Leading Article: The wilder shores of PC

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE Politically Correct (PC) movement has many tentacles. The two most menacing have entwined themselves around the humanities departments of universities, and around the language applied to all those considered to be in some way disadvantaged. In both cases, the advocates of PC, who include some militant feminists, have been seeking to correct what they see, with some justification, as the accumulated prejudices of centuries. But in pressing an arguable case they have over-reached themselves. On some campuses, their campaigns - often under the banner of multiculturalism - have led to the purging from reading lists of all those categorised as Dead White European Males (Dwems).

Less sinister, but none the less alarming, have been the efforts of lobbyists on behalf of all those members of society with characteristics that differentiate them from the norm. We reported yesterday on the pressure for Mencap, the charity that represents mentally handicapped people, to change its name. The term 'mentally handicapped' was said to constitute an insult. The most widely favoured alternative was 'people with learning difficulties', though some preferred 'people with learning disabilities', or even 'the intellectually challenged'. What characterises all three is their intellectual dishonesty. As Mencap's chairman, Lord Rix, observed of his own 40-year-old handicapped daughter: 'To describe her as having a learning difficulty is a travesty of the truth.'

The desire not to demean or humiliate people who are already the object of ignorant prejudice is, of course, admirable. It all seems to have started in the Fifties, when white Americans realised that calling their fellow citizens 'niggers' was offensive. First they switched to 'negroes', of which niggers was a corruption, then to 'coloureds', then to 'blacks' and finally to 'African-Americans'. A decade later, homosexuals evolved from being 'queers' or 'poofs' into 'gays', a seemingly arbitrary choice of adjective. Those who were crippled or spastic became merely disabled or suffering from Down's syndrome.

It could reasonably be claimed that most of those changes represented an advance in public understanding: the previous terminology was, or had become, pejorative, the new terms were 'non-judgemental', a concept beloved of PC campaigners. Yet there are no negative overtones in the words 'blind' and 'deaf', if necessary, qualified by 'partially'. They, too, now seem to be under threat from lobbyists anxious to notch up some evidence of progress. There is talk of such patronising euphemisms as 'visually challenged'.

Optimists may hope that the entire movement will perish from mockery. The New York Times may have pandered to it by requiring in its style book that the term 'adult male' should replace 'man'. But last week it published a short glossary of bias-free speech that showed an encouraging swing towards ridicule. Among its suggestions were: for adultery, consensual non-monogamy; for corrupt, ethically different; for the old, chronologically gifted or experientially enhanced; for hunger, nutritional shortfall; for lie, counter-factual proposition; for looters, non-traditional shoppers; for sado-masochists, the differently pleasured. Let those who smile remember that the code of behaviour at the University of Connecticut prohibits 'inappropriately directed laughter'.