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OMG, they’re trampling on my right to offend people!

9 January, 2012

You know, I’m not sure I’ve ever thought particularly well of any column by Miranda Sawyer. This particular column was brought to my attention by a friend, and it was well-timed to go with some of my thoughts on this post by Historian on the Edge, which I’d missed the first time around, but got to via his very interesting post on the Diane Abbot brouhaha.

You see, I don’t really like the phrase “political correctness.” To me, it implies that one is modifying one’s language because of some externally imposed rules that are the whim of the political climate of the time. Moreover, it seems to convey to most people that “political correctness” is somehow unfair, a curb on free speech, and a generally arbitrary way to keep us from ‘saying what we really think,’ or to cause the use of ridiculous euphemisms. And, in some cases, the latter is probably correct– it just isn’t the point.

Our use of language is based on a set of choices that we make. The idea of political correctness came from attempts to remove clearly offensive language from the public sphere and, I think, to discourage it in the private sphere as well. All problems with Sapir-Whorf aside, I think it’s fair to say that our language both reinforces and reflect our culture and its values. So when we realize that a particular term is hurtful, or offensive, to a group of people because it carries, e.g. all of the baggage of racism or sexism or oppression, or any sort of “othering” that reduces a group to ‘less than us’, then … well, honestly, do we (or should we) want to keep using that word or phrase? I don’t, and I find it troubling that Miranda Sawyer and so many others think that sacking Andy Gray and Richard Keyes for saying incredibly sexist things (and apparently in Gray’s case, at least, engaging in sexually harassing behaviour) is “PC gone mad.” In the case of Gervais, comedians do tend to get more leeway than other public figures, but there is a fine line between bad taste and bigotry. I don’t know that Gervais is a bigot, or if he thinks of himself as one, but as described, the jokes were rooted in reducing a group of people who are generally without social privilege to an even lower status. I think at his best, Gervais can be brilliant, although I don’t really like his sort of observed comedy because it is so very close to the bone sometimes. But it’s observant of character types, not of groups of people based on some group they were born into. It’s also funny because it’s the comedy of the powerless. This is something that Sawyer talks about, but doesn’t get.

Sawyer tries to convince us that really, people aren’t offended by such terms anymore — look at what the kids say! Frankly, reading what the young people said was sort of sad; it certainly indicates that people are not being taught to think about what they are saying, or the words they use. If they are, then they aren’t being taught that a casual use of sexist or racist language can inure us to sexist and racist attitudes. What was very clear, and I think a good sign, was that Sawyer’s exemplary teens also seemed to be very aware of how they needed to negotiate context and use for a variety of social situations: in fact, they seemed much more aware of it than does Sawyer or some of the commenters, who use the time-worn, “but it was a joke!” excuse far too much. What Sawyer doesn’t mention is that all of her examples of “when it’s ok not to be PC” are from situations where there is very little differential of power and privilege amongst the people in the conversation. To my mind, it’s the inability to recognize one”s own privilege that lies at the root of most complaints against PC language, and against the Diane Abbots of the world. This is also where I digress a bit from HotEdge: Yes, race is a construct, and I can’t disagree with his discussion of that, but I think that it’s less the reason for why Abbot wasn’t being racist than is the fact that those without privilege can’t actually be the thing that exists because of privilege. Privilege is also contextual, but in Eurocentric societies (and especially in Western Europe and the US), the most privilege is held by white, middle- to upper-class, straight, Protestant men. Period. White people generally have privilege compared to people of color, although male privilege can frequently trump white privilege, if the other power dynamics are supportive. Privilege and power: they go together. Our language reflects our own privilege and our own power, the extent of our willingness to share them, and the extent of our desire that they be shared. Miranda Sawyer doesn’t have to worry about that much, nor do any of the actors at the heart of her “PC gone mad” examples. They are all people with relatively high amounts of privilege and power in our society, compared to most people. Clearly many of the commenters at the Grauniad feel as she does. But here’s the thing — the question I think needs to be asked, because if we ask it and answer it honestly, it tells us a lot about our own values and our understanding of “PC”:

What is more important to me? My right to offend others with language that denigrates them because of their race, gender, religion, history, etc? Or the right of all of us to live in a society where we are not subjected to such things, whether as the targets or as observers?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. J Liedl permalink
    10 January, 2012 3:00 am

    I’ve always thought that those who exclaim loudly about their right to say whatever they want really don’t say anything worth heeding, in fact, quite the opposite.

    It’s of a piece with hearing a man tell me that “oh, calling a woman a bitch isn’t a real insult”. Really? Walk a mile in my shoes and then think about how that comes across. Racist, sexist, homophobic and other insults of categorization ought to be stomped right out of common parlance. That’s simple courtesy and what we should expect in a civilized society!

  2. chris y permalink
    11 January, 2012 1:48 pm

    Once upon a time there was this thing called “common courtesy”, which was the idea that you didn’t say or do stuff that would cause offense to the people you were interacting with. One might reasonably wish to take this further, but it was a good start.

    “Politically correct” as a phrase, began as a way of left wingers teasing other, more extreme left wingers; how it got picked up by the right I don’t know. But in terms of people demanding the right to say and do offensive things to other people, I suspect that the response, “Don’t be so bloody rude, you ignorant peasant” is commonly more effective than appeals to their better nature.

  3. 12 January, 2012 3:52 pm

    A punch in the face often offends…

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