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PC words & keeping things in historical context

Posted by Lotg on October 19, 2004

In Reply to: For what it's worth - Post Script posted by Lewis on October 19, 2004

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : A friend from the UK just brought me a newspaper clipping that says "Bedlam", "nitpicking" and "brainstorm" among others) have been outlawed in in goverment work places because they might offend someone?

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : Weird. Bedlam I can understand. But I don't see how nitpicking and brainstorm could offend anyone.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : "Nitpicking" because it supposedly refers to the nits in the hair of slaves (a variation on th edubious nitty gritty theme), and "brainstorm" because it might offend mentally ill people.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : All this would be terrible not least because it is necessary to have access to the term "bedlam" when dealing with the UK civil service.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : I'm also wondering whether, if someone were seriously mentally ill, whether there might be many other words one would find offensive - like "door knob" or "egg whisk" or "mustache"?

: : : : : : : : : : : : I'm deeply offended that you said do*r kn*b, and I may sue. But "brainstorm"? Perhaps they thought it was "bra in storm," meaning rained-upon undergarments. Eh? Potentially offensive?

: : : : : : : : : : : Some fairly highly placed official was recently forced to resign for using the word "niggardly" in some speech he gave... God help us. The PC stormtroopers are at the gate.

: : : : : : : : : :
: : : : : : : : : : Terry Pratchett portrayed T Blair as vampire...

: : : : : : : : : Niggardly. It happened in the U.S., and I don't think anyone resigned. Some official in Philadelphia was commenting on the stinginess of the budget he was given, and two of his subordinates misunderstood the word "niggardly" to be racist. They were, of course, and I think they got some civil rights organization interested. But reporters soon disabused the complainers of their notions about "niggardly," and the publicity made the complainers look like idiots. You can find your way to the complete story by consulting Lexis-Nexus or the N.Y. Times Index. SS
: : : : : : : : Holy-moley, I left out a whole clause. For "They were, of course,..." substitute "They were offended, of course, and called loudly for the official's resignation. I think they also got some civil rights organization interested." SS

: : : : : : : You know, we've discussed the resignation over this word before. It's supposedly happened on both sides of the Atlantic. I'm wondering, even though I think it's completely possible that all the stories are true, if there's a chance this could be an urban legend? I went back to try to find the original reference here but can't find the source. The really depressing thing is that even if no one actually did have to resign over this, just the fact that these words have been banned is bad enough.

: : : : : : : I really, truly don't understand how this became so mainstream in the UK. Is it Tony Blair throwing a bone to some of the more backward sections of the Labour Party? Anything I've ever seen published on this in the quality press is pretty much of the opinion that this is utterly stupid... I've never even seen anyone try to defend it - not in print anyway. It's like this thing has an independent life of its own. I'd love to know the back story of this one. I wonder if it's because no one wants to be seen to be elitist*?

: : : : : : :
: : : : : : : * By the way, if anyone has access to it, Saturday's Financial Times carried a *very* depressing article about the decline of Oxford University. It's a variation on the theme of slipping standards.

: : : : : : There is a xenophobic section of the British press - almost of it actually, and certainly including the Financial Times, that is very happy to jump on any story showing up declining standards, political correctness and how this great nation is being submerged under a tide of petty laws dreamed up by EC bureaucrats in Brussels. This has now become an industry and people make 'the country is going to the dogs' careers out of it. They even have their own language and are variously known as 'young fogeys' or 'grumpy old men'. Every time some council official says something silly these days it becomes a Daily Mail headline.

: : : : : : Take heart. They might report that...

: : : : : : - Oxford University is now a pay in the slot degree vending booth.
: : : : : : - UK citizens now have to eat straight bananas.
: : : : : : - Children in the UK aren't allowed to play conkers.
: : : : : : - UK government employees aren't allowed to say brainstorm.

: : : : : : ... but it's all rubbish.

: : : : : : Brainstorm, brainstrom, brainstorm. There I've gone and done it.

: : : : : Thinking back, I think yoou are right that this section of the press does exist but I can't help but wonder if that's all thre is to it. I read an interesting article, by a friend, actually who talked about how his university and others have started devoting more resources to marketing themselves to prospective students than to finding and keeping good scholars or being choosy about who they let in. He's considered left wing - not really a grumpy old man type at all. Has nothing changed with the importance of the market in the university system? Just curious...

: : : : Yes, much has changed. There's no real problem in my view though. The present UK government is pushing a much higher percentage of the poulation through higher education. All universities are seeing a considerable drop in the average academic standard of their students, as you would expect in that scenario. The elite universities are touchy about lowering standards because high standards is what they are all about.

: : : American Ivy leagues aren't exactly meritocracies either. Yes, they have stellar academics but their undergraduate ranks are swollen with legacy admissions, lectures are obscenely large and students seldom have any access to the professors the universities are famous for. If my son were old enough for college (he's still in nappies/diapers), I'd far rather see him go to a smaller college with a good reputation where he'd be likely to get some personal attention than slog it out at Harvard. Harvard is always there for gradute studies and really, that's where those institutions come into their own.

: : Indeed we seem to be making college and university more accessible, but not higher education. I have noticed, and we discuss it frequently in the quiet of our offices here at school, that we are asked to sacrifice the quality for the quantity! Aaah, but what is one more windmill to the errant knight? Vigilance!

: nothing wrong with Bedlam - a reference to the Bethlehem Hospital - now the Imperial War Museum -which was hell-hole where 'lunatics' were incarcerated - thus a place of noise and disorder. It does not confer approval of the poor conditions those lunatics endured.

: niggardly - mean spirited and ungenerous - doesn't even have a controversial 'e' in it. dark-souled perhaps, but as posted yesterday - people are not 'colours' - we are all wood-coloured.

: brainstorm - used to mean rapid-fire thinking - mental Blitzkreig against a problem. no discriminatory use of language there and if some fool thinks that being non-discriminatory involves wrecking language, then do not understand how to fight for equal rights and should fall upon their sword for the dishonour they have brought their cause!

In Australia the word 'nigger' really didn't mean much in earlier times as far as I'm aware. I believe it was 'inherited' from the USA. The derogatory terms (and there were plenty - far too many) for aboriginals here didn't really include [n-word] - but with TV and such, that changed.
So originally, believe it or not - [n-word] actually sometimes was a sort of term of endearment (although probably based on some smart *rse sentiment - like Bluey, etc for redheads. And it tended to be applied to 'white men' (or lighter wood coloured if you prefer) usually with pale skins - cos Aussies are like that, they're nicknames often mean the precise opposite. So - I suppose if you want to delve into deep psychology, you could argue that it could still be derogatory, and quite probably it was - but sometimes I think you can delve too much.
There was a case here of a man from Toowoomba in Queensland, who was an international rugby league player in the 1920s. His name was Edward Stanley Brown. But his nickname was E.S. [N-word] Brown. There appears to be two possible arguments for why he got that nickname:

"Mr Brown, who died in 1972, aged 74, is believed to have earned the nickname either because of his extremely fair complexion or because he had a penchant for using "[N-word] Brown" shoe polish."

In the 1960s, a stand (on a football field) was named after Edward Brown - and the plaque says "E.S. [N-word] Brown" because that's what he was known as. Much more recently - I think only a year or two ago, there has been an aboriginal representative - Stephen Hagan - who filed a complaint with the U.N. to have the name of the stand changed. He failed in his attempt. The U.N. recommended the name should be removed, but Australian courts upheld the decision for it to stay.

My point here is that PC must be kept in context. Historically people thought differently. And I'm sure, that there are people who would jump on me straight away and say - that's precisely why we worked so hard to change history. As a woman - I would not disagree. BUT - as a woman, I haven't lost my sense of context. Even talking to my mother, I know there are things she did and tolerated that I wouldn't even consider - because we come from a different time zone. That doesn't mean I should judge her, my father or anyone else from that time zone - it doesn't mean she was wrong - it was right for her then. And unless any of you are super human and can see into the future, you and I are only capable of living according to the rules of here and now - just like our parents and our forefathers did. The fact that we have the benefit of hindsight - DOES NOT make us smarter.
Of course it's right and good to learn and evolve, but I don't think we should judge those before us and apply retrospectively our rules to those before us.

What people have said and done before may well be shameful to us now - and it's great we recognise this, and important we learn from it, but when relating historical stories, terms or whatever, I think we should keep things in context, and I think it's not only a shame to try to censor and/or eradicate history and the words we used, I think it's a crime and can lead to misinformation.

As for the use of the word 'niggardly' and thinking it's wrong - is not paranoiac PC, it's just plain proof of ignorance of the English language - it's not even spelt the same way.