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Preposterous political posturing

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 31 July 2020


I just couldn't believe it. 'Coon' is no longer to be the name of a well-known style of cheese. Apparently its use offends people, and one man has been campaigning for twenty years to have the name removed. What's it to be called now? Why can't I believe it? Well, Coon Cheese is named after the man who invented it, Edward Coon. It has had nothing whatever to do with racism. Edward William Coon (1871-1934) was an American inventor who used high temperature and humidity to produce cheddar cheese quickly. The process he patented in 1926 is called 'cooning'. Now 'coon' is also a racist term in the United States of America, but not, at least in my experience, in our country. Boong? Abo? Darkie ? Gin? Yes, but not 'coon'. Wikipedia says it is primarily one from the USA and the UK, but notes it is also an Australian term. If so, I've never heard it or seen it in print. For what its worth, 'Gub' or 'Gubba' are Aboriginal terms for non-Aboriginal people, but I know no one who is offended by their use.

Nonetheless, Stephen Hagan, a persistent agitator, has been trying for a long time to get the word 'coon' removed from the cheese. He failed in 1999 with the Advertising Standards Bureau and again in 2001 with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Australia's involvement in the BLW agitation seems to have been the signal for change, and the Canadian owners of the brand have allowed the local company to remove the offending term. Who is offended, apart from Mr Hagan? And why on earth is he offended?

To me this agitation is the height of ridiculousness. Imagine if the twitchers (bird-watchers) decided to seek the removal of 'Birdseye' from the frozen goods that bear this name, perhaps on the ground that they, if not the birds themselves, were offended. Birdseye is also named after the inventor, in this case, Clarence Frank Birdseye (1886-1956) who is generally thought to be the father of the frozen foods industry. Goodyear tyres are named after Charles Goodyear, who invented the vulcanisation process in 1839. You haven't had a good year? Well, it's not Charles's fault. You find the surname 'Ramsbottom' to be offensive? Well, if Mr or Ms Ramsbottom goes on using it, why should you be offended? In any case its origin is straightforward, and has nothing to do with bums: a valley (bottom) where rams are kept or where wild garlic grows, take your pick.

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All this reminds me of the new belief that in universities there should be 'safe spaces' where students don't have to think about unpleasant things. For my part, universities are places where students are challenged to think. Being able to think carefully and critically is perhaps the real lifetime advantage of having gone to university. 'Safe spaces'? For heaven's sake.

I go on to mention that Professor Peter Ridd has had his legal victory over James Cook University over an unfair dismissal overturned by the Federal Court. There is much debate over the outcome, and Professor Ridd will go on to the High Court. He needed something like $750,000 to support his position, and that was raised by crowd-funding. I will donate to his appeal fund. Why? Because I feel that James Cook University originally behaved in a draconian way, overlooking the fact that its own Enterprise Bargain (at clause 14.1) required the university to act in a manner 'consistent with the protection and promotion of intellectual freedom'. Clause 13.3 says that the JCU code of conduct 'is not intended to detract from Clause 14.'

Publicly disagreeing with your colleagues over matters of science is apparently 'uncollegial'. Sacking the disagreeing professor apparently does not infringe the notion of protecting 'intellectual freedom.' The judges who wrote the majority opinion also referred to 'safe spaces' and 'content warnings' as though these new demands from students somehow vitiate the notion of intellectual freedom. They don't, of course. I used to start my first year Politics course by telling the students that they were lucky to live in a society like ours, where this dangerous stuff could be talked about freely. There were other societies in which this was definitely not the case, and you could be shot for doing so. That usually caused a bit of extra attention.

We are in a strange new world of political correctness, and I greatly object to it, and these instances. If you want another, consider the case of Bari Weiss, a journalist hired by the New York Times to widen the paper's readership. After three years on the job, with some successes to report, she has resigned, and her letter of resignation is here.

It is a long letter that contains some telling statements about what is happening, like this one:

The paper's failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn't have a firm grasp of the country it covers.

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And this one:

… the lessons that ought to have followed the election-lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society-have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn't a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.

And this one:

Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.

When I lived in the US the NYT was my Saturday reading, and it was huge, about three inches or more thick. I trusted it. I don't any more, for the reasons that Bari Weiss gives, and she has had to put up with a lot of hate email and similar abuse from the paper's staff.

Where is this leading to? I don't think we are in the same situation as the US, partly because we don't have a presidential system or a political leader as divisive as Donald Trump has become. Nonetheless, we tend to follow the US in matters of style, if not of substance, and I can see examples of this precious political correctness in our society right now. There are many other examples I could give, and some readers may have their own pet hates too.

It's easy enough to say, oh well, they'll find something else to talk about soon enough. In my view, you need to stamp on this pernicious stuff when you encounter it. The slogan on my masthead is a great truth - we learn by disagreeing with one another. Or, a more home-grown version: we learn by trial and error, as long as we learn from the errors.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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