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‘Correctness’ of PC

Is this the end of PC?
By Clive Anderson
October 21, 2008
BBC News

People are forever complaining about it, but has political correctness had its day and what has it achieved? Broadcaster Clive Anderson considers its value and its future.

I suppose the title “PC RIP?” could just as well have been: “Is political correctness now the established religion?” PC certainly has its own commandments, code and creed, including: “Thou shall not be racist, in word, thought or deed.” If sexism offends you, pluck it out. Do not say a disabled person is handicapped, nor yet a handicapped person is anything but differently abled. For in the beginning was the word, but the word has been changed. Do keep up.

The term was apparently used in an American Supreme Court case as long ago as 1793, but it was only in the last few decades of the 20th Century that the concept really took off. It rabidly spread through American university campuses and into public life. But on both sides of the Atlantic, it is more often used ironically, sarcastically or pejoratively. Or inaccurately. I was walking my dog the other day and I got chatting to a man in the street. (Please note, I am not offending against the guidelines of the British Association of Sociologists, which counsels against the term “man in the street” and says “ordinary person” is better. This was an actual man on an actual street.)

He said he used to have a dog, but since it had become politically correct to clear up after your pet he could no longer be bothered. Was he really talking about political correctness? I would have said it was more health and safety. There is all sorts of other mess associated with the PC debate. How many of the weirder examples of “political correctness gone mad” started life as a heavy-handed joke? Does anyone seriously call short people “vertically challenged”? Did schools really replace blackboards with whiteboards in the interests of racial harmony? Was “Winterval” really intended to replace Christmas? Or are these all urban myths or Aunt Sallies, just there for us all to take pleasure in deriding and knocking down.

But beneath the froth, there are more serious issues at stake. In an article for the New York Magazine in 1992, writer John Taylor suggested the quads and lecture halls of America were in the grip of thought police, creating an atmosphere akin to Germany in the 1930s. Allan Bloom had similarly lamented the undermining of intellectual standards in his best-selling book of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind.

Fashionable

So does a rule against using inappropriate, inaccurate or even offensive terms militate against learning and offend against free speech? Is it right that worthy, liberal people rather illiberally want to take words out of other people’s mouths? Most of us find the po-faced strictures of the very politically correct either unnecessary or unnecessarily intrusive. We do not wish to be told what we can or cannot say, and find being pointed towards the euphemism which happens to be politically or fashionably correct rather irksome. And though we may wish to be correct, being politically correct carries with it the implication that we are not going about things in a straightforward way. Compare and contrast the expressions “the right man for the job” and “the politically correct person to appoint”.

So is PC RIP? I asked comedian Jim Davidson to consider the sort of jokes he used to tell about his imaginary, or composite, black friend Chalky White. He agreed the world had moved on since then. If Davison, so long the bete noire – if you will forgive the term – of the politically correct, is becoming politically aware, perhaps things have changed more than we realise. Looking back at programmes broadcast as recently as the 1970s, there are any number examples of what seems now hopelessly out of date and even distinctly unpleasant: Irishmen are endearingly stupid, more exotic immigrants are largely unwelcome and homosexuals are there to be laughed at.

These sentiments, or assumptions, are not only to be found in the work of red-necked comedians or saloon-bar favourites, but are there in peak-time television favourites and even cutting-edge sketch shows. To say nothing of the Black and White Minstrels. So it may well be that while sucking our teeth we gradually absorb these changes to our use of language, and our patterns of thought follow as well. We are forever complaining about the rising tide but it, and we, move up the beach anyway.

PC RIP?, BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 21 October at 0930 BST.

See also: Political Correctness: The awful truth

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