Nabokoviana: "VN & the term politically incorrect"
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Sent: Saturday, October 05, 2002 9:20 PM
Subject: the term "politically incorrect" seems to have a much earlier origin ...
Analysis: The truth about political correctness - in black and white
By Sean O'Grady
26 September 2002
According to the Prince of Wales, we are all falling victim to that supposed scourge of modern life, political correctness. The Prince has been writing to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, to tell him he is "struck by the degree to which our lives are becoming ruled by a truly absurd degree of politically correct interference".
In one letter, he illustrated his point with a reference to the row of horse chestnut trees felled in Norwich last year by the local council, supposedly amid fears that conkers might injure passers-by. The Prince found it "most depressing". No doubt it is, but not nearly so depressing as the overuse, misuse and abuse of the phrase "political correctness", which once had a rather noble meaning but which has, over the past decade or so, become a pejorative expression.
The Prince's sloppy use of the term places him, wittingly or not, firmly in the camp of those right-wing commentators, Tory backwoodsmen and bodies such as the Countryside Alliance that, had they been around in the 1830s, would no doubt have opposed the abolition of slavery by arguing that it was "political correctness gone mad". For a man who, in between playing polo and writing impertinent letters to ministers, used to urge us to pay more attention to the way we use the English language, it really is appalling.
Political correctness is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: "conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, characterised by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc, considered discriminatory or offensive". It finds the earliest use of the term in a book, "Black Woman" by T Cabe, published in 1970: "A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too." It became so widely used a term that, by 1985, The Washington Post used it to describe a cafИ that served Nicaraguan coffee and at which the staff were known as "waitpersons". Thus was it already losing much of its true meaning. By 1993, we find this in the Utne Reader: "Killing mosquitoes, flies, midges and other summer pests is known to politically correct people as 'speciesism'."
Strangely, the term "politically incorrect" seems to have a much earlier origin, or at least first usage, as it crops up in Vladimir Nabokov's 1947 novel Bend Sinister: "A person who has never belonged to a Masonic Lodge or to a fraternity, club, union, or the like, is an abnormal and dangerous person. It is better for a man to have belonged to a politically incorrect organisation than not to have belonged to any organisation at all."
Some of the wilder critics of political correctness claim to be able to trace the roots of the idea back to the Frankfurt School of philosophy of 1923, which, apparently, sought to spread the idea that talking about certain beliefs must be avoided to make up for past inequities and injustices, a sort of cultural application of Marxian economic and political thought. In the 1930s, Mao Tse Tung wrote about the "correct" handling of contradictions through "sensitive training".
Yet whatever its philosophical and linguistic roots, by the 1980s it had become a rallying point for those who wanted to liberate academia from the Dwems √ dead white European males √ such as Shakespeare or Chaucer, and to open up the literary canon to minority groups. Or, in the words of the Stanford University student chant, "Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go". Political correctness soon spread from its base on the American campuses. In the 1970s in the US and the 1980s in Britain it did a lot of good, especially in rooting out the casual, popular racist language many indulged in without thinking or, indeed, necessarily meaning offence.
Negroes became "Afro or African-Americans", on a par with Italian-Americans or any other hyphenated group. Some now want to be called "persons of colour" and that seems to have been as easily accepted. Anyone who remembers the easy and offensive racial stereotyping in British TV shows such as Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language should see that the passage of "nigger", "wog" and "Paki" into disuse (even if, occasionally reclaimed by some radicals), is political correctness at its best. Many would also now wince at the memory of Bernard Manning, Jim Davidson's comic West Indian character "Chalky", the Black and White Minstrel Show, the golliwog on Robertson's jam, and jokes about thick paddies. And if women who work for airlines would rather be called flight attendants than air hostesses or trolly dollies, that, again, is something we now easily and calmly accept.
Fine, say the critics, but now it has "gone too far". Yet many of the stories about things that are done in the name of political correctness are exaggerated. Descriptions of the dead as "terminally inconvenienced" exist only in joke books. Norwich council cutting down its conker trees may have been silly but it was not "politically correct". Nor were BBC guidelines asking game show presenters not to patronise contestants. Yet all these are routinely, and mischievously, cited as examples of political correctness. Bernard Manning's disappearance from our screens had as much to do with commercial considerations as some liberal conspiracy. Much the same could probably be said about when Thames Television dropped Benny Hill in 1982, admittedly rather brutally and without much thanks for all his work for the company. Certainly, the jibes by the likes of Ben Elton played a part in his fall but there was also the successful rise of alternative comedy buoyed by a new generation of viewers with very different tastes in humour. And, it is fair to say, for all his harmless double entendres, Benny did do a bit of racist material.
And was there really ever a ban on "Baa Baa Black Sheep" in Britain's schools and an attempt to make children sing "Baa Baa Green Sheep" instead? No.
One nursery school in Birmingham was advised by the city council, on comments from the Working Group Against Racism in Children's Resources, that "whenever the word black is attached to another word it creates a negative meaning which can make children feel embarrassed and confused about their identity √ Black Monday, Black Wednesday and black sheep all conjure up negative images. Teachers should become more aware of the negative feelings this can evoke in children. There are a lot of other nursery rhymes for children to sing."
A perfectly reasonable point, but, as it happens, the advice was not taken. That did not stop The Sun and the Daily Mail turning it into a minor cause cИlХbre, "a row which reflects the tone of our politically correct times" as the Mail had it. If only our times were so politically correct that racially motivated crimes were unheard of and young black males had as good a chance of doing well in school or finding a job as their white counterparts.
Nor is the reactionary right free from a tendency to intolerance and euphemism. Bloodsports such as fox hunting are nowadays "field sports" or even more absurdly "a way of life". The British Field Sports Society has mutated into much friendlier sounding Countryside Alliance. And killing animals for fun and demanding subsidies for farmers goes under the more catchy "Liberty and Livelihood". That, many would argue, really is political correctness gone mad.
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