Thursday, December 16, 2010

Homosexual Frogs (1)

In principal, the former Soviet Union claimed not to censor the press. If a senior figure in the Party slipped over on a banana skin, the state media could report that a senior figure in the Party had slipped over on a banana skin. You had to make sure that your facts were correct, but facts were facts. 

However, the one thing the state media could not do was criticise Communism directly. Communism was true, and known to be true. Communism provided all the advantages that Soviet citizens enjoyed compared to the oppressed working class in the West. So of course you couldn't print a news story saying – or implying -- that Communism wasn't true, any more than you could publish a geography text book saying that Barnsley was the capital of the United Kingdom.

The news had to be factually correct: but it also had to be politically correct.

It is not quite clear when the expression Politically Correct made the rhetorical leap into the vocabulary of the British and American far-right. It also isn't clear whether there was an intervening stage when the political left used the expression in a neutral or even positive sense. I went to college in the People's Republic of Sussex at the height of the hated Thatcherist regime. The student Socialist Workers ("copy of this weeks...!") would occasionally complain that someone had used an imperialist codeword like "Falkland Islands" rather than a more neutral term like "Las Malvinas". Someone from the Women's Group might have once moaned that the hated patriarchal administration were perpetuating the phallocentric and indeed aristocratic hegemony by labelling bathrooms "Gentlemen" and "Ladies" (rather than "Male" or "Female"). But I never heard anyone saying that the offending words were Politically Incorrect. Lefties with a sense of humour, if you can imagine such a beast, sometimes complained that something was "ideologically unsound".

But it's perfectly possible that someone somewhere really did think that the Commies had had a point. There really are some ideas that are self-evidently false, and they really do need to be corrected whenever and wherever they occur. Of course you shouldn't publish a book which claims that women are natural home-makers and men are natural bread-winners, any more than you should publish a book that claims that the sun goes round the earth. And if you shouldn't say it outright then you shouldn't assume it or imply it, either.

And it's perfectly possible someone did, as part of this project, deliberately adopt cumbersome terminology in order to draw people's attention to just how many assumptions and implications "ordinary", supposedly "neutral" language contained. There would have been no point in using convenient gender-neutral phrases like "Paramedic" or "Firefighter": hardly anyone would have noticed. But "Ambulanceperson" and "Fireperson" are rather awkward to say. They draw attention to themselves. They force us to notice that we've been saying "Ambulance Man" and "Fire Man" for years. They make us ask ourselves "Is there any special reason why a woman can't carry a stretcher or operate a hose-pipe?"

English Ordinance Survey Maps have a special symbol for churches. Russian Communist maps didn't depict churches at all. It might be entertaining to draw a map which left out post offices and public toilets, but included violin shops and undertakers. Not because it would be helpful or sensible, but because it would force us to notice that maps are not merely neutral diagrams of what's there, but ideological statements about what ought to be there.[*]

But there seems to be precious little evidence that this kind of thing was ever at all widespread. I have heard people saying "differently abled" rather than "disabled", which is silly. There's a shop in Bristol which sells equipment for "less able" people, which is horrid. But what we've mostly done is replaced nasty expressions like "cripple" with neutral ones like ""wheel chair user" or simply "person who can't walk", not cumbersome ones like "ambulatorially challenged". All the really silly examples of Politically Correct Language -- "vertically challenged" and "chemically inconvenienced" and "chronologically superior" -- seem to have been made up by the far-right as a parody of what they saw as a creeping attempt to impose a Soviet style monopoly on public discourse.

A lady -- sorry, a female person -- was once told by a taxi-driver that before long, the Political Correctness Brigade would demanding equal rights for homosexual goldfish. This was a joke : not a very funny one, but a joke, nevertheless. But it was a joke that made the female person very angry indeed: 

"Gay goldfish? Was there such a thing? I had no doubt that if the Political Correctness Brigade could find a gay goldfish, this could become a reality instead of a throwaway line." 

She was so angry that she decided that it was her duty to campaign against any attempt to give equal rights to gay goldfish -- and also against the abolition of competitive sport from schools, the banning of Christmas, and lots of other things which haven't happened. Her name was Laura Midgley, and we shall learn more of her wisdom later.

[*] Come to think of it, the Student Union Guide at York University did say, in so many words (I still have a copy) "There is no Christian Union here", which makes me wonder what meetings I was going to in the chaplaincy building on Thursday evenings.


subberculture said...

Sarah Dunant's War of The Words (sadly OP) gives quite a good explanation of the limited, jokey way in which "PC" was used in a couple of US universities (mirroring your experience) before it got grabbed by idiots with an axe to grind against the left.

JWH said...

The word cripple - can someone explain its usage to me?

I thought saying "The young soldier was crippled by a roadside bomb in Iraq" would be okay? If so, can you then call him a cripple, or describe him as crippled without causing offence?

Was there ever a time when someone could use the word 'cripple' to mean 'disabled' without offence being given or taken by either party?

Also, when the 'Spastic Society' was formed, did spastic have the connotations it would now if I called someone at work 'a fucking spastic'?

Anonymous said...

JWH, almost any phrase will be used pejoratively, once it enters the mainstream. Referring to children as "special" meaning that they are different, rather than inferior, was once meant to highlight that there was nothing wrong with them. I can guarantee that it was less than a month before schoolkids were bellowing "Speshuuuuuuul!!!" at each other on the playground.

When a phrase is used primarily as a term of abuse then it's time to change to a different one, until it can be reclaimed. Or, at least, that's how I think of it.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sure. "Retarded," "moron," "imbecile," etc. all began as perfectly acceptable clinical terms. It's something of a never-ending treadmill.

Actually, "special" was a valiant try. The word was already in common usage, so it was much harder for it to acquire a negative connotation, but I have no doubt that Mr. Ducker is correct and that it did in fairly short order.

Kevin Cowtan said...

Andrew D: I think the reason we have ended up with physically handicapped and mentally handicapped instead of cripple and spastic are precisely because they are clumsy - and thus they make really lousy playground chants. Similarly 'Afrian American' rather than black in the US.

It is interesting that the Daily Mail reader's mantra is 'It's political correctness gone mad'. Not 'It's political correctness'. Which sort of implies that even in their minds, there is a form of political correctness not gone mad.

Maybe there is a useful distinction here:

Political correctness: the tabooing of language which tends to reinforce social injustice. (The use of 'boy' for a black man in the US would be the most blatent example).

Political correctness gone mad: the attempted tabooing of language for the purpose of casting people of a different social or political grouping as perpetrators of social injustice.

I wonder if that is useful?

NickPheas said...

I am please to see that there have been no victims of political correctness on your friends website for eight months.
Presumably she is now worrying about more important things

SK said...

So yesterday I arrived at my parents' to find awaiting me a hunchback-Dakek 'countdown calendar'. Which is amusing both because, well, who do they think they're fooling -- for what other purpose is a calendar with twenty-four openings likely to be used -- and -- mainly-- because whatever else an advent calendar is, you don't count the doors down.

Graham MF Greene said...

Blimey. Even disregarding the content entirely that's a terrible, terrible, awful website. Click on a thing to click on a thing to click on a thing to maybe see some content in three or four clicks time. Like a building made entirely of lobbies.

Andrew Hickey said...

While it's silly, I do quite like 'Countdown Calendar', for the alliteration if nothing else. Maybe it's 'counting down' to the Doctor Who Special rather than to any other events that might be celebrated on December 25th?

In which case it'd be a Countdown to TV Action...

Helen Louise said...

I didn't know you went to/were associated with York Uni. Find your comment about the Christian Union interesting - there is definitely a CU at the university now, in fact when I was there in the early 2000s, it was the subject of occasional scare stories in the student press who once referred to the presidents of the CU as holding power in a union accountable to no-one. Which is interesting, as it's been affiliated with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship for some time. That said, though there were and are Christian societies associated with the chaplaincy (when I was there, Christian Focus, previously known as the Methodist and Anglican society, and the Catholic Society both held some meetings in the Catholic chaplaincy), the Christian Union never had much to do with the chaplains, with the exception of the part time evangelical chaplain who I met a grand total of once, in my first week.

Also the Christian Union never ratified as a proper Student Union society, for several reasons, but partly that not all members were allowed to vote on who could become leaders. If any York CU types are reading this, feel free to correct me, but as I understand it, only final year students were allowed to come to the meeting, where they would pray about who should take each role. (I think it then did go to an actual vote, and the CU AGM would allow all members to vote on whether they made the right decision).

Non CU Christians did criticise this system quite a bit - for instance, it bothered me that the people who were actually going to be affected by who the leaders were, were deliberately not allowed to directly vote because of some idea of 'bias', and those students not even being allowed to go to the meetings means that it is difficult to see how it could be accountable to all members.

On the other hand, I've been to plenty of society AGMs where the vote was on the basis of which people were popular, so if the CU was considering more based on how good a person would be at the job, then perhaps they would have made better decisions.

Apologies, that was a bit of a long comment, but I wondered if it would shed light on anything in the student handbook :)

Helen Louise said...

I've found your musings on political correctness rather interesting. Being a feminist, I've read rather a lot about the way language is used. I also work with people with learning disabilities, sorry, learning difficulties, sorry, learning differences, a field where language seems to change constantly, sadly because a lot of old terms are increasingly used as insults, but also because those old terms weren't exactly complimentary to begin with. It used to be that if you had a low IQ you were known as an "idiot", "moron" or "imbecile". In the USA, where they used to say "mental retardation", they now say "developmental delay". "Retarded" means mostly the same as "delayed", but "retard" is a really nasty insult, and "delayed" isn't (yet). So I applaud changing the term, but I'm sad that it had to happen.

Someone from the Women's Group might have once moaned that the hated patriarchal administration were perpetuating the phallocentric and indeed aristocratic hegemony by labelling bathrooms "Gentlemen" and "Ladies" (rather than "Male" or "Female")

This remark stood out to me, because now arguing for "male" or "female" wouldn't be liberal enough. Student lefties, and indeed lefties of many stripes, argue that toilets should be labelled "Toilets" and "Toilets with urinals", leaving out the gendered language altogether. People argue that this is ludicrous, and, indeed, political correctness gone mad, but it's a measure to protect transgendered people. I'm not trans myself, but I've never understood the reason why we can't just have cubicles for everyone, perhaps with a urinal in a separate room for those that would like to use it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I did my degree at Sussex and my Masters at York (although most of my actual studying happened at Kings Manor, not the campus.)

Yes, the Student Union at both places wouldn't ratify the Chrisian Union, for varying reasons. The C.U required members to sign a doctrinal basis, which meant it didn't have open membership; the C.U didn't have open elections for president; the C.U wouldn't sign up to S.U policies on abortion, homosexuality, the imperialist occupation of the Malvinas Islands, etc. I may have made some of those up. Doubt that the C.U would have specially wanted to be affiliated to the Student Union actually, although one could have done without the occassional articles in student papers implying that at any moment we were going to rampage across Europe tearing the tongues out of Jews and burning homosexuals.

The point which was interesting to me was that the Student Union (in one year, at least) went from "The Christian Union is not affiliated with Student Union, because in our opinion, Christians are badwrong" to "There is no Christian Union". Which was sorta kinda a little bit like Commies leaving Churches off maps. Up to a point.

(The C.U at Sussex met in the chaplaincy building, the non denominational meeting house. The one at York met in some room somewhere. But I'm pretty sure they were both on Fridays.)

Andrew Hickey said...

"It used to be that if you had a low IQ you were known as an "idiot", "moron" or "imbecile"."

All of which, of course, actually started as technical terms before entering common usage...

"People argue that this is ludicrous, and, indeed, political correctness gone mad, but it's a measure to protect transgendered people."
It's not one that any trans people of my acquaintance would appreciate. They want to be treated as normal men and women, not as some third gender...

JWH said...

Isn't 'gendered', trans- or otherwise, the most 'politically correct' - in the sense of used deliberately for conscious socio-political purposes - written here?

Helen Louise said...

Andrew Rilstone... Worryingly, sounds the York student esprit de corps hasn't changed all that much. I think there's more apathy nowadays though.

Andrew Hickey... there's a bit more to it than that, though. Yes, there are people who identify as male of female, some of whom have or have had the less usual set of genitalia. But there are also genderqueer people, who identify with neither gender or both, and there are intersex people... Not being trans myself I can't say how much relabelling toilets would do for transgender people, but I imagine it could make it less awkward for transgender people who haven't physically transitioned (ie. for instance if you're a woman, but you look like a man, you're probably going to find it harder to decide which toilet to use...), as well as for people who don't identify with either gender. Fair enough if this doesn't hit the mark for the trans people that you know, but the queer people of my acquaintance feel quite strongly about it, and I can see why. For one thing, not feeling allowed to use either set of toilets could be quite painful.

'"It used to be that if you had a low IQ you were known as an "idiot", "moron" or "imbecile"."

All of which, of course, actually started as technical terms before entering common usage...'

Not quite... idiot originally simply meant an unlearned or ignorant person, even simply a 'layman'. Moron comes from the Greek, meaning 'foolish', and imbecile merely meant 'weak' or 'feeble' until the 18th century. They were all adopted as technical terms, true, but that doesn't mean that there wasn't already a negative connotation to such names.

Neil said...

"Of course you shouldn't publish a book which claims that women are natural home-makers and men are natural bread-winners, any more than you should publish a book that claims that the sun goes round the earth."

Of course the sun does, quite obviously, go around the earth. It's people who think Mercury goes round the earth who could be productively restrained from publication.

I hope I haven't made the mistake of half understanding one of your jokes!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah, to you Baldric, the Copernican revolution was just something that happened to other people...