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This is a hard piece to write. Partly because it’s about a scarily volatile subject that is unrivalled in its power to destroy careers via internet lynch mobs, but also because my own opinion of the subject is something I’m still working on. The subject is political correctness. Even the name gives me the creeps. I don’t really like using it but there’s no real way around it. I don’t like using it because 90% of the time that it’s used it’s as part of the phrase “PC gone mad,” and 100% of the time that someone invokes that phrase, or a variant thereof (viz. “now this might not be the ‘politically correct’ thing to say…” or “don’t tell the PC brigade…”), it is because they have just said something, or are about to say something, that is racist / sexist / homophobic / etc.
Most of the time I’m on the right, modern side of the PC line, but lately I’ve been questioning some of the things me and my people have found ourselves defending. And it’s not because I’m slowly becoming bigoted with age and wanting to be more openly offensive. It’s because, I think, under our watch the line has been creeping further and further out, to strange, faraway places. In some cases it’s crept so far out, so far beyond the actual pressing issues of daily reality, that it’s at risk of being lost completely. (Quick interpolation: I’ve realised another fear I have in writing this. I’d really hate for someone like that guy from Massive to read it and go “too bloody right, it’s about bloody time” or something. It’s really a precarious line to walk though, the slightest misstep is enough to bait either side into excited argument. That’s part of the problem. The PC debate has got so outrageous, as in literally outrage-inducing, that it prevents any old-fashioned civilised, intellectual debate about our values and the ways we use our language.).
Last year, at this very university, I heard someone refer to a person who couldn’t see as “blind.” Mortified at their horrible faux pas, the describer covered their mouth and retracted the offending adjective. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I mean visually challenged.” I groaned so hard I nearly passed out. It was clearly a stupid thing to say—I have family who are blind, and they don’t care what you call it, their national advocacy group is called the Blind Foundation for god’s sake—but worse than bad judgement, it was also supremely condescending. The writer David Foster Wallace put words to my groan in his essay “Authority and American Usage.” Far from sticking up for put-upon minorities, he says, this politically correct English “functions primarily to signal and congratulate certain virtues in the speaker—scrupulous egalitarianism, concern for the dignity of all people, sophistication about the political implications of language—and so serves the selfish interests of the PC far more than it serves any of the persons or groups renamed.”
I agree with Wallace re. “visually challenged,” but I don’t want to write off all politically correct language (I don’t think he does either). It’s good, I think, that we remove words like “retard” from our vocabulary once they make the jump into full-blown insult. We also carefully police usage of the pejorative “gay” and the thoughtless use of “rape,” and these are good, protective measures. The comedian Stewart Lee defines PC as “an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language,” and we largely do a good job of it in this way. Examples like “visually challenged” though chip away at all the work we’ve done to make English an inclusive language, by basically (unintentionally, I can only hope) parodying the very idea of it. This new wave PC has started to eat itself. It’s no longer taking on the powerful, marginalising forces of exclusive language, but has taken its own side into its sights. It no longer cares about looking after people, it’s only worried about itself.
Maybe the problem is the line. Every PC flare-up like “visually challenged” pushes more people onto the other side of the line, where they find themselves in the company of actual racists and dicks. What would be better is a nice, thick, grey area. A kind of gently sloping grey area that we can use to help all those old racists make it up into modern times, slowly but surely.