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Tuesday 10 May 2016

Politically Correct or Politically Cuckoo ?

Ever find yourself agreeing with something only to find yourself agreeing with the exact opposite five minutes later ? I do. Especially when it comes to the torrent of articles about whether we're all too easily offended and suchlike. Yes, censorship is bad. Saying unpleasant things isn't necessarily good or bad, but can be necessary. Treating people like special snowflakes is bad, but not respecting their beliefs is also bad. Being intolerant is bad. And being racist is bad too, but intolerance of racism is good. It's all frightfully confusing.

To try and make sense of my dilemma of apparently agreeing with everyone, I've been trying to address one small point and decide what it is we really mean by politically correct. As with most things, Wikipedia is a good place to start. It says :
Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC,[1] is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.
Other parts of the internet put it more succinctly, saying that it just means treating other people with respect. This leads to amusing results when media headlines are appropriately altered.

It seems to be that there are two quite distinct meanings to the term, but both can be legitimate. The first is just basically being nice to people and not trying to insult them on the basis of whatever group it is they happen to belong to. This is what politically correct is supposed to mean. The second sense of the term is what crops up typically in right-wing newspapers, and means something like, "walking on eggshells", as though your own true feelings should always be kept back in the 1950's, you racist bastard : essentially, being nice to people and not insulting them even for legitimate reasons. Or, if you prefer, it's politically correct in that it agrees with an ideology, as opposed to being factually correct, which is of course not necessarily the same thing. And that does happen too, though it should surprise no-one when I say that I think it's rather rarer than the nutty right-wing gutter press believe.

Obviously, treating people with respect is a good thing and to be encouraged. So you might think that if this second sense of the term - which I shall refer to as political cuckoo - does happen, it's probably something else entirely. Not so. Firstly, it is possible to treat people with too much respect. This happens to just about every single king, emperor, pope and dictator in history.

In some cases with more justification than others.
Horrible newsflash, royalists : the Queen poops. She also farts and belches. I don't know if she fornicates or not, but a great many kings and no small number of popes certainly have. And yet these people are treated with something related to but exceeding respect : reverence, even worship. The reason the above headlines sound funny ("it's treating people with respect gone mad") is because a) they omit "too much", i.e. you can give undue respect, and b) the situations they describe are about struggles for equality, not elevating one group above another.

But it is possible to cross the line from political correctness to political cuckoo, and yes, that could be argued to be fuelling extremism. Take, for example, the annual silly story that Christmas lights are to be renamed "winter lights" out of fear of offending Muslims / Hindus / Buddhists / Russell Brand, whatever. It doesn't really matter if this story is true or not, the point is that if it did happen, the ethnic or religious minority would have been granted too much respect : Christmas lights are Christmas lights, and no-one in their right mind would be offended by calling a spade a spade. And guess what ? The vast majority of said ethno-religious minority are people in their right minds, and don't give a flying Queenly poop what Christmas lights are called. It's not politically "correct" at all, it's politically cuckoo.

Obviously, that possibly-fictitious example has done about as much for fuelling extremism as cat farts contribute to global warming : it's the same basic thing, but on a scale so different that comparing them doesn't really make any sense. Fuelling extremism could potentially arise (I make no comment as to whether or not it actually does) if one group of people is held with such over-respect that crimes committed by individuals are overlooked : "these people can't possibly be guilty", or, more pertinently, "we can't be seen to be discriminating against these people".

Which, of course, doesn't necessarily happen because of a true over-reverence for the minority. The police probably don't go around thinking, "I just love black disabled lesbian Muslim people so damn much !" and how they can't arrest any of them because they're all wonderful ("positive" discrimination). But they can in principle (and perhaps do in practise) fail to act for fear of being seen as contributing to more ordinary negative discrimination, which in turn means the net effect is the same : the minority are treated with the direct equivalent of undue respect.

That's politically cuckoo - or politically correct as the fascist rags would have you believe. I prefer terms which clearly and inherently distinguish between the positive and negative aspects, because both certainly exist to some extent. "Correct" is a positive word, so let's take back "politically correct" to have only positive connotations, i.e. treating people with respect. We should also look at the less life-threatening situations of people simply saying or being too afraid to say things deemed to be offensive.

The problem is that it's entirely possible to be offended by things which aren't intrinsically damaging to you or your family or your cousin's favourite hamster in any way. It's also easy to be offended by things which are true : politicians seldom react well when their underhand dealings are revealed. People aren't all that good at judging what is really vicious and intended as such, and they're certainly not always gratified when their misdeeds are pointed out. Which means that someone being offended, by itself, tells you absolutely nothing about the moral status of whatever it was they were offended by.

Still, we might broadly define politically correct speech to be respectful and courteous to minorities, whereas politically cuckoo speech takes this to absurd extremes : avoiding speech that isn't actually offensive at all, or, far worse, not saying the truth for fear of causing offence. It's the difference between, "I can't say this, it's actually offensive" - which is a fundamentally good thing - and, "I can't say this, people will be offended", which is a terrible thing. Or equally, "I must say this because if I don't, people will be offended".

Then there's the phrase, "It's not politically correct of me to say this, but...". Well, there's nothing remotely wrong with pointing out that some minority group commit more crimes if that's actually true - not mentioning it would be politically cuckoo, you'd be treating them with undue respect. If you also want to imply a causal relationship (they're committing crimes because they're Muslims / African / French / Donald Drumpf), that is much more tricky. It can and does happen : you can't really be a good terrorist.

For example, it would be politically cuckoo indeed to say, "I'm sure all those bombs he planted and the fact he was a member of the IRA were just a complete coincidence". Whereas it would be much more borderline to say, "he planted all those bombs because he was Irish". Yes, it was a contributing factor*, but obviously it wasn't the only one, so it's just politically (and factually) incorrect to place the blame firmly on his ethnicity. Groups which preach hate and violence self-evidently do not deserve respect, whereas those which do not, or contain no intrinsic message of any kind (such as colour or nationality) deserve at the very least the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

* Though only due to the terrorist's perception of the political situation, just as the political and economic situation in Somalia fuels piracy. Of course, there's absolutely no innate, permanent link between being Irish and a terrorist any more than there is between being Somalian and being a pirate.

It disturbs me that a) we need a special term for not being rude to minorities and b) the press have succeeded so fully with the idea that political correctness isn't correct at all (also the name itself doesn't help) that it's practically synonymous with "mistake". This is why we need a better term, be it political cuckoo or something else, for the kind of thing the press are usually talking about, even if that doesn't happen as often as they think it does.

One of the points from the gutter press that I must concede is that political correctness, even in the proper sense, is about telling people how to think and behave. But it's becoming a damn silly world if saying "try not to discriminate against minorities" is somehow itself offending people. It seems to me - cue brief anecdotal rant - that the people shouting most loudly against political correctness are the ones most eager to tell us all about how evil Muslims are or how "blacks" are planning to give Britain's swans cancer, or some such idiocy. By and large, the people who complain that we're all too easily offended are the ones who are the most easily offended and often also the most bigoted. With exceptions, of course.

Yet even as someone on the extreme political left, I find it disingenuous to claim that it isn't possible to go politically cuckoo. Indeed, it happens to those on the left pretty frequently, who over-react and fail to check the facts before leaping to unjustified conclusions. Tim Hunt didn't really say anything that was, at worst, anything more than mildly obnoxious; Matt Taylor didn't do anything that was truly demeaning to women. Twitter mobs ostensibly full of people in paroxysms of rage about the latest shenanigans are common. Sometimes they even happen for very good reasons, like GamerGate*.

* Because yeah, it's really about ethics in journalism and not death threats. Morons.

The problem isn't necessarily that we're all too easily offended, as is often claimed. True, sometimes people just don't know when to take a joke, but that's only part of it. Another factor is that we hear what we want to hear - or rather, what we don't want to hear. We like having adversaries. There's a nice quote in a Moby Dick adaptation : "He won't permit them to think, only to feel." When something provokes strong emotions, it becomes very hard to think rationally. Careful fact-checking to see who said it, what they've said previously, what they're likely to really mean, and what it was they actually said as opposed to the media reports ? Don't be daft, I haven't got time for that, I'm ANGRY !

People can hear a message that's hugely offensive, even if the original was nowhere near as bad - or even completely innocent. And thus political correctness becomes politically cuckoo, and earns a bad reputation. If you're going to jump down people's throats for what are at worst minor infractions, then of course people are going to stop taking you seriously.

So yeah, this one isn't so difficult. Political correctness - not discriminating for or against people - is a good thing. Going politically cuckoo - assuming people are above reproach because of their demographic, or avoiding inoffensive speech for fear of offending, or saying things which aren't true because they're nice - is a bad thing. The latter may be rarer than some suppose, but it certainly does happen, and it's damaging for everyone. And so is treating every slightly genuinely politically incorrect comment as though the person saying it was worse than Hitler. That's not the way to promote tolerance at all.

There's really only one way to end this post :

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