HERE it is, this week’s Wednesday Whinge, written and published on a Wednesday (for a change) and fairly early (unlike last week). And the subject is... Political Correctness. It’s been prompted by a friend who kindly pointed out that my comments about badly behaved children and a ‘naughty corner’ were not PC, and the right terminology is ‘the time out place’! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, another acquaintance reprimanded me for saying ‘manning the office’ instead of ‘staffing’.
Now I’m all for equality, tolerance, not putting labels on people, not being derogatory and not causing offence – but not at the expense of the English language. Take ‘the time out place’ for example: it is not specific and conveys very little. It could be a sanctuary where stressed-out mums can relax, and there is no indication of it being a punishment for bad behavior possibly, I suspect, because the notions of naughty and punishment are also considered to be politically incorrect and should therefore never, ever be used. Personally, I still think ‘naughty corner’ serves the purpose since it explains exactly what is involved: it is a spot where a naughty child is placed away from their friends while they consider their behaviour and, hopefully, apologise.
I would also defend my use of the word ‘manning’ on the grounds that it is a generic term, and if we are going to ban all words containing man, then what happens to woman, human, mankind, manhandle, manhole?
Indeed, it’s this gender neutral language of the feminist movement (whose aims I agree with) that seems to have sparked the whole PC issue. The pronouns his and her are increasingly replaced by their (which is grammatically incorrect, since she and he are singular, while their is plural), and organisations like mother and toddler clubs have been taken over by parent and child groups. The battle for women’s equality in a patriarchal society has led to the disappearance of manageresses, actresses, shepherdesses and a host of other jobs, while air stewards (whatever their sex) are now flight attendants and firemen (and women) are firefighters.
You can no longer refer to a spokesman – you must say spokesperson, or representative. I can live with that, but what really, really annoys me is the use of the word ‘chair’ for chairman, chairwoman or chairperson. A chair is a thing upon which you sit. It is an inanimate object, so it cannot conduct meetings, speak or vote. What is the point of taking a word and subverting its meaning when a perfectly adequate word already exists? Let’s have a campaign to restore chairmen (and women) to their rightful place in society – sitting in a chair!
It’s not only the linguistics of gender that presents problems. All kinds of seemingly innocent phrases can trip you up. At university one of my daughters and her fellow students were told ‘thought shower’ is acceptable, but ‘brain storm’ can offend epileptics and people with learning difficulties.
These days the whole area of illness, age and disability is fraught with complications. In the past descriptions like spastic and crippled became terms of contempt so, quite rightly, they were outlawed and replaced – but replacements can also be turned into terms of abuse. There is also a danger that terminology can become so bland and all-embracing that it becomes meaningless. Disabled people are now people with learning difficulties, or people with special needs, umbrella titles which cover a wide spectrum of conditions, all with different needs. Surely it would be more helpful to spell out the nature of their condition?
The same argument applies to the blind who are now visually impaired or visually challenged, whether they are totally blind, or partially-sighted. Similarly, the deaf are aurally impaired or challenged, with no distinction between someone who is a little hard of hearing and another who is profoundly deaf.
The worst pitfalls involve ethnicity. Over the last two decades there have been myriad tales of councils and other organisations whose efforts to ensure universal equality and avoid causing offence led to bizarre decisions banning innocent words and phrases, such as blacklist, black looks or black mark, but some of the stories are probably apocryphal - did any children really sing Baa Baa White Sheep?
Religion also offers scope for the PC Barmy Army to impose their views on the rest of society. Use of the phrase ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’ can, apparently, offend atheists, while Christmas celebrations can upset non-Christians. For a couple of years Birmingham abandoned the Nativity and Christmas trees and opted for a multi-faith Winterval, which pleased no-one, so the council reverted to more traditional festivities.
It’s not that I disagree with the ideology behind these alterations to our language. Our society should be inclusive, and people should be able to live without fear of discrimination, whatever their race, belief, gender.
But changing language doesn’t resolve underlying problems in society: it simply means the real issues get lost in the words. Language should evolve through common usage, not because the thought police impose petty dictats, which are a form of censorship, as intolerant as the old views they are trying to stamp out.