I’m always wary of public endeavour that in some way or other proposes a betterment of the human race. In my previously unenlightened state of a few years ago, I would have written the latter phrase in that sentence as ‘an improvement of mankind” and thus set the feminists to agitated clucking. Nowadays I carefully avoid using words like ‘mankind”, not because they tickle up any residual sense of chivalry in me, but because the approved replacements for the word ‘man” are usually so ludicrous. Personkind? Personhole? We all know about those. Or what about that lulu (sorry girls) that appeared in a publication of the South African National Gallery a few years ago: draughtspersonship?
The criminalisation of ‘gender insensitive” usage in language was one of the notable campaign triumphs of 1980s feminism. Had it all stopped there, had the whole dizzy escapade flared up and then faded away we would all have taken note, had a few good laughs and then returned, slightly improved, to a use of language uninhibited by a new limb of censorship.
Unfortunately, the idea caught on and developed like a veld fire in a gale.
Soon it wasn’t enough to be vigilant about ‘gender insensitivity”, one was expected to apply similar strict criteria to a select catalogue of human conditions.
Overnight blind people became ‘visually impaired”, which had the effect of making those using the new term feel warm and comfortable, more understanding of their hapless fellows — sorry, persons. The blind, however, remained blind. The same morality-by-verbal-tinkering was accorded the lame, the deaf, even the short.
This widening of the scope of early feminism’s forays into English usage also had its farcical results. The sins of political incorrectitude could inflict on animals, too. Remember that wonderful Nandos television advert where a guide dog, transfixed by the smell of a Nandos product, pulled his visually impaired owner into a lamp-post? The outrage from guide dog associations belonged in some absurdist farce. Guide dogs have been insulted and demeaned by the advertisement.
Could anything be even a shade more ridiculous than that? Then, a month or so ago, up popped the story of a small English municipality having withdrawn from an art exhibition some plus-100-year-old oils that depicted monkeys dressed in lacy smocks and berets, painting portraits of other monkeys. Questioned by astonished reporters, one of the aldermen — oops, alder- persons said that the paintings were removed because they might offend monkeys.
There are many more examples of political correctness taken to bizarre lengths. A fortnight ago an English primary school banned a Punch and Judy show on the grounds that it ‘both encouraged and sanctioned” violence against women — never mind crocodiles. Recently, PC taxonomists changed the word ‘prisoner” to ‘person under correctional supervision”.
That political correctness is a mutation of censorship is obvious. Wrinklies like me are old enough to remember movie posters adorned with little gold stars painted over female nipples and pudenda by the grim censor board officials of the time; of magazines withdrawn from circulation so that whole pages of sexual or political sedition could be ripped out of them before they were again released for sale. Today, the PC Word Police bustle around sticking little stars on what they fear might give offence. Lying in ambush, they clutch ear trumpets to their heads, waiting to pounce on any phrase that could be deemed racist, ethnically indiscreet, sexually discriminatory or liable to cause indignation among frilled macaques.
Politically Correct is a road that leads to a particularly frightening version of hell. The trouble with fashions that attempt to obliterate what they like to call hurtful or abusive, gender or racially discriminative language, is that they tend to obliterate a lot of other ones in their path. By fiddling around with definitive language you run the danger of removing a lot of its original meaning.
The end result, if political correctness has its way, will be a world where all intense human emotions are strictly controlled, tamed, contained in a gently oscillating wave: a place where everyone endlessly apologises to everyone else for anything the apologiser thinks he or she should feel guilty about. There will be no highs, no lows, no peaks of ecstasy, no valleys of sorrow, no anger, no passion, you won’t ever love anybody or any music or art or writing or sport to the point of distraction — you will mildly approve of it. A world where everything tastes bland, where joke-telling is prohibited.
In his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, Orwell depicted a totalitarian regime with ‘Big Brother” as its emblematic authority: a regime that outlawed truth, love, original thought and, most especially, the concept of the individual. There were terrifying ‘Thought Police” to enforce this. The central figure in the novel, Winston Smith, struggles desperately to maintains his inner self intact.
Political Correctness is the ‘stealth” version of Orwell’s nightmare. PC proponents are today’s Thought Police and the central controller has been replaced by Big Person.