political correctness


The British Sociological Association urges its members to be careful while using terms that may be offensive to some people. It has, in a stellar act of well-meaning guidance, come up with lists of words it feels are not politically correct, and has suggested politically correct alternatives. Now, while I still maintain that Political Correctness has, in my view, come close to being preposterous (as when a local council in the UK banned the term ‘brainstorming’), it must be said that the BSA lists, in part, made sense. However, there was still a lot that was, to my (by implication, ignorant, insensitive and ‘incorrect’) mind, ridiculous. Bizarre, even.

For instance, when it comes to art, they recommend not using the term ‘Old Masters’ – instead they suggest using ‘classic art/artists’. OK, I get it. This term is masculine, exclusivist and exclusionist. But surely it is the most appropriate and acceptable, as well as accurate, term when I talk about Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens or Rembrandt. Weren’t they, from today’s standpoint, ‘old masters’? Of course, when I want to include Anguissola, Oosterwyck, Charriera or Fontana (the ‘vintage queens of art’???) in that list, I will use the collective term ‘classic artists’ – but that does not mean that the term ‘old masters’ does not have a place.

Then there are ‘disseminate’ and ‘seminal’. Frowned upon, for obvious reasons. I suppose they forgot to include ‘seed’, which also has similar connotations – perhaps we should use ‘botanic-life-enabling organic-source-matter’ instead!

They also feel the words ‘civilised’ and ‘civilisation’ have racist overtones derived from colonial perceptions. Well, not always. Perhaps implicit in their understanding of the word civilisation is a very urban-centric, renaissance/industrial revolution derived association – but surely the most prevalent usage of this word is in the broader sense, as in ‘Indian civilisation’, ‘Mayan civilisation’, ‘Egyptian civilisation’ or ‘Chinese civilisation’? All of which predate the renaissance and are far removed from any colonial – as we know it – overtones.

What about ‘Developing nations/Less developed countries’? Well, yes, this again implies a hierarchy, with these countries at the bottom – but frankly, will any alternative really do away with the hierarchy inherent in any meaningful comparison? In economic studies, ‘development’ is an index that is actively tracked, with many parameters – among them literacy, mortality, nutrition – going into the making of this index. There will be countries that will score low on the development index. What do we call them? If we accept the BSA’s logic, then, by extension, terms like ‘champions’ (in any sporting tournament) or ‘winners’ should also be banned – because they, by definition, imply the existence of teams/people that did not win (losers!). And let’s not even get into the concept of ranking in sport. Or, even worse, something that will make them cringe in horror – seeding in ball game tournaments. How politically incorrect is that?

Other questionable inclusions: diaspora, overseas, third world, special needs (recommended: additional needs), patient (WTF? Recommended: person. I repeat, WTF? Is there no need for a term for a person who needs medical care and who is in a health-care facility? Whose body – gender-neutral, without any sexual overtones! – might be host (nah, host is a xenophobic term! Let’s use ‘dwelling place’ instead) to some life-forms inimical to universally accepted non-sexist, non-racist standards of human health?) Oh, and the good sociologists also discourage usage of (medical/health related) terms like ‘victim of’, ‘suffering from’ and ‘afflicted by’. Remember to also replace ‘mentally ill’ with ‘mental health service user’. And I suppose the term ‘ill’ can be moved in favour of ‘health service user’.

Where does this end?

I agree – words are powerful. I agree, many terms have unpleasant historical connotations and some sensitivity is needed. But we should also be careful of reducing political correctness to a farce. Regrettably, the exponents of political correctness do not seem to realise how their enthusiasm is doing their cause more harm than good.

I don’t like Lewis Hamilton. And the team he drives for. That’s an understatement. This was evident in my last post. My dislike of the man has nothing to do with his being black. Surprisingly, two comments – from people whose thinking I respect – did bring up the black angle, which left me wondering if, in today’s world, expressions of personal likes or dislikes – without any demographic connotations or aspersions – are nevertheless measured against the demographic profile of the individual being spoken about. In other words, I can’t pan Hamilton and say that he is, as far as the world of F1 goes, an extremely privileged individual who has had the best of F1 opportunity handed to him on a platter, without someone being pained by the fact that I criticized the first black in F1. Forget the fact that his race was never a factor in my opinion of him. Disregard the fact that no one remembers that Lewis is to the manor-of-F1 born. And that no one would have blinked an eyelid if I had said the same about any other (non-black) driver.

Are we in an era of an extreme level of political correctness? And before anyone takes umbrage, let me clarify – I am all for political correctness. But are we approaching a point where we have to take our positions only at either end of the spectrum? Are we at a point where the rule is “if you’re not with us, you’re with them”? Is any criticism to be seen only in the broad context of the demographic profile of the person, and not in the immediate context of the criticism itself? Does the demographic profile of the person dictate our views of her? And if we only look at the broader demographic context, what happens when you suddenly have to choose between members of two marginalized groups?

I then remembered having come across this very insightful article on the recently-concluded Democratic primary. The author writes that Hillary got the short end of the stick, and was the victim of blatant misogyny. In contrast, as another article mentions, the attacks on Obama were apparently not blatantly racist . This is something that many people may not acknowledge. Of course, there were so many other factors involved in the Hillary-Barack battle that I may be guilty of reductionism myself. But one can’t help wondering if in the gender versus race factor, some white American Democrats preferred erring on the side of race.

Could the reason for this be a misplaced sense of political correctness? Could it be that this misplaced sense of political correctness dictated that charges of alleged misogyny were preferable to charges of alleged racial bias?

I have only the questions. Perhaps some of you could provide the answers.