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Manners and political correctness

January 29th, 2004

In my experience there is a close to 100 per cent correlation between the stated belief that society is suffering from a decline in “civility” and a willingness to proclaim that we are all being oppressed by “political correctness”. John Howard neatly illustrates this. A week or two ago, he was denouncing public schools as hotbeds of political correctness, and the excessive concern with offending religious minorities that (allegedly) led to the curtailment of Christmas celebrations. Now he’s calling for more civility.

The common analysis underlying both demands for “political correctness” (this actual phrase was never used, except jocularly as far as I know, until critics seized on it, but terms such as “sensitivity” or “inclusive language” cover much the same ground) and for “civility”, is that offensive words give rise to offensive acts. In both cases, there’s some ambiguity over whether the problem is with the offence to the recipient or with the reinforcement of the hostile/prejudiced attitudes of the speaker, but the central claim is that modes of speech are an appropriate subject of concern and that some form of government action to encourage more socially appropriate modes of speech, ranging from subtle pressure to direct coercion, is desirable. The only difference between the two positions is that they have different lists of inappropriate words.

I don’t have a sharply defined position on any of this, except that I find people who think that being “politically incorrect” is exceptionally brave and witty to be among the most tiresome of bores. I doubt that changes in speech will, of themselves, produce changes in attitudes. The obvious evidence for this is the rate at which euphemisms wear out and become as offensive as the terms they replaced (for example, ‘handicapped’ for ‘crippled’). On the other hand, I think there’s a lot to be said for avoiding offensive words and forms of speech and can see a place for (tightly drafted and cautiously applied) laws prohibiting or penalising various forms of collective defamation.

[Posted with ecto]

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  1. Dave Ricardo
    January 29th, 2004 at 17:11 | #1

    The PC expression du jour isn’t ‘handicapped’ or ‘crippled.’

    It is ‘ differently abled’.

  2. Mike Hunt
    January 29th, 2004 at 18:18 | #2

    “collective defamation” – Would that include Americans, males, Christians, or Anglo-Saxons? I can see a lot of lefties being put behind bars.

  3. Steve Edwards
    January 29th, 2004 at 18:22 | #3

    I believe you do not have to adhere to the PC cult in order to be civil. The perfect example of this is Steve Sailer. He would have to be one of the least offensive, calm and sensible bloggers going around, while at the same time offending virtually every single pillar of the lefty PC cult. If people have ideas, and try to stick to seeking the truth, then they should have nothing to fear. I’d suggest that John Howard would hold similar views.

  4. Factory
    January 29th, 2004 at 20:02 | #4

    SE:

    I dunno, calling ppl members of a cult is considered inoffensive?

  5. observa
    January 29th, 2004 at 22:58 | #5

    You’d need the wisdom of Jove or Allah to write the collective defamation law and therin lies the problem. Freedom unfortunately means bad manners, bad taste and the right to discriminate and be prejudiced against some things or someone/s. One man’s valid criticism of public education, is another man’s collective defamation of teachers. The proof of the statement may be more one of community resonance, rather than any scientific proof. PC judges mightn’t see it that way and constructive criticism may end up covered up like Victorian piano legs in the name of good manners. On the other hand respect for others in the form of good manners should be practised strongly by civic leaders.

  6. January 30th, 2004 at 08:53 | #6

    Public in-Civility, ie vandalism, petty crime and boorishness, is short-term repressed by civil coercion. The US experiment with zero tolerance “broken windows” and welfare reform proves that if you raise the cost schedule to incivility, you will get safer streets and a more pleasant urban amentity. Ultimately, the best lont-term cures for incivility are education, jobs and integrated familites. ie tough on crime, tough on the roots of crime.

    Private in-Civility, ie racist and sexist attitudes, is not improved by repeated impositions of Pee-Cee or Multi-Cult speech codes. These merely drive bad attitudes under ground, where they fester in resentment. Much pee-cee is not an attempt to improve moral feelings, rather it is an attempt to censor inconvenient intellectual facts. The best cure for a nasty ideology (segregationism) is not a nicer ideology (diversity & equity) but TRUTH.

    However, true statements about human bio-diversity are automaticly howled down by Pee-Cee police as, by definition, uncivil or unprofessional. This has happened to Steve Sailer, who however, sees some hope.

    I believe that the truth is better for humanity than ignorance, lies, and wishful thinking…My guess would be that political correctness will get worse before it gets better, but you never can tell. The most striking improvement in intellectual life over the last decade is that almost nobody takes feminist orthodoxy seriously anymore. Practically every month these days, Time and Newsweek run articles about the biological differences between the sexes that back in the days of the Anita Hill brouhaha would have gotten the writers and editors hauled up before a coven of the feminist thought police. Now, people mostly laugh at feminists. So, there is hope.

    This is proved by the fate of Feminist pee-cee. During the seventies, hordes of young, single, career women embraced it. In the naugties, there is a tragicly avoidable epidemic of barren middle-aged spinsters.

    The end result: here we are, supposedly “having it all” as we edge 40; excellent education; good qualifications; great jobs; fast-moving careers; good incomes; and many of us own the trendy little inner-city pad we live in. It’s a nice caffe-latte kind of life, really.

    But the truth is – for me at least – the career is no longer a challenge, the lifestyle trappings are joyless (the latest Collette Dinnigan frock looks pretty silly on a near-40-year-old), and the point of it all seems, well, pointless.

    I am childless and I am angry. Angry that I was so foolish to take the word of my feminist mothers as gospel. Angry that I was daft enough to believe female fulfilment came with a leather briefcase.

    It was wrong. It was crap. And Malcolm Turnbull has a point. God forbid!

    Even dear old Pr Q, in his one and only lapse from intellectual civility, accused Charles Murray of failing to meet academic standards. Murray, whether is conclusions were true or false, had a high standard of research and analysis in his three decennial magnum opi. It is certainly better than the legions of pee-cee who attempted to destroy him. If people don’t like his right-wing politics, that is just tough luck.

    On the broader notion of civility, there is no doubt that a faster, more acquisitive, more competitive society is less likely to accumulate social capital. And it more likely to violate civil norms. It is clear that competitive market capitalism is behind this dog-eat-dog winner-take-all trend.

    Across the board, laments Callahan, we have created a social context in which cheating has become both a rational choice and one subject to little moral censure. “Simply put,” he writes, “we have a nastier, more cut-throat set of values than previous generations did. As the race for money and status has intensified, it has become more acceptable for individuals to act opportunistically and dishonestly to get ahead.”

    So right wingers are too blame, they too overlook that fact that it is the competitive capitalist firm, as well as the monopoly socialist state, which increases incivility.

    I am not advocating a return to the conservative, genteel, mannered world of the ante-bellum South. The pre-ideological world was the worst of all possible ones. But we could all do with more intellectual honesty, on both sides of the ideological divide. No doubt my bipartisan call to honesty will be taken as a sign of my bad faith.

  7. Michael Burgess
    January 30th, 2004 at 12:08 | #7

    I am all for avoiding sexist, racist language etc. I also agree that many of those who are anti-PC are redneck bores. However, it is also true that many so-called PC types do engage in intellectual suppression and otehr negative activities. Examples of this include the past unwillingness to discuss issues such as the social problems associated with welfare dependency among Indigenous Australians, the cultural factors (as opposed to racism, etc.) within the Afro-American community which play a significant role in social disadvantage, and the labelling of as racist (and sacking of and even prosecution of) those who criticise Islam and rightly claim that extremists within this religion are far greater in number than the very small minority often claimed. If religious groups have the freedom to constantly attack secular society then it should be OK to give out a bit of stick in return. I also don’t think it is sexist to point out that in academia and the public sector especially middle class females have done very well out of feminism and are hardly disadvantage now compared to other groups in society including anyone over 40.

  8. Jill Rush
    January 30th, 2004 at 19:56 | #8

    Civility in the South of America hid a nasty side – that of hangings and persecution by the Klu Klux Klan – hardly civil. What the PM is nostalgic for is a selective civility where all are civil to those in power but those in power need to be only civil to those that are in favour because of their obsequiousness.

    The civility of life in Australia in the 1950s meant that women were forced to resign from jobs when they married and women who were disagreeable were hairy legged lesbians. These were not civil statements.

    When those people, asked to be civil whilst being persecuted, became angry and uncivil it was lamented as a fall in standards with a great many labels being devised – all of them unfavourable.

    When those people seeking change to cosy arrangements make polite requests they are likely to be subjected to abuse even now. The posts above suggest that feminism has become a term of denigration. It has certainly meant that many young women, who are happy with the fruits of feminism, are uncomfortable using this as a term to describe themselves, as it is akin to claiming to be a racist.

    It is of course common that those who start a sentence with “I’m not a racist but….” are very prejudiced indeed. They usually go on to say something very insulting and uncivil. The PM looking for more civility accused foreigners wishing to enter Australia via sea of intending to throw their children overboard – a most offensive point of view.

    There are indeed tensions in free expression as to what is acceptable to others and what is going too far. So called “Political correctness” is just a way of trying to determine what those limits are so that civility does rule towards everyone and that offensive remarks made in ignorance are no longer accepted – in the same way as the near nude pin up girl in the local garage has become unacceptable. This is offensive to those men who wished to ogle barely clad women but it is far more civil for the women who enter these realms. Women who informed those men of their distress were of course uncivil.

    Having to think does make it harder to discuss issues although it does not appear to stop the rabid fans of defined civility from expressing their often very uncivil point of view which others are meant to think is clever, witty and right.

    It was this dilemma that Pauline Hanson expressed and has since had to rethink in the light of her experience.

    It does mean that the issues around the discussion of the hajib become blurred as it is an item of clothing which is offensive to many and yet which the wearers aver is a symbol of their freedom as women. Which is more uncivil. The wearer of a hajib who states that by wearing it she is rejecting the western notion of being judged by appearance not intelligence (thus insulting the vast majority of women and men in a nation such as ours)or the person who rips the hajib off the head of the wearer in the street?

    Like so many of the issues raised by the PM we are expected to operate on a superficial level, jump to condemnation and to go tut tut. He truly is a “do as I say and not as I do” man.

  9. Andrew
    January 30th, 2004 at 20:53 | #9

    Glorious Jill. After reading the above comments I was trying to think of a way to kick the stuffing out of the rather smug, John Laws style rants about ugly wimminists and feminazis who are horribly unfulfilled because they don’t have babies (get real guys, the women I know in that position don’t want babies full stop. No regrets).

    Fortunately you did it in a delighfully polite and civilised manner that will leave them no recourse but abuse.

    How do I sign up for the Thought Police Academy?

  10. Steve Edwards
    January 31st, 2004 at 00:53 | #10

    If the PC junkies were really only concerned about civility, then they’d apply that rule consistently. Thus I’d be howled down by said PC junkies for saying that all whites were evil, that Mary was a slut, and that heterosexual sex is rape. Oh wait, no I wouldn’t.

  11. gordon
    February 6th, 2004 at 12:33 | #11

    There is, of course, absolutely no point in educating the working classes, any more than niggers. You only make them uppity and dissatisfied. They can’t benefit from education, they are too stupid and morally defective (because of their low birth) to understand. We should have learned this long ago; the disastrous experience of educating females (who are naturally incapable of logical thought or reading maps) should have warned us to proceed no further. Mind you, I’m not against teaching them to read and write. Though there is a lot to be said for illiterate employees, we have to face the fact that in the modern world there is an increasing demand for the skills of simple arithmetic and ability to read an address. We need to couple this basic training (not really education) with vigorous discipline, in order to instil a healthy and lifelong fear of authority figures.

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