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Political correctness

I have always understood the primary meaning of “political correctness” to refer to the subservience of burrowing apparatchiks who try to align their opinions with those perceived to be in power.

A primary example in South Africa today would be ANC members of parliament, and of provincial and municipal councils, who do not dare to criticise Jacob Zuma, even though they may have private misgivings about him.

I believe the term originated in Marxist or Communist party circles, where people might precede some criticism of the party line, however mild, with an ironically self-deprecating phrase such as, “It may not be politically correct to say so, but…”

From there it spread to other groups and other power structures, but with the same general meaning of unwillingness to criticise those perceived to be in power, and an unquestioning adherence to the party line, whatever the party might be.

Then the meaning seemed to become restricted to the use of language.

The Vicar of Bray

The Vicar of Bray

Undoubtedly political correctness did get expressed in language. When South Africa was ruled by the National Party, “natives” became “Bantu” and later “Blacks” (with a capital B), and the politically correct changed their usage in accordance with the approved pattern. When “Native Reserves” became “Bantu Homelands” the politically correct changed their terminology accordingly. The politically incorrect would precede “Homelands” by “so-called”, or would use air quotes when they said it.

The primary example, the paradigm and model of political correctness is the Vicar of Bray.

But now there seems to be a further narrowing down of the meaning of political correctness, especially in the USA, for example in the following article, in which it seems to be defined solely in terms of “offense sensitivity” — The Personality of Political Correctness – Scientific American Blog Network:

The researchers found that PC exists, can be reliably measured, and has two major dimensions. They labeled the first dimension “PC-Egalitarianism” and the second dimension “PC-Authoritarianism”. Interestingly, they found that PC is not a purely left-wing phenomenon, but is better understood as the manifestation of a general offense sensitivity, which is then employed for either liberal or conservative ends.

It’s an interesting article, but I think it is a pity that the term is narrowed down in that way. It seems to leave a gap in the language. If you reduce political correctness to offence sensitivity, what do you call real political correctness?

Is “politically correct” a euphemism for “euphemism”?

Is “politically correct” a euphemism for “euphemism”, or vice versa?

It was reading this that made me wonder The Return of Public Vulgarity by Slavoj Žižek:

It may appear that this disintegration is counteracted by the growth of political correctness, which prescribes exactly what cannot be said; however, a closer look immediately makes it clear how the “politically correct” regulation participates in the same process of the disintegration of the ethical substance. To prove this point, it suffices to recall the deadlock of political correctness: The need for PC rules arises when unwritten mores are no longer able to regulate effectively everyday interactions—instead of spontaneous customs followed in a nonreflexive way, we get explicit rules, such as when “torture” becomes an “enhanced interrogation technique.”

The crucial point is that torture—brutal violence practiced by the state—was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered politically correct in order to protect victims from symbolic violence. These two phenomena are two sides of the same coin.

Obviously “enhanced interrogation technique” is a euphemism for torture, and it is equally obvious that that kind of language is politically correct in the US military. Another example might be “collateral damage”.

Where I get confused is when Slavoj Žižek appears, as in this article, to use “political correctness” as a euphemism for euphemism. Are all euphemisms politically correct? Are all politically correct utterances euphemisms?

I recall seeing, in the Okavango in Northern Namibia back in 1969, vehicles with the letters BT in their number plates. Back then most vehicle number plates had letters indicating the place of origin of the vehicle, and I asked about it, and discovered that it stood for “Bantoe Tuislande” (Bantu Homelands). It wasn’t really a euphemism, but it was certainly political correctness, and an attempt to brainwash the populace into accepting the National Party government’s “homelands” policy by manipulating language.

When the political order changed, much of the politically correct terminology of the old regime became politically incorrect, but some didn’t. “Homelands” continued to be used, with little stigma attached.

CiiticizeOne of the most curious instances of the new political correctness is “former Model C Schools”. “Model C schools” only existed for about 3 years, and were a last-ditch attempt by the National Party to retain school segregation by privatising education for white children. There were originally four models, A, B, C and D, which parents were asked to vote on. They had to do with schools deciding on their own admission policies. Since they were all-white schools, the issue was whether to admit black pupils. Model B was that  schools would continue to be funded by the government, but would be free to decide their own admission policies. Model C was the semi-privatisation one, but they could still decide their own admission policies. Schools that voted to become Model B were nevertheless forced to become Model C a year or two before the first democratic elections, with parental wishes thrown overboard. But people speak of the “Former Model C” schools rather than the former all-white schools. Why? A euphemism? Political correctness?

Another current politically correct euphemism is “previously disadvantaged”. It referred to groups that  suffered from legal disadvantages under the previous regime, like blacks, women, the disabled etc. Twenty years on, however, its has become a mealy-mouthed euphemism, as most of the “previously disadvantaged” are still disadvantaged, and the disadvantaged people born since 1994 were never “previously” disadvantaged. And a few of the “previously disadvantaged” are currently very advantaged indeed.

Part of the problem is that people often speak of political correctness as if it were just about words, and nothing more than a synonym for “euphemism”. But this is false.

Think, for example, of privatisation.

In South Africa, if you are a member of the Democratic Alliance (DA), privatisation is politically correct, but if you are a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) privatisation is decidedly politically incorrect, and if you advocate it you are likely to get thrown out.

If you support the DA, you may have heard them advocating the privatisation of South African Airways; but the ANC was prevented from doing that very thing by the EFF, who criticised the deposition of Nene as Minister of Finance. The quickest way to privatise SAA is to run it into bankruptcy and sell it cheap to the Guptas.

And though “enhanced interrogation technique” may be politically correct in the US military, it is politically incorrect in Amnesty International, by that or any other name.

 

Give a dog a bad name

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

Such was the reply often given to playground taunts and insults in my youth.

But a recent discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup puts a new slant on it.

People were discussing the remake of the film The Dam Busters, a true story of how the British attacked German dams in WW2 by using an ingenious technique to drop bombs where they would be most effective.

Apparently the remake hit a snag.

Squadron Leader Guy Gibson, who led the raid, had a pet dog, a black Labrador called “Nigger”, and it was decided to use the dog’s name as a code name to indicate that the first raid had been successful.

The WikiPedia page on the film, and the proposed remake, describes the problem as follows The Dam Busters (film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The British Channel 4 screened the censored American version in July 2007, in which the dialogue was dubbed so as to call the dog Trigger, this screening taking place just after the planned remake was announced. For the remake, Peter Jackson has said no decision has been made on the dog’s name, but is in a “no-win, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario”, as changing the name could be seen as too much political correctness, while not changing the name could offend people. Further, executive producer Sir David Frost was quoted in The Independent as stating: “Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that’s what we will call it. Stephen has been coming up with other names, but this is the one I want.” In June 2011, Stephen Fry mentioned in an interview that the dog would be called Digger in the remake to avoid offending modern audiences. In September 2007, as part of the BBC Summer of British Film series, The Dam Busters was shown at selected cinemas across the UK in its uncut format.

The discussion on alt.usage.english was mainly concerned with the issue of the dog’s name. The original name is now regarded as offensive in America, so using it might harm the film at the box office. But changing the name of the dog would be historically inaccurate.

Discussion went back and forth for a while, and eventually someone said:

I don’t see what harm it does to change the dog’s name consistently in the dialogue, just so people don’t repeatedly cringe until it gets run over. (I haven’t seen the original film; I’m trusting what someone else said in this thread.) They could put a note up at the beginning or end of the film briefly explaining the deviation from historical accuracy.

And Peter Brooks of Cape Town made a comment that put the whole discussion in perspective:

Cringe? There’s a film showing people getting ready to kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians by drowning and people watching it cringe because of the name given to a dog? What kind of perverted system of values could lead to that?

Another Wikipedia article describes the results of the first raid Möhne Reservoir – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

The resulting huge floodwave killed at least 1579 people, 1026 of them foreign forced labourers held in camps downriver. The small city of Neheim-Hüsten was particularly hard-hit with over 800 victims, among them at least 526 victims in a camp for Russian women held for forced labour.

Political correctness left and right

A conservative blog for peace:

A young Canadian libertarian thinks about social conservatism. If a Muslim can’t handle hearing a Christian word then he does not belong in a country of (supposed) free speech. Not all social conservatives want the government to control speech to fit the Canadian heritage mold. I would argue that most, like me, would probably prefer everyone to be culturally Canadian and value traditions but would rarely want the government involved.

I haven’t heard of Muslims objecting to Christian words like “Christmas” — the word mentioned in the original article The Shotgun: My brush with conservatism:

On one side of that line, there is ‘being politically correct’; on the other, free speech. Using the term Holiday instead of Christmas is fine when used to include all religions and ethnicities, but telling someone that they can’t use the word Christmas because it is discriminating against non-Christians is ridiculous.

“Social conservatives” seem to attribute “political correctness” to the left, but it’s equally common on the right.

I’ve heard of some “socially conservative” Christians who have objected to having “Halaal” printed on food for sale, so this is not simply a “left” political correctness — it affects the whole political spectrum except the liberals, who believe in live and let live.

And “live and let live” means that Christians can have Christmas (though we prefer to call it “The Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ”, but “Christmas” is fine as shorthand) and Muslims can have Ramadan without it being called “the holidays”, and can have food marked as “Halaal” if it makes shopping easier for them. It would be nice if food were also labelled “Nistisimou” for Orthodox Christians, though. Would Muslims object to that? I doubt it. And matzos is “nistisimou”, even if it is labelled “kosher”.

My objection to “Christmas socials” is that they usually take place during the pre-Christmas fast, and not during the Christmas festive season season itself.

But don’t come with all that guff about left “political correctness” — it comes just as much from the socially conservative “religious right” as it does from the left, if not more so.

Random acts of political correctness

Yesterday I posted some thoughts about giving money to street beggars as an act of Christian charity that some people wanted to outlaw. A couple of commentators seemed to have a problem, or at least a query, about my calling this Christian. Then Notes from a Common-place Book: Those Wacko ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians pointed me to this:
I’m Not One Of Those ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Christians | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source:

I’m here to tell you there are lots of Christians who aren’t anything like the preconceived notions you may have. We’re not all into ‘turning the other cheek.’ We don’t spend our days committing random acts of kindness for no credit. And although we believe that the moral precepts in the Book of Leviticus are the infallible word of God, it doesn’t mean we’re all obsessed with extremist notions like ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice.’

It’s good to be reminded of the need to live a balanced Christian life and to avoid fanaticism and extremism. Perhaps that’s what it means to be “a moderate”.

Happy Holidays!

I will not wish everyone a “Happy New Year”, as that may be offensive to some, and it is decidedly religiously insensitive and politically INcorrect.

I could, of course,

  • wish the pagans a happy Janus day.
  • The Christians a Happy Circumcision and St Basil’s Day
  • And the secularists a Happy New Year

But wishing everyone a “Happy New Year” is showing religious prejudice and insensitivity.

The Santa boycott

‘Tis the season to SMS boycott exhortations, it seems.

First it was the Deon Maas/Satanism affair: (see Notes from underground: Christian responses to “Satanism” and journalists who write about it). Then it was the film The Golden Compass. Now, in this month’s Synchroblog, Matt Stone comments about Christmas in a pluralist society, and the demand for a politically correct Christmas, where he says:

To my way of thinking what we should be aiming for, as a democratic and pluralistic society, is not a blanding out of religious distinctiveness, but rather for the mutual respect of religious distinctiveness. I may not agree with everything Jewish or Pagan tradition stands for, or Hindu or Buddhist or Atheist for that matter, but I can surely give non-Christians space to express what they find meaningful in life in their own way. I see nothing in the New Testament that would justify compulsion.

But by the same token I feel no compulsion to water down my own tradition either, and I expect the same courtesy and respect I show to others to be returned to me.

And that reminded me of the Santa boycott, which had a huge influence on the way in which I see and celebrate Christmas.

No, not that Santa.

It was this one — the South African National Tuberculosis Association.

It was a long time ago, when I was still at school, about 1958, I think.

Santa was (and still is) an NGO, and one of the ways that it raised funds was by selling Christmas stamps. These could be bought at post offices, and they urged people to buy them and put them on Christmas cards that they sent out. This would not only raise funds for Santa, but also publicise the work of the organisation. Its work is needed more than ever today, because TB is on the increase, as Aids weakens people’s resistance to the disease.

In about 1958 their Christmas stamp showed the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, and the Dutch Reformed Church called for a boycott of the stamps, because they depicted the Virgin Mary with a halo.

Back in those days there were no cell phones, and so one couldn’t call for boycotts by SMS, so it was done by press release instead. The Afrikaans press dutifully plugged it, and the sales of Christmas stamps dropped. And, as happens today, the English press commented on how bigoted and narrow-minded it all was.

My own response at the time was to react against it.

I resolved never to buy Christmas cards that did not show a nativity scene, preferably one showing the Virgin Mary with a halo. And I began, self-consciously and deliberately, to write “Christmass” with the double-s spelling.

The people who then called for a boycott of Christmass stamps were the same elements of society who have more recently been calling for a boycott of Deon Maas and The Golden Compass, and in that respect little has changed. But as Matt Stone points out in his blog, they have now been joined by other elements.

There was a reaction from other quarters as well.

The following year the Catholic Church brought out its own Christmass stamps, with the slogan “Put Christ back into Christmas”, and sold them at Catholic Churches after their services. And many Anglicans I knew also went along and bought them.

Santa, on the principle of once bitten is not twice bitten, capitualted just as Beeld did in the Deon Maas affair, and produced entirely secular Christmas stamps the following year. I don’t know whether Dutch Reformed Church members started buying them again, but by then many Catholics and Anglicans were buying the “Put Christ back into Christmas” stamps instead.

I’ve already posted my contribution for this month’s synchroblog on Redeeming the season on my other blog, and tried to avoid the culture wars, and simply describe what the season means to Orthodox Christians, reckoning that most of the other synchrobloggers would not be familiar with that

But many of the other synchrobloggers did blog, directly or indirectly, about the culture wars, and Matt Stone’s contribution reminded me of this episode in the past, so I thought I’d have a second bite at the cherry and blog about it here.

And the work of Santa is still needed.

Zemblanity and education

A few years ago I was a member of an SGB of SAQA, that is a Standards Generating Body for the South African Qualifications Authority. It was the standards generating body for Christian Theology and Ministry, and had to generate standards, that is learning outcomes, for various theological qualifications from Grade 10 to Doctorate in Theology.

The SGB completed its work a couple of years ago, and a bunch of standards were registered. But now, it appears, they have to be revised, and so the SGB is being reconstituted, and will have to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops again.

I don’t mind too much. I quite enjoyed the meetings, because I met a group of stimulating and creative people from a variety of Christian traditions. I was able to meet some old friends and make some new ones. But the work we were required to do was frustrating. One could see that it had some good intentions and good goals — to raise the general standard of education, to weed out incompetent and fraudulent educational institutions and so on. But at the same time it seemed likely to stifle initiative, frustrate learning, and make education prohibitively expensive.

I was thus interested to read this, which seems to sum up the drawbacks and dangers of the current system: Changing the World (and other excuses for not getting a proper job…): Serendipitous Learning and Zemblanitous Education

The core of it deserves to be quoted:

…serendipity has an opposite. An antonym, in fact. (And how often do you get to use that word?) ‘Zemblanity’ is a more recent coinage, the work of the novelist William Boyd:

So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design.

All this I learned by following up a presentation by a Finnish guy called Teemu Arina – which I came across thanks to a post from Artichoke. Teemu reckons (and I agree) that “making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design” is a pretty good description of what happens in formal education, when “learning outcomes” are specified in advance.

And I’ve been rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where the bureaucratic mentality of educationists (or pedagogicians, as some of them like to call themselves) is satirised in the person of Dolores Umbridge.

Outcomes-based education was introduced into South Africa after our first democratic elections in 1994. It was an attempt to remedy the damage caused to the South African education system by four decades of the National Party policy of “Christian National Education” (which, as Christian educators often pointed out, was neither Christian, nor national, nor education). The damage was worst in Bantu Education, which was hived off into a separate government department that made the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter look positively sane. The whole evil system was underpinned by the pseudoscience of “Fundamental Pedagogics”, which was used to cripple thousands of student teachers at the start of their careers, and consisted mainly in the rote learning of obscurantist definitions of terms that were dressed up in pompous and bombastic language — a smoke and mirrors trick to make them appear more “scientific”. For example, one had to learn such terms as “Temporal Andragogics” (the History of Adult Education, I kid you not).

One of the “learning outcomes” of this system was that students learnt that you did not have to understand this outlandish terminology, you just had to learn the definition by rote and repeat it in the exams. The most important learning outcome was slavish political correctness. You said what your teachers, lecturers and bosses wanted to hear.

At the University of South Africa (which trained more teachers than any other institution in the country) a Fundamental Pedagogician said (of an incomprehensible passage in a first-year study guide), “they don’t have to understand it, they just have to learn it.” Or, as another one said to a person who was trying to translate a study guide from Afrikaans to English, and could not understand the Afrikaans text, “you don’t have to understand it, you just have to translate it.” This was said without tongue in cheek, dead seriously. Dolores Umbridge had a great deal to learn from the Department of Fundamental Pedagogics at Unisa; she was a mere amateur by comparison.

After all that, I can sympathise with “outcomes-based education” (OBE), at least in theory. It moved the emphasis from curriculum (input) to what is actually learned. It takes away the excuse of teachers who say “we taught them that but they didn’t learn it.”

But as it has been applied in South Africa, I doubt that it can remedy the disease of “Christian National Education”. Many teachers who were trained in Fundamental Pedagogics will, and have, treat it simply as a slightly different variety of political correctness — new terms to be learned by rote and used, especially when within earshot of your boss.

So Outcomes-Based Education comes with its own vocabulary. The emphasis is not on what teachers teach, but rather on what learners learn, so it is important to think of learners as people who are learning, regardless of age, and so when speaking of the actual education process one speaks of “learners” rather than “students” or “pupils”. Students study, and pupils are supervised by tutors, but learners learn. But when a teacher is quoted in a newspaper as saying that “One of the pu… learners was run over by a car outside the school yesterday,” you know that political correctness is rearing its ugly head again. It doesn’t matter what the word “learner” means, it is the one my boss’s boss wants us to say. Rote learning of educational jargon does not make a good teacher.

Again, real life trumps satire like Harry Potter every time. At the University of South Africa a few years ago a task group was set up by the university administration, and the task group announced that its task was to “facilitate conflict”.

The theory behind the South African Qualifications Authority is good in some ways. If you had standard learning outcomes at various levels, then it is easier to say that one qualification is equivalent to another. A person transferring to a different university or a different faculty can be given credit for previous learning because they have achieved known outcomes to a known standard. Scammers who rip people off by offering bogus qualifications at fly-by-night institutions with high fees and low standards can be closed down.

But sometimes education, especially in a specialised field like theological education, can be, and sometimes is, done on a shoe string. I visited the St Sergius Institute in Paris in 1968. The students lived in poverty, in a basement under the church, with an open drain running down the middle of the floor, and cloth partitions between the beds. Most of them were Russian exiles, but some came from other countries. Their teachers were part time, their library facilities were minimal. They would never pass inspection by the educational bureaucracy. Yet they were motivated to learn, and learnt what they needed to learn. Registering such an institution in the new South Africa would be virtually impossible, and the fee for a single inspection would be more than the institution’s budget for three years. Far better that they should use the money for improving their teaching and facilities than on bureaucracy.

In South Africa today there are hundreds of refugee teachers from Zimbabwe who are better qualified than many South African teachers, and whatever the problems of Zimbabwe in the past or present, were not crippled by “Christian National Education”. Some of them teach in unregistered private schools, which would be closed down if the education authorities knew what was going on. But they are probably doing as much to remedy the deficiencies of South African education as many of the bureaucrats.

And back in the “old” South Africa a friend of mine, John Aitchison, organised a night school for the staff of the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg — cooks, cleaners, gardeners and so on, who had had little chance of education as children. Another volunteer effort, run on a shoestring, the teachers all being students and a few lecturers. By such means some people were able to bypass Bantu Education and have education for liberation. But it would be difficult to run such things under present regulations.

To return to Zemblanity. Another friend of mine, Larry Gilley, once returned from a meeting of people trying to develop an interdenominational Sunday School curriculum at which they had debated the relative merits of a Bible-centred curriculum or a child-centred curriculum. He remarked that it didn’t matter much, because whichever one they opted for, they would still end up with a curriculum-centred curriculum.

You may change the government, you may change the system, but zemblanity in education will cling like a limpet.

Moral equivalence

About 7-8 years ago someone I was having a discussion with in an electronic forum said that he rejected “moral equivalence” arguments. I wasn’t sure what he was on about, and so asked him what he meant.

His explanation wasn’t very clear but it didn’t worry me much until other people started saying the same sort of thing. It didn’t appear to be just a random phrase, but something that was part of the regular jargon of a group or subculture, which knew what it meant so well that it was like a shorthand expression for a whole complex of ideas. Because their own inner circle know what it meant, they saw no need to explain it to outsiders either, and so seemed reluctant to explain it.

But the meaning I pieced together from the kinds of things they were saying were not pretty.

It seems that the “moral equivalence” that they reject is roughly based on the old proverb “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” — in other words, that there should be no double standards in judging — that there should be one law for rich and poor, black and white.

But those who reject it seem to be saying that what is bad when done by someone else is good when done by me.

Well, I know the feeling.

It’s so easy to confess other people’s sins, so hard to acknowledge my own.

I think for myself.
You are argumentative
He is a bigot.

But to think that when I do something it’s OK, but when someone else does it it’s bad is not just a rejection of moral equivalence, it’s an acknowledgement of moral turpitude.

Massacres

On blog after blog and newscast ofter newscast I have read expressions of shock, horror and sympathy prompted by the massacre at Virginia Tech where 32 students were killed by a deranged fellow student.

Our prayers and thoughts are with them, said Tony Blair. And so they are.

But there here is something that happened on the same day.

BAGHDAD (AP) – Six bombs exploded in predominantly Shiite sections of the capital Sunday, killing at least 45 people in a renewal of sectarian carnage that set back the U.S. push to pacify Baghdad

Are our prayers and sympathy and thoughts with them too, or is it not politically correct to say so?

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