"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Thursday, 3 February 2011

On political correctness

Invariably when stories like this or this one get aired, charges of “political correctness gone mad” are levied, as though the “right” of people to discriminate on gender or racial grounds is something that needs defending. This is unfortunate because it is undoubtedly true that excessive concern to be politically correct does lead to bad legislation and petty rules of social behaviour, which can be positively damaging to the cause of equality in our society.
In instances like the above, in which people running a business or providing a professional service have refused (in these cases on religious grounds) to serve members of the GLBT community it is not runaway political correctness to apply anti-discrimination laws and censure them. If you operate in a public space it is a sign of civilised behaviour to treat everyone who shares that space equally and to expect that others will do the same. When people are prevented from accessing services or transacting business on the grounds of race or gender it causes them genuine harm, financially, emotionally and in some circumstances, physically. It infringes their freedom to fully participate in wider society. This does not impinge on anyone’s right to hold sexist, racist or “otherist” opinions and should not restrict their right to voice them appropriately, it only restricts the ability to cause harm to others on the basis of such opinions. Charges of political correctness under these conditions are inappropriate and unhelpful.
But political correctness does exist and we need to be aware of it, especially when it is dressed up as protecting equality, but is in fact restricting public discourse.
One of the most pernicious forms of political correctness is the prohibition of certain types of language and particular words on the grounds that “it may offend” a certain subset of society. For example we have got to a point practically all over the English speaking world where the word “nigger” cannot be used in any context whatsoever, even if obliquely referencing the word itself. Recently BBC Radio 4’s PM program was discussing a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the word “Nigger” which appears over two hundred times has been redacted. Now to my mind the Bowdlerising of a classic novel in this way is of itself the worst kind of political correctness, but what made the radio discussion even more infuriating was the constant use of the euphemistic “N-word” instead of saying “Nigger”, which we all knew was the subject matter. Now both the redaction and the PM programme are attempting to avoid insulting the black community, but although there are ways of using the word that certainly would be insulting, this kind of usage isn’t; or at least shouldn’t be. In fact by sanitising the word, or removing it from context we are doing two things. One is that we are assuming a lack of reason and intelligence among black people that would cause them to be offended by such abstract usage; the other is that we are in danger of forgetting why its derogatory use is genuinely and quite understandably offensive.
I can make similar arguments about the use of “the C-word” or “the F-word” in contexts where adults should be able to discuss the language without fear of offending the vicar’s wife. We recently had the embarrassing spectacle of James Naughtie apologising profusely on air for accidentally saying “Jeremy Cunt” instead of “Jeremy Hunt” when referring to the coalition culture secretary on the Today Programme. Bearing in mind he wasn’t apologising for any possible insult to Mr Hunt, only that he had used an inappropriate word.
The other overly politically correct uses of language, as typically indulged in by town councils and public bodies, are when otherwise innocuous phrases are twisted out of context to cause some imagined offence to someone. I heard from a stand-up comedian recently about this gem from Tunbridge Wells Council who tried to ban the use of “Brainstorm” in favour of “Thought Shower” to avoid offending epileptics.
Similarly I find attempts to substitute “Christmas” with “Holiday” pointless and pathetic. Christmas is not a holiday I celebrate in a religious sense and neither do Muslims, Jews or Jedi but to deny that the majority of the country, Christian or otherwise, don’t relate to “Happy Christmas” as a greeting or on a council banner is ludicrous.
So as not to get carried away with overly politically correct language however, there are some substitutions with which I agree and don’t in my opinion constitute over reaction. For example substituting “Chair” or “Chairperson” for “Chairman” is entirely warranted as anything that implies a role is gender restricted is undesirable. “Access cover” instead of “Manhole cover” is also fine in my book (and sounds less like a butt plug).
The concept of political correctness is a useful one. In the somewhat disparaging way the term is used today it can be a way of pointing to excesses that limit free speech and confine our intellectual space. However it will cease to be useful if it is applied to laws and societal norms that are genuinely protecting minorities from discrimination, rather than just protecting them from imagined offence.

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