Yet another geek blog

5 November 2007

Who's Afraid of Political Correctness?

Rainbow Sheep

If there is one piece of journalistic laziness that continuously astounds me it is 'Political Correctness gone mad' stories. I am not annoyed by the fact that they invariably turn out to be nonsense- I expect papers to contain stories like that. No, what annoys me is that otherwise rational people seem to accept them without question.

The basic premise is as follows. Somewhere in the world, there exists a vast left-wing 'political correctness' lobby who exert a sinister control over free speech. This is resisted by a few Lone-Voices-of-Reason who dare to speak out. I call them Lone-Voices because they all talk about themselves. Even as they cut and paste each others stories.

Lets have a look at some examples.

Young Children now have to sing 'Baa Baa Rainbow sheep' because 'Black Sheep' is Racist

Sometime around 1986 a number of charity-run nursery schools in Oxfordshire started increase children's vocabularies with the following exercise. Children sang the same songs over and over with different variations of words. In this song for example, the words 'boy' and 'girl' were alternated, and the sheep became happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, white and (yes) black.

Nobody quite knows how many nurseries used this exercise. But it may have been as many as two. And yet, a quick google will get you 3,040 Lone-Voices-of-Reason protesting against this example of 'political correctness gone mad'.

(Nursery Rhymes, by the way, have never had a standard traditional form passed down from the dawn of time. They have always been fluid and deliberately re-written by various people. Most of the ones we know today were heavily sanitised by the Victorians.)

Christmas is being banned because it offends non-Christians

There are so many versions of this that I cannot go into them all. So I will cover best known example: Winterval.

in 1998, the department of Birmingham City Council responsible for helping local businesses created some advertising material for a new marketing concept called 'Winterval'. This was a umbrella term for various celebrations that run from Hallowe'en in October to the New Year events in January. Using the umbrella term was much cheaper that making separate material for thing like Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes night that occur very close together. The main aim of the exercise, of course, was to bring as many people in to the city centre as possible at the time when they were doing their Christmas shopping.

The media went into a frenzy, and all of the local papers reported the same story- Birmingham Council was banning Christmas. The implication was that this was done to avoid offence to non-Christians. Letters pages, radio chat shows and blogs often went far further and took it for granted that the Council has 'caved in' to Muslims.

All this despite the fact that:

  • The Winterval material pushed Christmas as its biggest event
  • The money spent on Christmas through Winterval was in addition to the normal Christmas money
  • The Council's Christmas celebrations went on as normal

One result was hostility for the council from local businesses. Why, they demanded to know, is the Council wasting our tax money banning Christmas? Don't they know how important Christmas shopping is to the economy?

The term 'Brainstorm' is offensive to Epileptics so we should use 'Thought Shower' Instead

This one is my very favourite because the very source is a 'political correctness gone mad' story.

In 2003, Liz Lightfoot of the Telegraph newspaper published this article which denies that the term 'Brainstorming' is offensive to epileptics. She even goes as far as to contact the National Society for Epileptics to confirm that they have never heard of such a thing.

What is wrong with that? Surely she is working hard to de-bunk a myth. Unfortunately, this is the myth. The word 'Brainstorm' had never before been used to describe an epileptic fit. No guidance existed telling people not to use the term.

Nevertheless, the story continues to gain momentum. According to Wikipedia, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Welsh Development Agency both ask their staff to use 'Thought Shower' instead. And I would not be at all surprised to hear epileptic fits called brainstorms.

Schools now have to say 'Whiteboards/Chalkboards' because 'Blackboards' is Racist

Britons call them blackboards because they are boards that are (usually) black. Americans call them chalkboards because they are boards for chalk. The general rise of the use of Americanisms in Britain has caused a rise in the use of 'chalkboard'. At the same time, modern classrooms are now being fitted with the whiteboards (so called because they are white) that you get in offices.

This example clearly shows how a little genuine confusion is enough to trigger the template.

The Template

This is the template :

  1. Somebody decides to use a different word for something.
  2. Therefore, they are being forced to change by Powerful-Them because of potential offence to Whinging-Them. (Sometimes, they are the same Them).
  3. Therefore I (Lone-Voice-of-Reason) am being coerced by Powerful-Them too.
  4. There for I will recite the magic spell "It's Political Correctness Gone Mad" and Whinging-Them will be confounded.

Notice that neither Powerful-Them or Whinging-Them have any input and do not need to even exist. Notice also that no matter how many thousands of Lone-Voices-of-Reason scream the same thing in unison they cannot concieve of themselves as anything other than a dissenting mionority.

The Process

So, somebody hears 'whiteboard' where they expect 'blackboard'. Somebody must have decided to stop schools saying 'blackboard'. That somebody could only be the Government. But why? Clearly because black people would be upset to hear the word black.


A couple of very interesting things are happening here.

First of all, our Lone-Voice-of-Reason is standing up for the right to say what they like. But they are doing so by complaining about the fact that somebody else has chosen to say what they like. So, in their heads, what everybody should be saying is the same thing.

Secondly, only a racist would believe that black people would be offended by the word 'black'. The thought would never occur to anybody who had no problem with the fact that some people are black.

What Happens Next?

The crazy thing is that these stories often go on to have an effect. Put simply, there is no 'Politically Correct' lobby who decide changes in language. It fact, there is nobody at all who can decide or enforce this. Of course, there are lots of people who try- but they can only succeed by genuinely convincing a majority of people.

Instead, the language changes all the time because some people change the use of a word and other people like it enough to adopt the chage.

And who has the most influence? Not the 'Politically Correct lobby' because they do not actually exist. Not bloggers (even I do not read my blog.) No, lazy journalists read my millions of people have all the clout.

Imagine you are a blackboard manufacturer. You read that some people are offended by the use of 'blackboard'. This is not an academic issue: you could be losing money because of this. So, what do you do? Do you campaign to redeem the word? Of course not because you do not actually care. You just start calling them chalkboards. Not because Powerful-Them forced you, but because Lone-Voice told you about it. The same Lone-Voices who see chalkboards for sale and say "See! I told you so!"

But Why?

Two common factors in these stories are:

  • That the the author is prevented from doing A because They are doing B ("A teacher calls it a chalkboard, there I am not allowed to call it a blackboard").
  • That some minority group is the ultimate reason for all this ("Why can't Muslims understand that they are living in a Christian country?")

These account for the general tone of angry defensiveness of the stories. I think that there is a simple explanation. The authors want it to be true. To be more specific, the want the world to work in this way.

They want it to be true that if somebody says or does something then other people are some how forced to do the same. They want it so that by bravely speaking out they they too can wield this mysterious power.

They want it to be true that authorities are forced to act due to complaints from minority groups. They want it because they have so many complaints that need to be acted on.

They do not want to live in a world where people listen to opinions, observe examples and then decide for themselves what to do.

But, what are they frightened of?

Bonfire Night

I leave you with a traditional British rhyme to celebrate this time of year. If I walk down the street singing it I would probably be arrested. A clear case of 'Political Correctness gone Mad'.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason Why Gunpowder Treason Should ever be forgot.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we'll say ol' Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah hoorah!



posted by Yet Another Geek @ Monday, November 05, 2007


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