Monday, October 28, 2013

Politeness, Political Correctness & Censorship

In "1984" George Orwell created the idea that the way we express ourselves has a fundamental effect on the way we also view the world. In the world of Newspeak, bad things could not be permitted, they could only be ungood. In such a way, the party restricted the ability of the individual to dissent. If the idea of dissent could not be expressed, then the very concept of opposition to the party line became impossible.

In recent years the idea of political correctness has gained much traction in the way we talk about the world. Ideas deemed to be socially unacceptable- discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sex, sexual preference and so on- are to be eliminated by the use of carefully proscribed norms. Sometimes the earnestness of this exercise seems faintly comic, and at times "politically correct" has become a term of abuse.

I have generally been tolerant of politically correct language, on the basis that it is a matter of politeness to address a person or a group in the way that they feel most comfortable. Increasingly, however, I have grown more uncomfortable with the idea that the wrong words can justify violence. Words like Nigger, which once had general currency, have become completely taboo- and given the historic loading on that word, it is a matter of politeness not to use it to describe another human being. Where one does so, it is usually deliberately offensive. Yet the net of political correctness now spreads far wider than this, and even the social norms that determine what is or is not offensive can not necessarily agree as to the right term. Yet, even where there is such doubt, the boundaries of what is acceptable are guarded with a vigour that often seems to match Orwell's own Thought Police.

And this is where I must not merely part company with the politically correct, but oppose them. The intensity with which some would wish to clamp down on free expression- or at least free expression with which they disagree- is often quite shocking. A free society must allow dissent. The network of lobbying and sinecure jobs as political officers has created a large economic clientele for the new industry of political correctness, but the fundamental foundation is not in support of politeness, but is support of proscription. Bans and stern punishments are the basis for this industry. Things are not merely deemed unacceptable as a societal norm, but as a political imperative. It is a very short step to get to the use of language as a political weapon- precisely what Orwell warns us against with Newspeak.

Then there is the question of who decides what is and is not acceptable?

In general, again as a matter of politeness, I have been content to follow what the distinct groups prefer that they should be known as. This has sometimes changed. For example, Self-identifying homosexual groups have used "Gay", "LGBT"- as part of a wider group of sexual minorities- or even "Queer", as a dissenting academic construct. All, even the last, may be deemed inoffensive, depending on context.

"Aye, there's the rub": context.

The fact is that even using what we must now refer to as the N-word, as I did above, is a matter of context- almost all language is. So the idea that we must obey some iron rules as to how we express ourselves is not only wrong, it is actually dangerous.

I choose to avoid language which I think might cause offence, but I can not support condemning those who do not choose politeness rather than confrontation. Like Voltaire, I may not approve of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Recently I have encountered American students who have been completely indoctrinated with the "politically correct" concept of language proscription- it is a humourless and neurotic world in which they live.

At my school it was "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me", in the US, such a blase approach seems impossible- and that is the beginning of the end of free discourse if such ideas infect the world beyond the campus gate.

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