PC Gawn Mad Innit!

by padraigcolman

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 26 2011


I am not an opponent of political correctness but I do get irritated when Microsoft Word tells me what to write. I have grown used to it scolding me for writing “chairman” when it thinks I should write “chairperson” and substituting “police officer” for “policeman”. It has just chastised me for writing “maid” and suggested I write “house cleaner”.

I recently had my knuckles rapped for using the word “gypsies” to describe a group of people living in the Aligambay area of Sri Lanka. I had a recollection of reading about this group in an academic paper and was keen to learn more.

I am afraid I still do not know the correct name I should be using to identify the group. When I eventually found the academic paper, it named the people as Kuruvan. Other people call them Ahikuntaka.  Wikipedia calls the Ahikuntaka gypsies. Sri Lankan writer JB Muller calls them gypsies in The Island newspaper. Even well meaning NGOs like Dilmah Conservation, who are seeking to empower the group, call them gypsies.

I concede that, whoever these people are or where they came from, we should not call them gypsies. Firstly, because it is inaccurate, and secondly, because they do not like it.

There are similar problems of naming with a certain group of Irish people. Ignorant English people call them gypsies, which they clearly are not. Their origins are obscure – some believe they are descended from the people dispossessed by Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing. They certainly have no connection to the Roma. Everyone called them tinkers but now the word police forbid that. Officially, they are “travelling community”. Whereas shops used to put up signs saying “no tinkers”, they now put up signs saying “no travellers”.

What’s in a name? Bigots will find, whatever the approved words, ways to discriminate. The toxicity of taxonomy.

Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when the political right adopted it in the 1990s as a pejorative term suggesting Stalinist orthodoxy. The right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness used by the right means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations”. The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.

When I worked at the Department of Health in London, training was given on the sensitive use of language. It long ago became unacceptable to refer to “the handicapped”. For a while it was acceptable to say “the disabled” but that seemed to be defining people solely by their disability. So we were taught to say “people with disabilities”. I have been out of the loop on this, but it seems that current approved usage is “differently abled”.

I recently had an argument with someone for sloppy use of the word schizophrenic. She was using it to mean someone undecided about an issue. She thought of herself as someone on the left, an American who had chosen to live in the liberal heaven that is New Zealand. When I pointed out that some might find her use of the word offensive, she proudly said that she refused to be censored. She is a psychiatrist.

Ian Mayes was the first Readers’ Editor, a kind of Ombudsman, of the Guardian. He fought a long but ultimately futile battle against sloppy and hurtful language. The paper’s style guide has this under the heading of “mental health”. “Take care using language about mental health issues. Avoid clearly offensive and unacceptable expressions as loony, maniac, nutter, psycho and schizo because they stereotype and stigmatise”.

Mayes’s heart was clearly in the right place: “I feel a strong commitment to this policy. It has nothing to do with political correctness. It has a lot to do with the way we treat each other, or wish to be treated, and in particular the way in which we relate to each other in times of need.”

It was sad to read Mayes’s columns over the years because however many times he returned to this subject he just could not stop Guardian journalists using the word schizophrenic in a sloppy and hurtful way.

In more recent times, the word “retard”, and its more obscene variants, has become popular in the blogosphere.  Blogs are often compared to kindergarten and the current prevalence of such abuse recalls playground use of “spaz” (spastic) and “menck” (mental) as insults.

On June 16 2011, Caitlin Moran published a book, How to Be a Woman, described on Amazon as “A new way of looking at feminism from one of our funniest writers”. Kitchen goddess Nigella Lawson wrote: “I adore, admire and – more – am addicted to Caitlin Moran’s writing.”

Not everyone gushed so much.Diane Shipley, a freelance journalist who has contributed to The Guardian, the LA Times, and Mental Health Today, and who describes herself asa woman with disabilities”, wrote: “I enjoyed the description of her adolescence until I read one line that I’m convinced made my heart stop beating for a second. Talking about herself at age 13, Moran writes: ‘I am, by and large, boundlessly positive. I have all the joyful ebullience of a retard’”.

By and large, I recall from seeing Moran on TV many years ago, that she was differently slender. Moran (whose name, pronounced in the Irish fashion, sounds like “moron”) seems to be a serial offender. Back in 2005, she referred to Turkey as being too “retarded” to join the EU.

Disability rights campaigner Nicky Clark wrote to Moran’s publishers on 15 June: “Retard is used abusively and routinely against all disabled people. As a self-professed feminist does Caitlin Moran not extend her sympathies towards her disabled sisters or are they simply a focus for her taunts?”

The American philosopher WVO Quine has described the process whereby euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves. Steven Pinker coined the term, Euphemism Treadmill. In the early 1960s, baseball promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, said: “I’m Not Handicapped, I’m Crippled”. Comedian George Carlin did a monologue about how euphemisms can undermine appropriate attitudes, contending that Vietnam veterans would have coped better were their condition still called “shell shock” rather than PTSD. Gay people can call themselves queer but straight people do not have that right. Black people use the “N” word but woe betide any pink person having the temerity to do so. There is a militant wing of pressure groups for people with mental illness who use words that would be offensive coming from anyone else. It’s complicated.

Whatever about all that it is just silly and sloppy for a grown-up to use “retard” as an insult.

Back to those people in Aligambay. I asked my knuckle-rapper what I should call them and she thought they would prefer to be included in one of the common ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, this particular group would like to be seen as Tamil. Although the Sri Lankan population is made up of many people who came from outside these people would like to be  identified as Sri Lankan. Certainly their dislike of the term “gypsies” is indicative of their dislike of being  outsiders.

Categorisation can be exclusive. However, it may be necessary to identify and name those in need of affirmative action. Naming should be sensitively applied.