to practice our made-up rituals and festivals, unless and until they proven harmful to someone else's welfare."

I'm not a libertarian, but I suppose I get a bit of it from being an American. In any case, I don't see how you could justify this slogan with your later comment that you think people (your specific case was "minorities") should be able to "have the right to tell the majorities or natives how to behave" in public.

I guess I really do believe that at least America does have attitudes that "it's okay for you to have racist thoughts, as long as you never express them around people who disagree with you and could be offended/argue with you." I find such "I have a right to never be offended in public" attitudes problematic if one wants to have a deomcracy where, at least in theory, people should think about and discuss politics with those who disagree with them.

But then, in Britain, the Public Houses are private. It's like y'all are trying to be confusing.

(Rush Limbaugh labels these procrustean attitudes "politicially correct," though, so I'm not sure I want to use that term.)

Chestertonian Rambler said...

(I used racism as an example, but the same is true (in varying regions) for homosexuality, heteronormativity, male chauvinism, cultural chauvinism, and a variety of other issues.)

Anonymous said...

I suppose it's just barely possible that this clown really thinks that his daughter's mere exposure to the words "under God" will damage her for life.

Actually, the only thing that gave his case legal standing was that it was on behalf of his school-age daughter, the reason being that it was the California public schools' requirement that the students be led in the Pledge every day that violated the "establishment clause" of the Constitution. There would be no grounds on which Newdow could have sued on his own behalf.

Newdow himself is a bit of a crackpot, unfortunately, and the question of his custody gave the Supreme Court their excuse not to hear the case, but I wanted to note the actual reason for his case being structured the way it was.

Eric Spratling said...

Actually, saying the pledge is completely optional, as has been established in previous cases-- which, if I'm not mistaken, ironically began with Jehovah's Witnesses who did not want to swear allegiance to the country rather than the God. And being in the same room with people saying the Pledge doesn't constitute "an establishment of religion" (i.e., making the kids have to be part of a state religion) so it doesn't violate the establishment clause at all.

Even sadder is that not only does Newdow have limited custody of his father, but his divorced wife (who does) is a Sunday school teacher and the little girl was a devout believer. So this whole shebang really started because one pathetic little man wanted to use his daughter and the courts as props to attack his ex-wife.

Mags said...

Jim Davidson made jokes about dis black guy called Chalkie who had de very long penis. You wouldn't get away with any of that today.

Leaving aside the fact Davidson wasn't remotely funny, I was a little surprised to hear the classic "Hu's on first?' style bantering on Have I Got News For You? last night. And the main reason it surprised me was because a BBC (British Born Chinese) guy I know recently mentioned how irritated he gets when people do the "aren't Chinese names funny?" schitck. That's made me suddenly conscious that 'Hu's on first?' can be found to be offensive. Or at least irritating in that "yes, yes, never heard that one before" way.

My understanding, back from the dim and distant days of being a 1980s leftie, was that political correctness was at least in part about raising people's awareness that something innocuous to them was actually rascist/sexist/homophobic and that it demonstrated an unthinking attitude that denigrated others based on their race/gender/sexuality. It was about raising awareness that the language reflected an unconscious bias. Once you become aware of an unconscious racism/sexism/homophobia then you can take action to reduce it. The best way to create a pluralist society is to think about how your actions effect others.

I don't think it is co-incidence that the PC evolved in the early 80s, i.e. at a time when Thatcher was claiming that there was no such thing as society and selfishness was seen as a positive trait. PC instead worked on a social inclusion system in which there was such a thing as society. Brig. A.G. Lethbridge-Stewart (Rtd.) of Tunbridge Wells who complains about "politcal correctness gone MAD!" would doubtless also complain about "the selfishness of the youth of day, what what", without realising that both come from the same stem 20+ years ago.

Personally, I find there has been a rise in religious imagery and language in the last few years, rather than a decrease, which I find troubling because it decreases understanding in favour of a "I have god on my side" (whether that is the Christian God and/or Baby Jesus or Allah). I also find it troubling because I'm not religious at all and I get irritated by having gods thrust at me. The only good thing about 'Thought for the Day' is that it gets me out of bed and straight into the bathroom so I don't have to listen to it.

Louise: the trick was to jump on/off when the bus is stuck in traffic, not when it is moving. The main problem with the new buses* is that if the bus becomes stuck in a snarl-up (and this is, after all, London), you can't get off and walk.

*also, you can get onto the bendy buses without paying which is more of a problem for LT's revenue than for me.

Mags said...

Perhaps one April Fools Day they'll get Anne Atkins to read the whole `Quivering Brethren' sermon from Cold Comfort Farm on Thought for the Day. I'd tune in for that, wouldn't you?

Or the Rabbi Lionel Blue, who always seems to be introduced as Lionel Bloom to my sleep-fuzzy ears, reading from Joyce's Ulysses.

Keith Schooley said...

I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's preface to Screwtape, in which he wishes he could have written (as counterpoint) a series of letters from an archangel to "the patient's" guardian angel. He writes that the necessary prose style involved "wouldn't be allowed" and goes on to state that "Every ideal of style dictates not only how we should say things, but what sort of things we may say."

Then there's Orwell, in which language is changed in order to restrict thought.

The two polar extremes that I would see in this debate could be represented by the blackface "minstral show" and the nativity scene. The minstral show is pretty clearly intended as mockery of a racial group, and because of history, this type of mockery is blatantly offensive.

The nativity scene, however, has been disappearing from the public square (at least in the US), because of court rulings that displaying such a scene constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of religion, and presumably because people of other religions or no religion find it offensive. This despite the fact that the creche is not intentionally offensive to anyone, and that a vastly inferior symbol of the Christmas holiday is ubiquitous in commercial marketing at this time of year. Even if one doesn't belive in it religiously, or even as history, the Birth is infinitely to be preferred than the vulgar Santa Claus as a symbol of the season. (I don't know if England's Father Christmas has been so debased.)

But my offense at the secular holiday symbol will never be taken seriously enough to relegate Santa Claus to the children's books where he belongs. Whereas relegating the Christ Child to the Church (which had better keep pretty mum about it) is an active topic of litigation. And that's the point, for those who take issue with PC-ism. It is only certain people's offenses that need to be guarded against. Meanwhile, the acceptable range of public discourse narrows.

Gavin Burrows said...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

It is my experience that changing the term for a thing doesn't change the thing itself. Often, it just kills another word.

…and later Charles Filson said...
Was it Edward de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe who said “a rose by any name would smell just as sweet”, or maybe Ben Grimm put it better when he said “A rose by any name still stinks” Either way, Changing the title of Moorish Dancers to Morris Dancers doesn’t make them less offensive, it’s just covering your cuss with a sneeze. I prefer overt offense to covert offense.

I’m more inclined to this side of the debate. I sometimes get the impression of PC types obsessed with nomenclanture to the exclusion of the actual object. I have the vision of them standing round a starving man arguing about whether it’s least offensive to call him “food unabled” or “gastronomically unchallenged” and no-one thinking to offer him a slice of their pizza.

More sinisterly, I see it as something ultimately disempowering. The middle classes have always maintained control at least in part through claiming to own the ‘correct’ form of language. While this rests on the supposition that language is something objective and unchanging rather than fluid and evolving, in fact they have to keep changing it to set the rest of us new lessons to learn. Like school rules, some will express their rebellion through flouting these rules and thereby do no actual harm whatsoever.

What’s in the Daily Express is a pile of fulminating crap, and few surprises there. But I don’t choose my friends by seeing who the Express have chosen as their enemies.

And yet… “I prefer overt offense to covert offense”. Isn’t that kind of easy for “us” majority inhabitants to say? I probably only belong to minorities in certain time-specific moments, say when walking alone late at night throgh binge-drink Britain. At such times I definitely prefer covert to overt offence, someone mumbling incoherent abuse over the fact that my eyesight necessitates the corrective use of spectacles to someone chasing me down the street with a broken bottle. Isn’t being in a minority about being in enemy territory most of the time?

So I guess I’m saying language does have a value and a power but the PC brigade turn it into a fetish over and above more important things.

PS Degree of “us-ness” in the above ref to “us” may go down as well as up.

PPS “Minority” also includes women or working class folk, who are actually majorities, but “those currently excluded from the power system” sounds a bit… uh… PC.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The premise of my article was that there are two distinct usages of the term "Political Correctness."

"Political Correctness Alpha" -- A term used to describe a series of changes which happened in the 1980s and 1990s, in which certain words and phrases become socially unacceptable.

"Political Correctness Beta" -- A term used by certain newspapers in the 2000s, describing the prohibition of certain English traditions.

It is my personal opinion that most of the changes grouped under "Political Correctness Alpha" were harmless, and some may have been beneficial. (I don't particularly care whether we say "manhole" or "access cover"; I think that "Black British" is on the whole an improvement over "Coloured People," and "person with Cerebral Palsy" an improvement over "Spastic." Your mileage may vary, as the fellow said.

It is definitely the case that the people who disliked these changes often labeled them "Politically Correct". I personally doubt whether the term was ever used by people who supported the changes.

I personally doubt whether the changes were ever part of any identifiable movement, and whether they were part of a wider political agenda. I very much doubt, for example, whether the deaf people who found the word "dumb" insulting were making common cause with radical feminists.

I personally doubt whether the extremely silly "PC" terms -- differently domiciled, vertically challenged and what-not -- were ever seriously proposed. I personally believe that these terms were only ever used ironically by satirists. Many of the examples of extreme-over-sensitivity about race that were widely reported in the right-wing media in 1980s have turned out to be fantasies. (The Glasgow Media Group researched many of the stories about councils distributing "pink dustbin liners", forcing children to sing "baa-baa-green-sheep", and replacing blackboards with whiteboards, and mainly debunked them.)

When I wrote the pieces about the "Daily Express" and "Daily Mail", it wasn't my intention to spark a discussion about "Political Correctness Alpha"; to be honest, I wasn't aware that it was still a live issue. There are some things we used to say that we don't say any more.

"Political Correctness Beta", the thing which the "Daily Express" and the "Daily Mail" are obsessing about has no connection to the "Political Correctness Alpha" described above. And it is not referring to any real thing which is actually happening in the world. No-one has in fact banned Christmas, or Union Jacks, or Patriotic Songs, or anything. People complain that our Traditional English Bonfire Night has been banned, yet you can buy boxes of fireworks at every cornershop in the country.

When I picked up the offending issue of the "Express" I genuinely expected to be writing an amusing piece about attitudes to religion in the UK. I took it as read that museums HAD "banned" the term BC, and was intending to explore whether this was a reasonable or unreasonable thing for them to have done. (I was intending to come down on the side of "maybe".) I was genuinely suprised to find out that the story had NO basis. None whatsoever. And that the circulation of stories with no basis whatsoever -- poppies banned, hot cross buns banned, Christmas trees banned -- was part of a consistent, racist campaign, intended to radicalise the white middle class by making them feel paranoid and oppressed.

I regard this as a Bad Thing. I regard this as such a Bad Thing that I doubt the usefulness of discussing whether bans on Christmas Trees, would, if they ever actually occurred, but justifiable; or whether it would have been better, in the 1980s, to have carried on saying Barmaid and Doctoress.

Gavin Burrows said...

Have you read Stuart Home’s Cranked Up Really High? There’s a section on the ‘white power’ strand of Oi music. He quotes one band who penned the lyric “being patriotic’s a crime”, and then sagely points out that the Last Night of the Proms is very rarely bust up by squads of marauding riot cops. His point, I suspect, is that if you stop and think about it logically, it starts to seem unlikely that the Government are currently drafting the Imprison All the Patriots Act.

But the point of all this Express rubbish is that people want to believe all that, don’t they? It’s like when people go on about us being “overrun” by asylum seekers. If you try to engage them in an argument about how many people are actually claiming political asylum in Britain right now and how many are likely or not to have just cause, they become bored and irritated. Mostly they just go and find someone who agrees with them.

There seems to me a simple explanation to this. Most of us slog our lives away in dead-end jobs and just about keep our heads above water. Someone to take it out on comes in handy. When we were in school the teachers would pick on us and we’d take it out on the littler kids. Nowadays we’re all grown up and have asylum seekers.

Andrew Rilstone said...
it is hard to know whether we became a more racially inclusive society because we stopped insulting black people on TV, or whether we stopped insulting black people on TV because we had become more a more racially inclusive society.

I’d like to point out at this juncture that I’m not sitting typing any of this with a big white pointy hood on, and don’t have a fiery cross in my front garden. It gives me scant comfort to say this, but… it’s the first one. It was mostly a top-down, imposed sort of change.

At least that’s the way I remember it. At the start of the 80s words like “wog” and “pakki” were perfectly ordinary words to use in conversation, and people who expressed dislike for them were told we’d fought a war for the right to use them and the like. Their use disappeared from the media first, people started using them more and more quietly and finally only a few diehard fanatics insisted upon them. Even far-right headcases like the BNP now tend to avoid them, in their public pronouncements at any rate.

Andrew Rilstone said...
I personally doubt whether the changes were ever part of any identifiable movement, and whether they were part of a wider political agenda.

Again, unfortunately not. Of course it’s a fuzzy thing, not an either/or. But if I had lived down Gasworks Street all my life, just like my father before me and my father’s father, I can see how I might get a little affronted if the Council were to suddenly announce I now lived on Nelson Mandela Avenue. Of course all this gives succor to the enemy. But facts are facts, unfortunate or otherwise.

All of which leads to our current climate where it’s not acceptable to rage against curry-smelling pakkis but it is acceptable to rage against sinister bearded muslim bogus asylum seekers coming to my street soon. That hatred never went away in the first place. It just got ring-fenced.

If you want a sound-bite explanation it’s the scene in South Park where the Chef explains it is okay to call the Chinese dodgeball team “slanty-eyed Chinks” but it’s not okay to call the Chinese-American kid on your team the same thing. That way we can have our racism and eat it. You can do anything nowadays.

Andrew Rilstone said...

You have pre-empted me. Sir, you have pre-empted me.

TM said...

Isn't the Pope burnt in effigy at Lewes supposed to be Clement V?

If it is the present Pope, that makes me even slightly more offended than before, I think.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Isn't the Pope burnt in effigy at Lewes supposed to be Clement V?

If it is the present Pope, that makes me even slightly more offended than before, I think.

The one time I went, it was very definitely John-Paul II. But then, the Enemy of the Bonfire was very clearly Arthur Scargill and Ian McGreggor, which gives you some idea of how long ago that was...