What I have come to realise is that the phrase political correctness (PC) is both misused and misunderstood. If we look first at its misuse we venture into the murky world of health and safety. Amazingly people will describe actions by schools, such as the restricting of playing conkers, as political correctness. Clearly the phrase is being used to broadly describe state intervention, however even in this interpretation it is misused. When schools and other such bodies have banned activities it is not a matter of public policy but at the bequest of insurers. Increasingly we live in a litigious time and with ‘no win no fee’ lawyers praying on the gullible and greedy insurers have to protect their funds. It is not the case that you ‘can’t get insurance’ merely that the insurance will be too expensive. Simply put each advert you see for no win no fee lawyers is another reason to think again about you organisation’s health and safety policies and procedures.
Next we have the misuse through confusion over language. Did you know it is wrong to call our national flag ‘the Union Jack’. Not, as I was once told, because it was gendered but simply because it is only a ‘Jack’ when it is flown from a ‘jack staff’ on a ship – for a nautical nation we can be quite ignorant of such things. Of course this level of pedantry is unnecessary – Union Jack has entered common use. Similar confusion exists around the terms Great Britain and United Kingdom. The UK is not a politically correct version of GB. GB refers to the island of England, Wales and Scotland excluding Northern Island, hence the use of the phrase ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ to describe the UK (which also has that full title but is reduced to UK and includes NI when it is). Confusingly at the beginning of the twentieth century, after the separation of the Irish Republic, the full name became The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Again we can be pedantic but that is all.
Returning to the health and safety theme we see a new heroism, a new patriotism, coming through. We have of course all heard of the nurse who was forbidden from wearing a crucifix. A clever use of language there. The actual policy of the hospital was that no necklaces were allowed to be worn for health and safety reasons. Yes the nurse had worn the necklace for years but now the rules had changed, largely for the reasons mentioned above. This of course takes us on to the cases of shop assistants, poppies and the like. In all cases it is simply a case of the company having a strict policy on uniform, not for any political motive but because they feel that unadorned uniforms are smarter. In all cases when there has been a ‘fuss’, normally due to a junior manager applying rules a little too literally, the company has reviewed it policy. There is no conspiracy here, none other than consumerism.
Moving now to the misunderstanding of PC we can look directly at the use of language. A popular one this year has been the ‘banning’ of the word Christmas. As with so many horror stories relating to PC there is little basis in fact, as an educator I would be the first to know – we’re paid to be careful! This story began with from two sources; first there are a few stores, mostly in the States, that have adopted this ‘happy holiday’ approach; secondly there are some councils who have flirted with the idea. However it has never been the policy of government. The shops, just as with uniforms, have simply adopted a policy that they feel will be best for sales, no message, no mission, just consumerism. Normally trying to broaden the appeal and attract a wider range of customers. The councils, though I can find only one example, rarely are doing anything other than trying, business like, to extend the season.
Of course this relates to the use of the phrase ‘you are not allowed to say...’ and takes us back to education. Did you know you are allowed to say anything, that there isn’t in fact one single word banned by English law? Did you realise that the board in classrooms that is white is referred to a ‘white board’, an especially handy description when there is a blue notice board beside it. In the canteen you can have a black coffee and the scraps are placed in a black, white or green sack. The thing is that a great deal of sense exists within the public sector however there is also a degree of ‘well meaningness’. When an employee reads a story in The Sun or The Mail they mistakenly try to apply it at work, without ever receiving instruction. The only instruction we are given relates to discrimination and that is clearly defined in English law. We can say any word in context. As parents would expect we don’t swear – but I doubt that is seen as political correctness. In addition we don’t call students fat, stupid or ugly. We may refer to an act as stupid but not the student. I am fairly sure this is what parents expect. Likewise we don’t tolerate students using derogatory terms to each other.
This moves us towards a more complex area. Words change meaning with time. Medical terms used to describe individuals slip into common use as a derogatory term. In order to avoid the use of a derogatory term to describe an individual the medical profession adopts a new term. In addition words have multiple meanings. I describe my doctoral gowns as ‘gay’ relating to their colourfulness in the early twentieth century use of the word, however if you were to describe them as ‘gay’ with a sneer in your voice you would be using the term to describe homosexuals in a derogatory way and applying it to my outfit. This use is unfortunately growing among young people it seems and is clearly offensive.
Going back to the original observation, how have I managed to avoid falling foul of this culture of ‘political correctness gone mad’? Simply I have never found it necessary to call anyone ‘names’. Oh I can and do swear on occasions, though usually not at work, and when I do I may question your intelligence as part of that. But I find language is rich enough without resorting to name calling, and at the end of the day that’s all it is.