Q: What’s all this about?
A: Well, Peter Lilley, the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, has been arguing for a relaxation of the laws on cannabis and was spotted wearing a lapel badge in the shape of a cannabis plant; you know, one of those leaf symbols. Anyway, the editor of a regional newspaper, the Hertfordshire Mercury, thought it would be a smart idea to photoshop an image of him, plonking rastafarian-style headgear (it’s called a tam, by the way) on his head.
Q: So? It’s not especially witty, anyway. So why the fuss?
A: Well, it got picked up by a Daily Mail journo, who tweeted it, and the response suggested some people regarded it as offensive, some even called it racist.
Q: Whoaaa! Racist?
A: Apparently. I’m not sure what the logic of this is, but I’ll take a guess: they assume that photoshopping a tam on Lilley implies that the paper is not taking the rastafarian movement and its belief system seriously and, as the overwhelming majority of rastafarian believers are black (there are a few white adherents), then this is a slight against black people. Another possibility is that they object to the immediate association between rastas and cannabis, which is still a controlled substance, despite changes in the law in recent years. So they might think this serves to criminalize rastas and, perhaps, all black people.
Q: But rastas actually do believe cannabis is a sacred “herb,” don’t they?
A: Yes. I’m only trying to think through why people were offended by this.
Q: Let’s face it: we are all much more sensitive nowadays. I was reading recently that Jeremy Clarkson has put his foot in his mouth again and posted a sign saying “Entrance to Slope” on twitter (see below). What’s wrong with that?
A: The word “slope” is derogatory slang for Asians. It’s well-known in Australia and Clarkson probably realized this, though he denied he personally posted it. I think this is different to the Lilley case because, while the word isn’t used outside Oz, it’s a pernicious term and clearly intended to insult Asians.
Q: The fact that you’ve dismissed one case as a storm in a teacup and the other as properly offensive tells me that there is no hard-and-fast rule over these matters. Isn’t is just a case of political correctness gone mad?
A: That phrase is a pathetic cliché and an excuse for not thinking through serious issues (and by the way, “mad” itself is not politically correct). I often ask if people really know what political correctness, or PC, is all about. The main source for PC seems to be French linguistic philosophy, in particular that of Michel Foucault. His analysis was important in pointing out that the production of intellect and imagination represent not so much the capacities of the authors producing them, but the relations of power and the ideologies that define the boundaries of discourse – this being, in very general terms, the context in which the knowledge is produced. Thoughts are not formed in the human mind independently of the language we use to express them. The world isn’t experienced as a series of facts, but of signs encoded in language.
Q: Hang on! I’m getting lost here. You’re saying basically that there’s a link between the way we speak and the way we think. Thought and language are closely related. So, if you change the way people speak, you change their minds.
A: That’s pretty much it. In the early 1990s, PC began its attempt to counter the Western, or Eurocentric, conceptions of knowledge by targeting language. Terms and text did not carry thought; they perpetuated it, often in an unreflected way. Apart from the more obvious cases where “black” or its corollaries were used in a derogatory way and in terms of implied abuse, PC carefully screened out all manner of words, some argue too many. For example, blackboard carries no negative connotations; same with manhole, this isn’t sexist. Any word with a vaguely sexist or racist inference, or one that reflected poorly on disabled persons, the aged, or the young was anathema. Despite the derision typically afforded PC, its influence spread, albeit surreptitiously and sensibly. “Actresses” became actors, to avoid a gendered the term. Flight attendants replaced “air hostesses” or “stewardesses” for the same reason. Comedians specializing in racist material faded away, as did drama that depicted minority groups in baseless negative ways. Well perhaps not completely faded away; I know this guy Dapper Laughs has been in the news recently.
A: I see, so the effects of PC are all around us. I mean, we wouldn’t use words that devalue women or dehumanize ethnic minorities, at least not unless we deliberately wanted to express racist thoughts.
Q: That’s right. So PC has actually been a positive force overall. The problem is when people seem to search out any tiny item that appears to deviate and elevate it into a big issue. Making a big deal of the Lilley case makes everyone grumble so much that, when a genuinely offensive case crops up, we tend to think, “Oh not again.” I think Clarkson takes advantage of this. He probably knows the boundaries and pushes against them, confident in the knowledge that many people will assume he’s essentially a nice guy, but a bit careless. I’m not so sure. No one owes up to being a racist today: we look for instances of racist behaviour — in what they do, say or write. That’s how you judge someone.
Q: What’s all this about?