01 August, 2010

On Political Correctness

Julia Gillard wants to have a free and open debate about refugees and asylum seekers free of political correctness.  Many have taken that as code for “we won’t judge you if you say you’re scared of foreigners.”  Whether it is or not, the inference is that somehow, big bad political correctness has stifled free and open discussion of the issue.

Let’s cut the crap about political correctness.  The idea of political correctness was a very brief fad in the early 90s and the idea seemed to be that things should always be expressed in a positive, non-judgemental way that did not portray people as inferior in anyway.  So “blind” became “visually impaired,” “disabled” became “challenged,” and so on.  It wasn’t long before people were sending it all up - “short” became “vertically impaired,” “bald” became “follically challenged,” and much mirth was had for quite a few minutes.  Beyond that, political correctness has been a complete non-issue since 1993 at the latest, except among those who love to decry it. The dumbest thing proponents of political correctness did was to give a new name to something we used to call good manners.

The word Political has the same derivation as the word Polite.  So to be ‘politically correct’ literally means to be polite.  Who’s going to argue against being polite?  For instance, if you’re in a situation where you’re not sure whether you should call someone by their title or their first name, then the polite thing to do is to address the person as Mr Bloggs.  If he doesn’t care for formality, he’ll soon say, “Hey, call me Joe.”  No-one ever takes offence at being called by their title but they might consider it a liberty to be called by their first name - so the sensible and civilised thing to do is to address them by their title until invited to do otherwise.  Is this political correctness gone mad, or simply good manners?  Likewise, there are many disabled people who are completely cool and casual about their disability, while there are others who are more sensitive about it.  For a long time, to call someone a cripple was seen as more than just a statement of fact, there was an inference that they were lesser people.  Therefore, the polite thing to do would be to refer to them as impaired.  There are many who would simply reply, “Mate, I’m a cripple. Deal with it.”  But it should be their call.  Of course, there are hypocrisies on all sides.  I have noticed that both supporters and critics of neutral terminology will happily fling the word ‘bastard’ around with gay abandon, never considering how offensive and hurtful the word is to those who remember when society was less progressive about children born out of wedlock.

Some offensive expressions have been reclaimed.  Nick Giannopoulis and his cohorts have done such a good job of reclaiming the word ‘wog,’ that it’s pretty much ruined their act.  There’s no shock value in putting ‘wog,’ in the title now.  He’s a wog-boy - fine, whatever, move on.  However, this does not give everyone licence to use racial epithets whenever they feel like it - not even ‘wog.’

The argument I am making is the kind that always gets misinterpreted as an attack on free speech.  It is nothing of the sort.  Everyone should have the right to say whatever they want.  But as I have written several times before, the right to free speech does not include protection from the consequences of exercising that right.  You have the right to say anything you like, and others have the right to say, “No, that’s stupid and here’s why.”

While everyone has an equal right to their opinion and the expression of that opinion, not all opinions are equal.  An opinion is only as valid as the information it’s based upon.  If the information doesn’t add up, then neither does the opinion.

If Julia Gillard really wants a frank and open discussion of concerns, free of political correctness, then let’s try a test case.  As we are constantly being reminded Julia Gillard is Australia’s first female prime minister.  A fact that has been lost among all the back-slapping about a woman’s rise to the top job, is that women operate differently to men.  If we are to hear all concerns with an open mind, then isn’t it time someone asked if we can trust the decisions made by the prime minister when she is premenstrual? 

If you think that’s an abhorrent suggestion (and you should!), then maybe I should counter that by accusing you of being politically correct and trying to silence genuine concerns, however misinformed those concerns may be.  And who are you elitists to call me misinformed anyway, you patronising latte sippers!

This is what political correctness is really used for.  It is a straw-man argument employed by people who have no other backup.  And if all they can do to justify their position is to accuse their opponents of political correctness, then the response should be, “Maybe I’m not being politically correct - maybe you’re being a bigot.”

To her credit, Gillard has responded with good grace to comments that as almost as bad as the one I suggested.  From Bill Heffernan’s comment that she is “deliberately barren,” through jibes about her hair colour, to the recent media obsession with her marital status, she would be within her rights to say, “How dare you suggest such a thing!” but she has accepted that it’s all part of politics. However, the mere fact that she has attracted such comments already, shows what a dangerous game she is playing by trying to appeal to the “I’m misinformed (at best) and I vote” demographic.  How far does the revoking of political correctness go?  Are we ready for the ranga-on-the-rag debate?

I hope we never are.  Or if we are, I hope we also have the courage to stop paying lip service to misinformed points of view and say, “No, that’s stupid!”  The form of political correctness we have to move away from, is the political correctness that tells us we have to hear and respect all points of view without challenge or rebuttal.

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