Thursday, 26 November 2009

Political Correctness

Sinking in words ...
Originally uploaded by so_martinha
It’s official; we are, after all, allowed to use the expression brain-storm.

Apparently Epilepsy Action and The National Society for Epilepsy have said that it is not offensive. So all teachers, trainers, tutors and other flip-chart jockeys can breathe a sigh of relief, forget about thought-showers and just say what comes naturally.

Now, I swear I just heard some of you tittering under your breath there, or sighing and tutting, or, even worse, reaching for the address of the Daily Mail letters page. I’m not surprised. It has become the done thing to deride politically correct censorship of seemingly innocuous words. And I agree that sometimes the humourless attitudes of the p.c. militant tendency is irritating. Their eagerness publically to correct offenders seems to be set to go off with all the sensitivity of the finest of hair-triggered pistols.

But when I calm down and think about it, I have to conclude that they have a point. A big and important point. Truth is, words have power. How many of us have a had their lives blighted by things said to us years ago? Would anyone deny that words such as nigger or paki are politically explosive, socially devastating and profoundly disrespectful? (So much so that I’m curious to see if the editor will have to reach for his asterisk key.)

The power of words in this regard lies in the way they shape how we see people. And surely Christians above all others ought to be alert lest we find ourselves conceiving of fellow human beings in ways that diminish or dishonour them. This is the image of God we are talking about.

The plain, uncomfortable truth is that the way we use words has real consequences in the real world for real people. First we categorise, then we marginalise, then we diminish, then we dismiss and people bleed. Our use of words whether deliberate or unwitting can and does do damage to flesh and blood.

Consider for instance the widespread tendency to default to the word lady rather than woman. This never fails to grate. Most use the word without thinking. Those who do have a motive are usually seeking to express respect. But why on earth should it be disrespectful to use the word woman? What’s wrong with being a woman?

You may well object that there’s nothing wrong with being a lady either. I beg to differ. You see a lady is a certain type of woman. The word lady hangs out with other words such as genteel, delicate, refined. Its constant use predisposes us to see women in ways shaped by these terms and, by implication, to fail to see that it is equally womanly to be robust, vigorous and edgy.

And you don’t have to think too hard to realise that this is related to our denomination’s woeful, gospel-denying record on women in ministry.

My column on preaching a couple of weeks ago elicited a telling response from a friend, a friend who is a very capable minister, a fine preacher and a woman. She commented on how odd it seemed to her that throughout the piece I referred to my ideal preacher using feminine rather than masculine pronouns. She wasn’t complaining, just pointing out how unusual it sounded. And that’s the point. How can something become normal or commonplace if our use of language causes us to see it as odd, remarkable, exceptional?

To me this state of affairs is deeply irritating. To many women I know it is a cause of much pain and the prompt for many tears. We really ought to watch our language.

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.


Craig Gardiner said...

Sir Humphrey Appelby of Yes Prime Minister fame always used 'lady' ... usually 'my dear lady' as a condesending term for the PM'S advisor and therefore Humphrey's adversary within Number 10, He
did it to avoid having to credit her with a name. What else do we refuse to name in the hope of avoiding it

tim f said...

Yes, agree wholeheartedly with this post.

Would also add that the "new political correctness" is actually the mirror-image of the "old political correctness". These days we are not allowed to say that something is racist, or sexist, and when we do we're immediately accused of being politically correct. The phrase "it's political correctness gone mad" is a convenient way of shutting down debate, rather than engaging. Which is ironic, since one of the more valid criticisms of the old political correctness was that it was sometimes used as a way of shutting down debate.

How frequently do you read right-wing commentators lamenting that "I can't say x because some liberal politically correct luvvie will accuse me of being racist" - but actually, in doing so they're trying to restrict my freedom of speech. If I think they're being racist I should be able to say so, so long as I can justify it.

tim f said...

btw, and off-topic, have referenced you (although not by name)in the comments here, so thought I should offer you the chance to read it:

Glen Marshall said...

Thanks Tim, interesting conversation. I reckon I come out of it OK!

Anonymous said...

I hate being called a lady. Really hate it. Unless its before a performance at the theatre and the word gentlemen is used at the same time. But then, I work in a denomination in a geographical location that expects a man to open up God's word and places me alongside children, other women or teapots.

And you know what I hate most of all? If I ever bring this up I run the risk of being boxed as "embittered", "insecure" or "feminist".

I can't win either way.