April 06, 2006

Politically Correct

Amanda has a great point about political incorrect-ness, though I'm not sure she makes much of a case for applying it to Bill Maher. Be that as it may, there are few phrases in common parlance that annoy me as much as "this may be politically incorrect, but..."

As I see it, there are two possible definitions of political correctness:
1) Language used by politicians as a means to give coded messages to their base without using words or phrases that might be inflamatory to either their opponents or other groups they may wish to court.

2) A state in which a person attempts to tailor certain aspects of their speech so as not to be offensive.

As to #1, this is something that all politicians do. It's simply the nature of politics that you want to say the things your base wants to hear but not appear so attached to them that you can't act on your own. Liberals want to assuage the fears of their base that they will protect social programs while not wanting to seem fiscally irresponsible. Neocons want to seem socially compassionate to moderates while reassuring the Movement Conservatism base that they're going to legislate based on all the nasty prejudices that that group holds dear. The annoying aspect of this definition is that conservatives have managed to completely take it over such that when people think of "political correctness" of this type they invariably think of the wishy washy sounding phrases coming out of the Democrats instead of things like Bush saying in the debates that he, wonder of all wonders, didn't support the Dredd Scott decision (where a slave was ruled to be property by the Supreme Court). Of course, his reasoning for opposing this decision was that the judges were inventing things in the Constitution which "weren't there", an obvious nod to the people that think Roe should be overruled because privacy "isn't there".

As to #2, I've always thought that this was just what my grandmother might have called "being polite". If someone I'm talking to or about doesn't like being called Indian because they feel it is a moniker born out of European ignorance, well fine. It's not like it takes much effort for me to say "Native American" instead. I might make a mistake here or there, but we all do and people are generally forgiving about that sort of thing in personal discussions. And honestly, as much noise as people, mostly conservatives, make about honest mistakes or ignorance being punished by the Political Correctness Police, it's not like they're not keenly aware when they're offended by things like the differences between Catholics and Protestants (it's in the footnotes).

Like Amanda's article points out, being "Politically Incorrect" is used as a blanket excuse not to push valid but unpopular ideas, but to prop up unsupportable nonsense by cloaking it as "rebelling against the orthodoxy". In common practice, being PC is really just about not being a jerk to people. Do you know that someone is going to be offended if you say "crippled" when you talk to them? Aren't you a jerk if you then purposefully call them crippled?

Like I said at the beginning, I'm not sure she makes much of a case against Bill Maher. He definitely believes some stuff that I disagree with, but I think he usually has arguments to back it up, even if I think those arguments fail. There is definitely something to be said for the fact that he could use another phrase for his show and that without him using it the phrase might diminish in the popular conciousness, but I'm not convinced he has quite that level of power. Some of the comments over at the Pandagon suggest that the case is made against him because he sometimes gives right wing guests too much slack in making their points, but I think that's unfair. Sometimes giving conservative guests space to make arguments you don't agree with so that conservatives feel comfortable enough to come on the show isn't hackery and, moreover, there have been far more times when the entire panel is composed of moderate to liberal guests.


Noumena said...

'Politeness' was an issue much written about during the kerfluffle over Hugo's feminist creds a month or so ago. Basically, Hugo wanted people of all kinds of backgrounds (atheist to theist, conservative to progressive) to discuss the topics of his posts in a civil manner while they were on his blog. His only really criterion for whether or not to ban someone was the use of ad hominems, and (apparently) some outspoken feminists got banned, while some incredible misogynists who still knew what they could get away with were left alone. Criticisms of censorship and conspiring with the men to suppress the women flew this way and that.

One point that came up again and again was that anger can be positive, constructive emotions: anger at the status quo can be a major impetus to change. Furthermore, a lot of the history of oppression has taken the form of transforming anger into a problem of the individual, such as depression or a disease (psychological or physiological) or just bad manners. So, naturally, feminists have a big problem with someone (especially a male someone) telling them their anger is illegitimate and ought not to be expressed.

Bringing things back to the subject at hand, both the feminist and the politically incorrect guy are claiming the importance of expressing their frustration at the status quo by rejecting the prevailing standards of civility. But let's take a closer look at what they're actually saying.

The feminist (or the anti-racist, or the queer activist, etc.) is using their anger to raise themselves up -- women are as good as men, being gay is just as valid a sexuality as being straight, etc. The politically incorrect guy, in contrast, is deliberately using derogatory language to assert his superiority to others. The feminist's anger doesn't require that men be reduced to sub-human status, while the politically incorrect guy's does. It thus seems unlikely that the politically incorrect guy's position is all that morally defensible.

Drew said...

MosBen, excellent post. People who bitch about PC piss me off no end. PC demands nothing of anyone beyond "Hey, don't be a dick!"

Noumena, I'm not familiar with controversy you mention beyond your occasional references to it here, but there is an importnt distinction to be made between expressing anger and making ad hominem attacks. And it isn't a hard thing to do. When I get really het up over some issue on a message board somewhere, I vent my anger into a post, then re-read the post before I post and delete anything that could be interpretted as a personal attack.

That's also something that MosBen's grandmother would call "being polite".

MosBen said...

Hmmm, given the discussion over on the CoH forums, I find your use of the male pronoun to describe politically incorrect people interesting.

And while I'm sympathetic to idea that civility can be used in an attempt to stiffle change, I do think that, particularly in the context of a conversation, there is some level of politeness that can be maintained.

Drew said...

Well, it turns out that Amanda at Pandagon wasn't really talking about Bill Maher at all. She just used the irrelvant fact that he used to have a show called "Politically Incorrect" as a jumping off point for a post about the phrase "politically incorrect", but the post otherwise didn't have anything to do with Maher at all.

And the fact that you interpretted the post as being meant as a criticism of Bill Maher indicates, according to the follow-up post, that you are humorless and stupid. Congratulations, MosBen!

Or, perhaps it indicates that Amanda Marcotte wrote one of her standard pieces of word-vomit and got needlessly defensive when people didn't understand her "humor". Man, I miss Jesse and Ezra.

Noumena said...

Good point, MosBen (and I'm not ignoring you, Drew, I just don't have time to answer right now). In fact, on one level that's precisely what I was going for.

Obviously, I use pronouns very, very deliberately, and very reflexively. Right now, this is probably the single most deliberate element of anything I write. That is, unlike most of my writing, my use of pronouns has a lot of depth -- that 'he' should be read as an invitation for the reader to really think about what it's doing there, all the reasons why it makes a lot of sense for me to use it and all the reasons why I ought not to use it.

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