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Manhole or a personhole? A study of political correctness

By Rebecca Huntley - posted Tuesday, 30 August 2005

In 1987 University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom’s polemic The Closing of the American Mind hit the book shelves. In the book, Bloom lashed out at what he saw as the corrosive effects of political correctness on American universities. While aimed primarily at Gen X youth and the academy, the book was to become a centre-piece in the American New Right’s struggle against the political correctness movement (as they called it).

Indeed, the late 1980s and 1990s saw a lengthy and prominent public debate about the merits of political correctness. In Australia, commentators and politicians on the Right were particularly vociferous in their attacks on “PCism”. They characterised it as a form of word fascism, a folly of middle class trendoids at odds with ordinary, common sense Australians. If the comments of these critics were to be believed, then the 1980s would have seen legions of word Nazis in Mao suits, marching through the classrooms, living rooms and pubs of the nation, wrapping people over the knuckles or administering wedgies to those who had the nerve to say “manhole” rather than “personhole”.

In many ways the furore over PCism was a furphy, a beat up by people who actually objected to the Left’s broader human rights campaign, of which PC language was only a small part. For example, gender-neutral language was only ever an aspect of a larger feminist agenda, but it was the one that received the most public attention because it was the most easily ridiculed.


But amid all the hackneyed jokes about personholes and the like, it was forgotten that the impetus for PCism - or what I would prefer to describe as “the ethical language movement” - was well-intentioned and socially important. It arose out of the need for greater neutrality and inclusivity in public language. It aimed at raising awareness of the hidden negativity in words. It sprung from the belief that language shapes our perception of things, how they are and how they could be.

Few on the Left would have pretended that changing language was enough. Such an argument would be the Left wing equivalent of the line that child abuse can be stamped out by banning films like Salo or Mysterious Skin. Of course calling someone “physically disabled” rather than “crippled” isn’t going to heal the guy in the wheelchair. But it will probably ensure he doesn’t accidentally on purpose run over your toes as he exits the room. There is something to be said for civility in communication. And, all things considered, I quite like living in a society where people might have to think twice before using terms like “abo”, “refo” or “pillow biter”.

Courtesy of the public tussles over PCism during the 1980s and 1990s, it seems there is now an acceptance that it is the Left rather than the Right that want to frustrate free speech, criticism and dissent. This acceptance persists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Under the current Coalition government we have seen a number of cultural products (mainly esoteric films and reality TV shows) banned or threatened with banning. We have seen scorn poured on religious leaders who dare to publicly criticise government policy, policies that they have seen disadvantage members of their own congregation and the community in general. At the same time, other religious leaders (and their political supporters) are allowed free reign to rail against abortion, gay and lesbian rights, and a host of other issues - but to criticise them would be religious intolerance.

You court serious disapproval if you suggest that maybe, just maybe, the majority of women might want to combine some kind of meaningful paid work with child-rearing, that spending a decade or more at home alone looking after young kids without relief might take its toll on your self-esteem and sanity. To say so is the equivalent of wife bashing, another indication you are out of step with the mainstream. Attacking our government - a decidedly Australian pastime - is now practically considered to be the equivalent of attacking “ordinary people”.

As Marian Maddox comments in her compelling book God Under Howard, “those who, before the 1996 election, bemoaned the 'pall of political correctness' which, they claimed, stifled freedom of speech in Australia, spent the next eight years radically limiting what can be said and by whom”.


The new political correctness may no doubt prove to be more effective than the old one.

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About the Author

Rebecca Huntley is a writer and social researcher and the author of the forthcoming The World According to Y (Allen & Unwin).

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