Monday, May 21, 2012

Political Correctness and Courtesy-- Two Very Different Things

I am currently listening to Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCullough. (The only reason I would ever listen to an audiobook is because it is not always possible to be reading a proper book. But I swear I will never, ever, ever own a Kindle.)

MacCullough is a genial host. He is not a believer himself, but he seems intent on treating Christianity with respect and even affection. (I have only started listening to the book so I can't comment on how well he achieves this.) I've enjoyed the book so far, although the fact that it appears to be narrated by Lt. Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a bit off-putting.

One thing I haven't appreciated is the book's politically-correct preamble, where MacCullough announces the conventions he will use, apologises in advance for not using gender-neutral language when quoting historical texts, and defends his use of terms such as "Common Era" and "Atlantic Isles". He anticipates the accusation of political correctness by arguing: "Some may sneer at this as 'political correctness'.When I was young my parents were insistent on the importance of being courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions and I am saddened that those undramatic virtues have now been relabeled in an unfriendly spirit."

Well, I bet your parents didn't go around saying "LGBT" and "Atlantic Isles", Professor MacCullough.Shouldn't that tell you something?

Peter Hitchens has made the excellent point that political correctness is not an extension of courtesy, or a form of courtesy, but a replacement for courtesy. It's the stabilisers on the bicycle of conversation, stabilisers that we need when politeness and restraint and decency-- much more subtle and delicate membranes than the brick walls of taboo that PC erects-- have disappeared.

Courtesy and respect do exactly what political correctness can't do, by definition. They discriminate. They judge each situation individually. We all know the joke of the butler who accidentally walks in on a woman taking a bath and, with lightning tact, says: "Excuse me, sir", before swiftly disappearing. That's a whole world away from the same butler in the same situation saying "Excuse me, sir" because he knows the woman in the bath is "transgendered" and considers herself to be a man called Derek.

Comedians like Ricky Gervais who mock the disabled and afflicted, and who defend this as a defiance of "political correctness", are also getting it wrong. Being mentally disabled is a misfortune and it is cruel to mock it for this very reason. But being a woman or Irish or Jewish or Catholic is not a misfortune. That is why jokes about those groups are fair game-- always subject to considerations of good humour and courtesy.

Our local priest and Ministers of the Word often "correct" Holy Scripture, inserting gender-sensitive language. Recently we had the pleasure of hearing our Lord's words rendered: "Greater love hath no man or woman than this, that they should lay down their life for their friends". I don't get my knickers in a twist about this, but it does seem rather a liberty to take with the Word of God. Also, it tends to replace the profundity of the words with bathos.

Political correctness usually protects the sensibilities of the politically correct, rather than the actual groups that are supposedly being enfranchised by it. One phenomenon I've noticed during my years working in UCD library-- and that has pleased me vastly-- is that the young female students, who are given the choice of registering as "Miss" or "Ms", tend to choose the cheerful traditional title rather than the awful, awkward, resentful "Mzzzzzz". (I wouldn't in the least mind styling myself "Master O'Ceallaigh", incidentally. But unfortunately, I can't remember the last time a form presented me with that option.)

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