Dave's Progress. Chapter 54: Language and Stigma - How PC Should We Be?

As it is the Christmas hols, I thought, as I have time, that I would write down a few yuletide musings that I've been having. These are to do with the vexed question of political correctness and how far we should adhere to it. This is of particular interest to me, as, at The Media Action Group for Mental Health, we often debate what are and what are not appropriate terms to describe mental illness or those experiencing it.
It would seem, from my point of view, as one who has experience of mental ill health and, furthermore, has been labelled with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, that, in comparison with their racial or sexual counterparts, the use of pejorative terms to describe those experiencing mental ill health are still bandied about with relative impunity. It appears to me that while one would never use the "n" word, for example, to describe someone of a particular race, words like "bonkers", "nutcase", "schizo" and "loony" seem still to be used with a certain banal cruelty when describing those with experience of mental illness. This perhaps shows how we are somewhat behind other minority groups in the battle for equitable treatment. And as we are often reminded by various campaigns, mental illness perhaps remains the "last taboo" of society.
Having said this, if my experience is anything to go by, there seems to be a backlash against political correctness in society in general. Certainly, from the older generation of my parents' point of view, constantly being told what we can and cannot say has become something of a bugbear. My father, in particular, hates the imposition of being told what he should, or should not, say. This perhaps, though, stems from the fact that my parents appear to have come from a time when it was wholly acceptable to refer to black people as "darkies", and a woman's place was decidedly in the home. Indeed, before the radical political and social upheaval of the 1960's, it seemed one could say what one wanted without fear of reprisal. It is difficult to explain, then, to that generation, that political correctness is there for a reason. It prevents the use of language which dehumanises its subject and therefore justifies the bigotry and intolerance towards a certain group. Indeed, if language is the prism through which we see the world, if we essentially think though language, as many linguistic philosophers attest, then it is important that we use terms which are not offensive or justify bigoted views.
However, even I can see situations in which political correctness is taken too far. For example, on one occasion, my cousin went in to a shop to buy a "black" coffee and was told, in no uncertain terms, that she could not be served with a "black" coffee, but only a "coffee without milk". Also, there was the incident in which Prince Harry referred to members of the Taliban as "ragheads", for which he was castigated by many. While this may be an offensive term, it does throw up the question that while Harry could possibly be asked to shoot and kill members of the group to which he was referring, he could not call them a "name". One was reminded somewhat, therefore, of Marlon Brando's speech at the end of "Apocalypse Now!", where he states that members of the army can not write the "f" word on a wall for fear of being court marshaled, but then the following day will be asked to kill thousands of Vietnamese by dropping napalm on them, thus questioning the nature of what is truly obscene.
To my mind, such fear of being seen as racist and indeed, seeming misuse of the weapon of political correctness, only justifies those on the right who feel the whole thing to be ridiculous. Then, of course, the situation becomes one of throwing the baby out with the bath water, where we perhaps forget what the point of pc is and return to our old bigoted ways.
Further, there is also the issue of "reclaiming" words, where terms are appropriated and used by the group they were originally intended to deride. The most famous example of this, perhaps, is the word "queer", where certain groups in the homosexual community have adopted this term to describe themselves. There is, for example, "queer theory" and "the new queer cinema". The whole point of this appears to be to attempt to defuse the power relations embodied in the term, "reclaiming" that power for yourself. Lenny Bruce, the famous American comedian, made the remark that if only we used offensive terms often enough, their whole mystique and power would deteriorate. Richard Pryor did a similar thing for race in the '70's by continually using the "n" word to describe his own people. In terms of mental health, we have the group "Mad" Pride, and the radical psychologist Rufus May has said he prefers the term "mad" to many diagnostic labels. Indeed, having, in a recent conversation with someone, described myself as being "mad", I can attest to a certain kick of power brought on by using a term which once would have been used to insult.
Suffice to say then, there are many different approaches to the subject of political correctness, and it is no wonder that those not accustomed to such political wrangling often find the subject mind numbingly complex and indeed, pointless. To my mind, however, there is a point to political correctness, and it is only when it is used in an inappropriate way that it should be scorned. Otherwise we risk returning to the dark days when prejudice often went unchecked and discrimination was just an accepted part of life.
That's all for now from your normal, average, delusional and paranoid man.


dcrelief said…
Hi David,
This is an excellent post you have!
In my opinion, when the word, 'political' is attached it dennotes government enforcement.
There are no perfect people in the world, but some of those who think they are, endorse political correctness. Unfortunately, political always comes with it's own agenda.

I think people using the word, 'political' evoke a measure of authority to meet their demands. Why isn't it simply, 'good manners', or 'appropriate social skills' or love?

In the States I have witnessed the 'dumbing down' of education. The lack of various subjects, along with the disappearance of art and music has caused many problems. These educational 'losses' are also because of the 'political correctness' issue. Yet they were the 'bridges' connecting all personality issues together; celebrating life; each in their own capacity, unjudged.

I think as more of society gives up their position of 'guidance' to government, the issues will increase. Why? Because then they will constantly be in the news. As a person with cognitive issues, that affects my mental well being, the last thing I want is to watch me on the television. To me 'political correctness' is permission for the government to be the 'parent'; and if we are the 'children' then there can also exist a 'punishment'.

A current story in the States bears this out, as a man is charged for calling someone a name. He was 'politically incorrect', and stands to be imprisoned soon, for a 'hate crime'.

Thank you for allowing me to comment; and rather lengthy, I apologise.
My respect and kindness,
corfubob said…
Thank you both, David and Dixie. What a big subject this is. My parents who were kindly, polite, shy, country people, thought for themselves, and were considerate of people's feelings. They carried their prejudices inwardly (many of them)and did not blame people for being what they were.

The modern style is to be more aggressive in the belief that 'honesty' is virtuous, and manners = weakness. Has the world got to get used to this new norm?

The problem with the word 'mad' is that its meaning is too flexible. personally I want to know if any health labels can be attached to someone I am relating to, so that I can be supportive, or even just careful, and learn something I didn't know. Most, if not all people are less 'normal' (average) than they like to make out. Relationships however are surely not automatically better if all the details are known, but they are definitely better if compassion, humour, and honesty can be bred in, rather that legislated for.

Silly and stupid people have a much higher platform from which to spread their nonsense these days. It's all very frustrating. Lets all be more P/C (polite/caring) Look forward to hearing more from you both. Bob
klahanie said…
Dear David,
Apologies for not responding at an earlier time.
I have noted that you have a couple of most articulate responses to this fascinating posting.
Now this whole PC debate, from my perspective, is of course, in what context the words are used. In some situations alleged inappropriate usage of certain expressions make actually be perfectly acceptable. If it is within the parameters of good-natured banter; then, I personally do not have a problem.
Now there are folks who call me a 'nutter' or 'nutcase', for instance, who mean it a friendly manner. I most certainly would not take offence to this. However, I can see, that if done with cruel intent, bred by ignorance, it is indeed then, inappropriate terminology. Everything is subject to interpretation, perception and the environment in which PC, or lack of, occurs.
Hypothetically, I may have been asked: 'did you see any 'mad' people at 'Sanity Fair'?' I would no doubt respond: 'no, everyone seemed quite happy to me.'
Thank you for a most interesting and thought provoking blog.
Kind wishes, Gary.
David said…
Dear Dixie, Bob and Gary,
Thank you all for your great responses to my posting. A controversial issue this pc must indeed be, it seems to bring out a lot of heart-felt concern.
All I know is that pc stems from genuine concerns about the rights and well-being of many minority groups, often being borne out of long struggles for equal civil rights and an end to unfair discrimination. I also, as I say in my post, know of the down-side of pc, how it is sometimes taken to ridiculous lengths and how it can impact negatively on issues such as the right to freedom of speech. In particular, to people like my parents, it is regarded as a form of cencorship which only suppresses, not eliminates, prejudice.
So, pc perhaps remains a vexed question for many. I think we need it in some form, as a reflection, hopefully, of a fairer society, but could do without the sometime downright stupidity which takes things too far and annoys so many.
Thanks once again for all your comments and Wishing You All The Best,
P.S. Sorry for calling you "a bit nuts", Gary. Very un-pc of me!
dcrelief said…
Hi David,
I have passed on "A Lovely Blog Award" to you! Congratulations!

Your writings are so interesting. The interaction between yourself and others, who comment, is delightful and informative.

The award is posted on my site, dated December 31, 2009. Again, congratulations. A very Good Year to you.
Most sincerely,
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Thankyou so much for this award. I am glad that you and others enjoy my little "anti-stigma" blog. It is always nice to know I have your support, dc, and I sincerely thank you for your continued interaction and this lovely "lovely blog" award.
Thanks once again.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,

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