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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » What’s So Funny About Political Correctness?

What’s So Funny About Political Correctness?

Father/Mother/Gender Neutral PC Christmas? - Shawn Lea
Nowadays virtually everything spoken, said or thought is run through the PC grinder, but has it gone too far? Do people still need some private views?

While nobody disputes the need to avoid making racially or gender offensive comments to or about others, individually or collectively, there is a feeling voiced by self-styled British philosopher and on-line publisher Philip Atkinson, and on the US Newsmax, by Agustin Blazquez with Jamus Sutton, that political correctness has become ‘the scourge of our times’.

They credit the origins of PC to the Frankfurt School, founded in 1923, a group of thinkers pondering why communism wasn’t spreading fast in Russia. Those scholars concluded that western civilisation was in the way, and the solution was to undermine individual thought and attitude.

The PC approach has taken hold. The Welsh Development Agency spent £17,500 training employees in diversity and equality issues to avoid words like brainstorming, in case they are offensive to people with mental illness or epilepsy. They are not alone. Many local authorities, public services and businesses run such diversity training. It’s rumour that some have banned nitpicking (offensive to sufferers of headlice) and brainstorming (upsets brain disease sufferers). Thought shower is preferred.

Semi-religious celebrations like school Christmas carol concerts have been changed in case non-Christians are offended and to make them inclusive of other faiths. Indeed Birmingham, UK, for a number of years deemed that Christmas should become Winterval in all public buildings, although many non-Christians accept Christmas is part of the Christian western tradition. Halloween celebrations in New York were banned to avoid giving offence to witches.

The Positive Side of PC?

Some political correctness comes from the world of health and safety, which is used as a handy scapegoat for why people can’t do things they enjoyed before, and for doing things they may not like in the future. Few argue with the need for proportionate health and safety requirements, risk assessments and good education about risk. The controversy arises when some see it as getting out of hand, beyond what is practicable.

Some black people find certain terms offensive, especially if words are intended to be derogatory. Black-hearted, blacking up, black cloud, for instance, enjoy long historic usage, but the issue about PC is: are they harmless words, or does their use exacerbate prejudice? Similarly, is an excessive use of male gender words (manpower, manhandle, management, mankind, humanity, history) insulting to women? Is even women itself appropriate?

The use of chairman in the context of running business meetings has almost vanished. The neutral ‘chair’ is now used widely. In Beccles, a small UK town, some people campaigned to have Black Boy Meadow renamed, although it had been thus called since the 16th Century. The aim of political correctness is to avoid stereotyping and judging people, though there is no final, objective arbiter in what is or isn’t offensive.

A ‘gollywog’ in Britain to describe a black soft toy is widely regarded as unacceptable. However, there have been cases where if one member of the public reports themselves offended by breast-feeding mothers in public parks, bus stops or a corner of a cafe, then action is taken against the mothers. Does this constitute appropriate modification of human behaviour? That is the question that PC has raised.

The Ludicrous Side of PC?

The application of PC often means changing words and descriptions, and it has been a rich seam for comedians to mine as they mock the concept and its application. A dustman might become a waste disposal operative. A hospital ward sister is often now styled a modality manager, while Ceredigion in Wales advertised for a wet leisure assistant (a lifeguard). Call centre employees are sometimes known as communications executives, or collection/recoveries credit services advisers.

An airplane sickbag might be a stomach distress receptacle, a wino is an alcohol abuse survivor and someone who is psychotic is socially/mentally misaligned. A beer gut is a liquid grain storage facility; wrong is differently logical; worst is least best; ugly is cosmetically challenged; bald is follicle regression and short is anatomically compact. Stupid is holding to an alternative mental perception. A shy person is conversationally selective, and a shoplifter is a non-traditional shopper.

Murder becomes arbitrary deprivation of life and a dead person becomes nonliving or metabolically different or awaking to immortal life, basting the formaldehyde, cooling to room temperature, starting the eternal yawn, permanently out of print, kicked the oxygen habit or taking an earth bath. Of course, such language is intended to be funny, so the point of changing it to be less offensive is gone. It’s just that such humour becomes differently upsetting.

In the British TV sitcoms Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn created the perfect PC account of a sausage: 32% fat, 6% rind, 20% water, 5% seasoning and colouring, and it should accurately be called an elongated emulsified high-fat offal tube.

Some Made Up Ones, or Are They?

It’s possible to apply PC language to nursery rhymes and fairy tales: is Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs in need of updating or can it be left as a piece of history? Are these imaginary festive/seasonal job descriptors just jokes or are they proportionate use of language? Chimney Dimension Directive Enforcement Officer; New Year’s Eve Harmonisation Enabler (across all time zones); Person Gender Advice Operative; Crackers’ Noise Abatement Adviser and Father/Mother/Transgender Christmas jobs for December in every department store.

Does the comic potential undermine legitimate concerns about words used to describe people and things, or does it underline that a widely accepted balance on non-offending words has yet to be discovered?

First published at Suite 101, 29 April 2010.

Photo: Father/Mother/Gender Neutral PC Christmas? – Shawn Lea

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