Monday, September 08, 2014

What Has Gone Before

Many people think that "political correctness" means "politeness" or "inclusive language" or "avoiding words that hurt people's feelings". It follows that "political correctness gone mad" means "taking that to a crazy extreme, objecting to language that no one has ever objected to"; but that people who complain about "political correctness gone mad" are often rude people who think they should be able to say bad words if they fucking well want to. If Mrs Whitehouse came back to earth and tried to stop the television saying bum and bloody and ding-a-a-ling, the news people would almost certainly accuse her of being politically correct. And also mad, which she very probably was.

However, "political correctness" is also in use to describe a conspiracy theory in which the world is secretly run by a Marxist cabal based in Frankfurt. "Political Correctness" -- and 20th century literary theory, and human rights legislation, and health and safety at work rules, and, very especially and, the idea of man made climate change -- were created by this Marxist clique in order to destroy civilization. What they have in common is that they rationalize unreasonable behavior, and make people do obviously bad things in the name of the greater good. It is obvious that Christian civilization is based upon citizens having cars, refrigerators, and central heating, and air conditioning, so the Marxists have invented the fiction of "global warming" -- which no reasonable person could believe in, and for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence -- in order to make people feel bad about owning these things. PC is an overarching term for the whole plot: believers very often say that it is Political Correctness that says that children have to wear crash helmets to play conkers, or that there is a modern Politically Correct notion that we should reduce carbon emissions. (*)

Obviously, not everyone who has ever used the word "Political Correctness" believes in the conspiracy theory. (I myself have occasionally said things like "some of the older children's books are not very PC"). But believers in the conspiracy theory talk a lot about Political Correctness. And lots of people do believe in the conspiracy. The Daily Mail went so far as to run a headline "How the BBC fell victim to a Marxist plot to destroy civilization". I took this as rather strong evidence that the Daily Mail believed that there was a Marxist plot to destroy western civilization and that the BBC had fallen victim to it, although some people thought that I was reading a bit too much into it.

So. It is possible that when people say that something called "Political Correctness" ("the evil doctrine of Political Correctness" according to Norman Tebbit) was to blame for the Rotheram child abuse scandal, they are talking about "Political Correctness" in the sense of "not saying stuff that hurts other people's feelings, being careful about what words you use". I suppose that what they have in mind is that "you have to be so careful about what language you use about race that it's really hard to talk about race at all; so when there actually is a racial component in some specific crime; it's easier not to talk about it at all and if you can't talk about it, well, obviously, you don't see it."

It is also very possible that Flying Rodent (**) is correct and that after a shocking cock up where serious child abuse was taking place under the police's noses, someone, by way of a damage limitation exercise, said "I know! If we pretend that we can't do anything about dark skinned people molesting little kids because Political Correctness Gone Mad, the papers will swallow it because they love that kind of thing." I can just about believe that PC Copper honestly thought that dark skinned people were free to molest kids if they really wanted to because it was part of their culture and Political Correctness meant that the law couldn't touch them. I don't believe that the entire police hierarchy believed that. (It's also hard to believe that any officer would independently come up with the idea  think that "you have to let them rape kids" followed naturally from "you aren't allowed to call them Pakis" unless he had already been told that "Political Correctness" and "Human Rights" were basically the same thing.)

But I think that it is also very likely that when people say that the child abuse scandal was the result of "Political Correctness" they mean that a shadowy group of Marxists was secretly controlling the police, and forcing them to act against "Common Sense" as part of an active plot to bring down Civilization and replace it with a communist superstate. Tebbit definitely thinks that there was a plot to establish an enclave in England that functioned under Pakistani law, as if that followed on naturally from "please use inclusive language".

It seems to me that a lot of these claims -- that Isis or Rotheram or the Girl Guide Oath are "caused" by Political Correctness -- read like nonsense if "Political Correctness" means "the belief that it is nicer to say 'black person' rather than 'n----r'". But they make a kind of sense if you believe that Political Correctness and Common Sense are two dueling ideologies, the one committed to destroying "civilization" and the the other committed to preserving it.

But maybe they are simply nonsense.

(*) I grant that Political Correctness could in those contexts mean simply "Prevailing Orthodoxy."

(**) Note that the New York Times essay that Mr Rodent links to is rather more nuanced than he give it credit for

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Fluffy Bunnies

The Rabbits of Watership Down are rabbits. They are as rabbitty as Richard Adams can make them. Everything they do is based on real rabbit behavior. However, Mr Adams asks us to imagine -- well, not imagine, but take for granted as a scholarly fact -- that these rabbits have human intelligence, culture, language, even religion. Well no, not these rabbits -- rabbits in general, and foxes, and sea gulls. How this works we can’t question for a moment. (Could a leoporine mouth even form the syllables El-ahrairah? Is a rabbit brain big enough to develop that kind of consciousness?) It’s funny, actually, how easily our mind accepts this kind of thing. It gets you into philosophical hot water if you aren’t incredibly careful. If a rabbit or a hamster had human consciousness, then obviously vivesection would be wrong. But they don't, so it's not a good argument. I think Richard Adams develops this fallacy at some length in his later books.

Peter Rabbit is also a rabbit, possibly with a fly upon his nose. And the anthropomorphicisation has gone a lot further than it has in Watership Down. He wears clothes. His daddy smokes a pipe, forsooth. But he also lives in a hole, and steals cabbages from a farmer's garden, and if I remember correctly there is an implication that the farmer has sometimes made his relatives into pies. If Watership Down asks us to imagine a world in which rabbits have human minds, the Peter Rabbit books asks us to imagine a world in which, instead of Rabbits, there are tiny, Rabbit shaped people.

Again, we don’t have any trouble getting our heads around this weird-ass parallel universe. We don’t say for goodness sake they have culture and language and you are going to put them in a pie what kind of weirdo are you? We just take it for granted that that's a normal way of writing about rabbits.

The Hare in Aesops Fable is even less animal like than either Hazel and Fiver or Peter Rabbit.  It's not really even an animal at all. I mean, we take it for granted that tortoises and hares can communicate, and place bets, and that owls can adjudicate races, and all the birds and beasts can come and cheer them on their way. But I suppose he's not really a hare because the Hare and the Tortoise isn't really a story. It's just a thought experiment or a proverb, with the Hare meaning “fast thing” and the tortoise meaning “slow thing.”. You could do it just as well with a motorbike and a Virgin train.  

Now, the only rabbity thing about Bugs Bunny is his carrot, and that carrot is pretty much only there to be a place holder for a cigar so Bugs can be a sort of cartoon version of  Groucho Marx. He isn’t even really rabbit shaped, any more than one of those child's drawings of a cat looks anything like a cat. But we still sort of accept that he's a bunny because that's what rabbits look like in cartoons. In the days when Walt Disney still made cartoons, kids used to ask “What Kind of An Animal Is Goofy?” The answer is, well, he isn’t really any kind of animal, and it wouldn’t make any difference if he was. (I suppose he's a country bumpkin?) I think there used to be a rabbit in the Disney Mythos, but it was retconned out during the Crisis. There is a famous example of false memory syndrome in which subjects are persuaded to believe that they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny isn’t owned by Disney, or wasn’t then. But cartoons are probably a different kind of thing to prose narratives and fables and anyway, I have run out of rabbits.

Bears. Paddington Bear. Except that again, he really isn't. He wears clothes, talks English and although he causes chaos wherever he goes, its the sort of chaos that a very naughty child would cause, not the sort of chaos that would occur if a large South American carnivore got loose on and English Railway station. The only bear like thing about him is that he likes marmalade, which comes in jars, and is spread on toast, like honey, which is proverbially likes by bears, at least since Pooh.

Does anyone but me remember Mary Plain? She was a sort of proto-Paddington, a two legged bear who could talk English living in a suburban home. She did mostly did human things -- entered fancy dress competitions, joined the boy scouts, and, after the series had jumped the entirely non anthropomorphic shark, solved a mystery and get shipwrecked on a desert island populated by natives that would, if it were reprinted today, cause the PC Brigade to cancel all leave.

Now Yogi Bear, he's more like Peter Rabbit. I can see in what way he's a bear. He wears clothes and talks and can interact with the human world but he lives on a nature reserve, and steals goodies from visitors picnics. He's a human being -- Yogi Naughty Petty Thief Man -- who stands in the same relationship to the Park Ranger on the one paw and the tourists on the other (in one specific respect) as an actual bear would. (On my one visit to an American national park I was warned to hang any food out of reach of the bears or put it in a metal crate, so evidently it's a thing.) The same goes for Tom and Jerry. They are really only a cat and a mouse in so far as one does the chasing and the other does the running away. 

The least bear like of all is Rupert the Bear (everyone sing his name). He is, basically, not a bear. He isn’t even a teddy bear. He is twelve year old boy with a bear’s head; whose friends are twelve year old children with elephants heads and badgers heads. I don’t recall that he even particularly likes honey. Cartoonist Alfred Bestall said that you couldn't ever send Rupert to the seaside, because putting him in a bathing costume would force you to decide to he was furry all over. 

I never quite understood why clever men like C.S Lewis and A.A Milne and Pink Floyd were quite so keen on WInd in the Willows. I’m not sure I ever got to the end of it. I think Lewis was right about why Mr Toad had to be a toad rather than and English country gentleman, even though he’s obviously an English country gentleman and not a toad. If he was a human, he would have to have servants and employees and we’d have to at least have a hint about where his money came from. As long as he’s an animal, we can sort of skate over that. (Lewis thinks he’s both a child and an adult: a child in that food sort of just turns up and no-one asks where it came from; and adult in that he gets to choose what he wants to do and there’s no-one to tell him off.) And the shape of a toad’s face is a sort of fixed caricature of a certain kind of human. 

I don’t think that there is any reason to suppose that Owls are wise, particularly; I don’t even know if they are cleverer than other birds of prey. But they are always wise in stories because the big eyes look like we imagine a wise human ought to look. So stories about animal-shaped humans lend themselves to a kind of fable where everyone has a more or less fixed personality and it can’t really develop. (A.A Milne said that you only had to look at the toy pig and the toy donkey and the toy tiger to see their personalities -- timid and gloomy and bouncy.)

It is perfectly true that if a child behaved like Paddington Bear, he would get punished or injured or given pills. (If an adult behaved that way, he’d be arrested or put in a home.) This is not to say that you can’t do stories about naughty or accident prone children in a realistic setting, but they either have to get some sort of comeuppance, like Dennis the Menace, or they have to be devious enough to avoid it, like Just William, which introduces an element of cynicism which isn’t funny in quite the same way. But I don’t suppose that Michael Bond said to himself that he wanted to write a story about the kind of child who floods the bathroom the first time he needs a wash, but then thought it wouldn’t be that funny if an actual child did that kind of thing and then thought I know I’ll make him a bear instead. I think he started to tell a story about a bear, and the rest followed naturally. And that's what's so odd. Once we start to tell stories about bears or rabbits it somehow becomes natural that they wear duffle coats and tam o shanters and like honey and marmalade. We can’t look at an animal without anthropomorphising it.

Doesn't the trailer for the Paddington movie look appalling? Like Winnie-the-Pooh reimagined by Peter Jackson.

Anyway, I hope this clears up all the confusion. I was as surprised as anybody to find out that Hello Kitty had a personality. I assumed it was just something you stamped on notepads and teeshirts. But I don't have a problem with the recent bombshell that she's not a cat. Of course it isn’t. Anymore than Bugs Bunny is a Rabbit or Pooh is a bear.