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The strengths and weaknesses of 'Political Correctness' in debate

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 22 July 2003


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There was another battle in the culture war recently, this time over the new National Museum in Canberra and claims that it was too "politically correct". I hate this term, it is semantically vacuous, but there are some issues here that bear real consideration.

There is no doubt that some people are overly concerned with "remedying" existing understanding of society, which they interpret as actually being racist or sexist or some other "ist". In particular they are focused on language usage. Some people even make a good living out it, endlessly correcting everyone not up to their own assumed standards of terminological rectitude.

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I recall as an undergraduate having a discussion with a friend about some movie in the days when feminism was a hot topic. We were interrupted by a woman who coldly informed me that the word "actress" should not be used. It was apparently a sexist term. Ignoring her temerity in intervening in a private conversation, I pointed out that I had specifically used this term because it was important to the gist of the story that it was a female actor I was talking about. As a smart, socially aware student, I knew very well what the real feminist issues were and did not really need such correction, but she was feeling zealous that day. Now I smile every time I hear some feminist use the word "actress".

Using accurate, as opposed to "correct", language is important. Sloppy language is a part of sloppy thinking. But overly zealous enforcement of "correct" terminology can ultimately be as damaging as the simplistic assumptions of mainstream culture.

For instance, in my lifetime the normal term used to describe the original inhabitants of Australia has gone from "native" to "Aboriginal" to "Indigenous". There have been reasons for this shift, but each one has caused confusion and unnecessary bad feeling. In my Australian Studies tutorials, for instance, I found that some students would not engage with issues relating to Aboriginal rights because they felt that their lack of knowledge about the right terminology would immediately identify them as "racist" (the fact that my Aboriginal students themselves often used different terms did not lessen the problem).These students worried that as soon as they opened their mouths and used the "incorrect" term, they would be jumped on by the ideologically pure. And they had a point; there are such zealots around.

Now, at this point I have to make the case for a certain amount of zealotry but in a very specific context. Zealots - those who promote a particular view to the extreme - are often necessary when a new idea is being put forward. This is because they need the armour of self-righteousness to deflect the often mindless, reflexive abuse of those upholding the old ideas. Women's rights needed the suffragettes and Indigenous rights needed in-your-face activists like Gary Foley and Michael Mansell.

But once room is made for new ideas, and the culture recognises the legitimate case for change, discussion must become reasoned, inclusive and well intentioned. It is not reasonable for the same old prejudices to be wheeled out by the same old wealthy, middle-aged, white males in defence of their own privilege. But nor is it reasonable to ignore the fact that life is complicated. Some fathers do genuinely love their children and the problems of Indigenous people are sometimes due to their own corrupt leaders.

Hopefully those supporting Indigenous rights - an issue that is a real test of Australian cultural strength - will learn from the strange history of feminism. Feminism arose as a legitimate response to the male domination of society, and the associated repression of woman in a myriad different ways. But due to the actions of a few zealots (like Susan Brownmiller, who argued in one book that "all men rape all women" - a position strongly refuted by other feminists at the time), feminism got the reputation of being an extremist set of beliefs. This let in the usual reactionary crowd, who coined idiotic terms like "feminazis" to discredit the whole idea.

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Nowadays, among young females "feminist" is typically a term of abuse. It is astonishing how often a female student will say "I'm not a feminist, but…" and go on to discuss some injustice that is exactly the sort of thing that feminists were originally trying to address.

We must face up to and discuss all injustices if things are to improve, and not hide behind comfortable simplifications. We have to cut some slack for those who do not know the latest "correct" term, and we also have to take personal experience seriously. For instance, I have watched wealthy academics, who probably never saw an Indigenous person or Asian immigrant outside a classroom, lecture students who lived next door to them on racism. Dealing day-to-day with other cultures, values and practices can be very difficult, and people's experiences with these difficulties cannot be ignored just because it does not suit the pure vision of some "objective" commentator. This simply leads to people refusing to participate in discussing and solving problems, and it is one reason why the facile ideas of someone like Pauline Hanson are so readily accepted.

The culture war will continue, because there are still injustices to be fought and there is still privilege to be defended. "Political correctness" is mostly just a slogan used to stifle debate, but there is a real message here - that it is only open, honest debate that can finally solve our problems. It may be an uncomfortable, messy process, but real life is like that.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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