I need some help – with political correctness.
As a Starter, Here’s a Joke
A newly-qualified doctor from a highly privileged background sets up a practice in a poor area. An elderly, working-class female patient arrives and explains she has “problems with my…”. Embarrassment overcomes her and she leans forward. “Down there,” she whispers. He begins examining her feet.
Okay, not so funny, but it is clearly a joke about communication across different cultures. Here the differences are class, age or regional – and it is perfectly acceptable. Agreed? No-one objects to mocking a young, wealthy, probably white, male professional.
Insert into the doctor’s description the word Asian, or Mexican, or African. NOW, it’s a racist joke.
Why? It’s still a joke about cross-cultural communication…
The splendid and talented actor, Benedict Cumberpatch, was recently lambasted for using the term “coloured” (in British English spelling) when praising black actors. To my non-pc computer, the phrases “coloured people” and “people of colour” differ by one vowel, one consonant and an additional space. Nevertheless, one phrase is toxic, the other is currently acceptable.
Okay, so the toxic expression is never to be used except as a term of abuse. Got that.
In June 2015, Rachel Dolezal resigned as president of the Spokane NAACP. Those initials stand for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Hold on a minute… I see a forbidden term in that name. Its website says,
“The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.
We envision a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.”
Admirable. I fully support those aims. But it includes a toxic term.
Wikipedia explains, “Its name, retained in accordance with tradition, uses the once common term colored people.”
So it IS acceptable to use the term… sometimes? The outrage expressed over Cumberpatch’s slip was – to me – baffling, especially when he and the NAACP had the same anti-discriminatory objectives. The meaning is in the intention, surely?
The Devil in the Words
In my lifetime, the word “gay” has changed its general meaning twice (see Dictionary.com for a full range of meanings). How can we know what terms are currently correct in this fluid situation of changing meanings and variable acceptability? And – as writers – what will be seen as objectionable in years to come?
How Times Change
The wildly popular 20th century UK childrens’ story teller Enid Blyton tried to instill contemporary moral values in her young readers. Times changed. Values changed. Among her failings was to call two of her characters Dick and Fanny, popular names in her day. She was lambasted in the 1960’s and beyond, and her books removed from childrens’ libraries and book stores, partly due to what those terrible words conjured-up in the minds of the adult activists. Reprints now name these characters Rick and Frannie.
The Writer’s Dilemma
My WIP, “Private Vices”, is a paranormal noir tale set in the 1950’s. I wanted to have musicians playing in a nightclub. Reluctant to use the descriptive terms prevalent at the time (but now offensive), unwilling to use anachronistic modern terms, and uncertain of what terms will be acceptable when the work is read in coming years, I regretfully fired the black musicians and replaced them with Mexicans.
Not “Mexican-Americans”, as that term was not in use then and these guys were straight from Tijuana. (Oops! I mean direct from Tijuana: I’d hate anyone to suspect any preference for heterosexual musicians.)
So, here’s a case where political correctness caused five talented and likeable guys to lose their jobs due to their colour. It broke my heart to let them go; I felt sorry for their dependent wives and children.
But at least I managed to recruit five other minority musicians to replace them. So that’s ok, yes?
Image courtesy of Boians Cho Joo Young at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
13 thoughts on “To Be Correct…”
Oh, what conundrums we writers wrestle with every day! A thoughtful and amusing piece, Andy.
Thanks, Beverly. There are so many traps out there for the unwary.
You already know what a sore subject this is for me… I feel like the speech police are out in force every day!! Mostly I am truly sorry for your band…may they all rest in peace:( What’s a writer to do in this era where the reflections of a past era have to modified to suit the speech police? And who’s the judge when it comes to using past terms occasionally? So confusing that it’s irritating!!
I know, Jacqui. It was the coincidence of the actor’s slip and the NAACP scandal that made me stop shaking my head in bafflement and impelled me to hit the keyboard. I’ll try to get the band a walk-on part in any sequel. (I have a lot of influence with the guy who runs the club.)
I found this quote a while back and saved it for a special occasion — just like this one:
“Political Correctness is a doctrine, fostered by a delusional, illogical minority and rabidly promoted by an unscrupulous mainstream media, which holds forth the proposition that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end.”
Strong stuff, James.
I am of the “weary-of-it” persuasion, rather than the totally hostile. Injustices need to be fixed, but I am reminded of Orwellian dystopia.
“Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace.” (source: Wikipedia)
At least you take the time to think about it. It’s important to be polite but there are some weird things out there. I’ve also been somewhat befuddled by “coloured people” and “people of colour”. The second one is certainly grammatically clumsy whereas the first one seems rather inclusive to me however it’s a bit bizarre to represent sort pf pinky/olivey people as not coloured. It’s not a black and white issue…
Hi Brian, glad to see you in my neck of the blogosphere.
I don’t get the changes of fashion in acceptable vocabulary, but I guess the issue doesn’t have the emotional resonance to a person of pink colour minority member like me.
Let’s all be just humans, equal but different – tall, short, left-handed, right-handed, brown eyed, blue-eyed…?
Wow Andy, that article is really “bad.” Well, back in the day, bad was used as good. Good read.
Bad Mac, eh? I like that. Glad you liked it.
PC fanatics use the “doctrine” (James Osborn’s terrific quote) for their own egotistical purposes, to define themselves as the ones who must be appeased, or to whom we must justify ourselves. They give proper or preferred usage a bad image, which hurts the cause they claim to support, though their real cause is their own delusions of grandeur.
Hi Jerry – Certainly, I believe all this word-play obscures the objective and gets in the way of clear thinking about the actual problem.
Interesting to see President Obama take my lead in raising the issue of the acceptability of the words we use – or don’t, or shouldn’t – in a recent interview http://www.bbc.com/news/world-33286949