One of Us, Anne Else

Whatever political correctness (PC) is, it has become prominent in the media. A search of 33 United States metropolitan papers showed a sudden leap in references to it, from 638 in 1990 to 3877 in 1991. No one has tracked the incidence of its use in New Zealand, but a sharp increase seems to have taken place between 1993 and 1995.

Many PC stories were lifted straight from overseas, notably Britain. On December 26 1993, for example, the Dominion Sunday Times reprinted a story from the Sunday Telegraph, with a new headline which read “Big bucks as Noddy beats the bigots ‑ A nursery favourite of the fifties, exiled by the thought police of the eighties, comes out of the closet and into the money”.

The “thought police” were “librarians, teachers and councillors”. They had induced the publisher to replace “gay” and “queer”, because of the new meanings these words had acquired since the 1950s, and to substitute monkeys and gremlins for the thieving, mugging black gollywogs.

Contrary to the implications of the headline, it turned out to be this “scrubbed clean” version, not the original which the BBC had sold so successfully around the world. By pointing out that consistently black‑faced villains were inappropriate for a young British audience far more ethnically diverse than that of Blyton’s day, the so‑called “thought police” had paved the way for Noddy’s resurgence at home, and his new success abroad.

The article also revealed that every word and all the myriad associated merchandise had to be submitted for approval to one of Enid Blyton’s daughters ‑ and presumably altered or deleted if they were not approved. In addition, every country required its own adaptations of Noddy and other British children’s stories to suit local tastes and mores ‑ and keep the cash registers ringing.

Yet neither of these processes was labelled “politically correct”, nor were those who undertook them damned as ‘thought police”. The labels were applied only to those promoting changes to the Noddy books, not on the grounds of marketability and profit, but in the interests of inclusiveness and clarity.

As has now been repeatedly pointed out, “politically correct” was originally used in left‑wing circles as a joking putdown. The idea was to ridicule any tendency to display precisely the kind of persistently humourless zealotry, especially about language, which the term is now used to decry. Among feminists, “politically, incorrect” was an ironic recognition of disjuncture and contradiction, subverting any foolish notions of total political purity.

At the same time, English‑speaking feminists were starting to draw attention to the ways in which current language usage excluded or marginalised women as a group, particularly in high status contexts such as history, the law or literary criticism. Right through my years at university in the early 1960s I was reading scholarly comment couched in language such as this:

… the ultimate democracy of poetic language: the words of a man speaking to men in the tongue all men know because they are men…

… His powers ripened gradually, reached a peak in his middle and late 30s and thereafter very gradually declined. In that development and decline, as in so many other respects, the giant Wordsworth is one of us: the epitome of the normal man.

Carlos Baker, “Sensation and Vision in Wordsworth”, in M H Abrams (ed), English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays In Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp 103, 109)

 

But who was “us”? Feminists pointed out that this voice was that of a man speaking to men about men, and that whatever the author’s intentions, such language effectively excluded anyone who was not a man from both the text and its audience. This exclusion mattered. If it was not intended, inclusive language could be used instead. When I first read feminist literary criticism, regardless of whether it discussed male or female writers, it was as though a cloak of invisibility had suddenly been lifted.

In other contexts the problem was different: “women” appeared everywhere, but as demeaning stereotypes for which there was no male equivalent. Young women were bimbos, good only for catching men’s attention in ads and raising a snigger in press stories (again, often lifted from overseas) ‑ rape case judges saying they were flattered at being mistaken for the accused, for example. Older women were battleaxes: men were urged to flee their cooking, keep them on a short leash and trade them in when they were past it.

Mary Ellman wrote perceptively about the combined effect of exclusion and denigration in 1968:

This commentary upon themselves may be easy for women to disbelieve, but it carries the obligation of notice … Women must live like subjects of a bureaucracy in which they must read interminable and triplicated forms, whether or not they agree to sign them in the end … They are not allowed to escape the sense of species, they are like giraffes reading Lamarck every morning before they stretch their necks.

Mary Ellman, Thinking About Women, Virago, 1979 (first published 1968), p60

 

However, social change was already bringing about changes in language and representation:

In fact, the increasing presence of women in the audience which receives these opinions and the palpable incredulity which their presence projects seem already to have impeded somewhat the flow … imposing at least some caution or some covering of tracks.

Ellman, op cit, p61

 

The history of the Noddy books exemplifies this process in a different context. The publishers did not substitute monkeys for gollywogs because they were terrified of the librarians or concerned about the effect on children, black or white; they did so because they were concerned about the effect on sales. Similarly, it was the “increasing presence of women” in higher education in the workforce and as consumers, which not only gave diem the confidence to speak up, but also ensured that eventually their views would to some extent begin to be heard ‑ as would those of other “others”. But the language changes also encouraged women to change. Each process fostered the other.

Much of the furore around political correctness can be seen in terms of what happens when the explainers are joined by some of the explained, who in turn start providing their own explanations. The original explainers vigorously defend what they regard as their territory. They exaggerate the small foothold won by the explained, claiming that they are overrunning the entire field ‑ otherwise known as “going too far”.

There can be no monopoly on linguistic change. If you are an employer or a politician and unemployment is rising, then you will eagerly embrace terms such as “downsizing”, “flexibility”, or “surplus labour units”; but at the same time, you may attack the Human Rights Commission when it puts out guidelines designed to ensure that job advertisements do not exclude half the population (despite it being required by law to do so). You may even imply, as the National Business Review did recently (November 25 1994), that the commission is on a par with the Nazis: “Bias‑Gestapo moves mean that some find the situation vacant”.

Commenting on the Oklahoma bombing, Time magazine columnist Michael Kramer noted (on May 1 1995) that Republican Newt Gingrich had recently praised incendiary language as a key to winning elections and had urged other Republicans to use words such as “liar” and “traitor” to attack Democrats. “In the effort to get attention, to startle, to motivate a crucial self‑control is lost. The gulf between hyperbolic words and last week’s despicable treachery is not all that great.”

Words such as “Gestapo” and “thought police” certainly get attention. They exemplify exactly the kind of linguistic bullying and distortion which they accuse others of exercising. They drown out the disclaimers which often follow, such as: “No one is denying the booklet comes with the best of intentions.” The Gestapo cannot have good intentions.

What seems to draw the fire of the PC‑bashers is that, unlike other proponents of change, those who advocate linguistic, inclusiveness openly disclose their interests. Turning patients into clients and hospitals into Crown health enterprises is not simply a matter of applying value free economic terminology, it is a political act. Surely such moves are at least as deserving of being called “politically correct” as turning firemen into firefighters, the fair sex into women or Man into human beings.

The PC label simultaneously derides and demonizes whatever it is applied to. It serves as a convenient device to avoid dealing straightforwardly with the issues involved. It has now become a knee‑jerk epithet applied to any form of advocacy for any group other than heterosexual, able‑bodied pakeha males. It carries a vague implication of either expedient hypocrisy or mindless conformity. So the National Business Review could write of Fran Wilde on May 26 1995:

Her shining moments while in Parliament were the enactment of two private member’s bills: the politically correct Homosexual Law Reform Act and the Adult Adoption information Act.

 

George Orwell identified this kind of language in 1946. His comments on the use of “democracy” in his time can be neatly fitted to the use of “politically correct” in our own:

It is almost universally felt that when we call something politically correct we are denigrating it: consequently the opponents of every kind of equity claim that it is politically correct, and fear that they might have to stop using the phrase if it were tied down to any one meaning.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”, Collected Essays, Mercury Books, 1961, p343

 

Every group of “others” has the greatest respect for language. New Zealand women were enfranchised in 1893 by altering one sentence in the interpretation clauses of the Electoral Act to read: “Person includes female”. It seems absurd that 100 years later, we are still having to argue the point.

Anne Else is a Wellington writer and editor.

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Comment
Search
Subscribe to NZ Books
We're pleased you're using the New Zealand Books archive.

To ensure the survival of this important journal, please consider
subscribing — only $44 a year, or $30 for digital-only.

Go to the Subscribe page.
Search by category

Read more