Nick Cohen

Political correctness: How censorship defeats itself

Political correctness: How censorship defeats itself
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A cretin writing in this morning’s Telegraph doesn’t understand the meaning of 'cretin'. Just about every writer writing about Benedict Cumberbatch in every paper yesterday failed to understand that Cumberbatch was not a racist because he had said 'coloured' rather than 'person of colour'.

Poor fool that he was, Cumberbatch had wanted to use his appearance on US television to complain about the lack of opportunities for black actors in Britain:

'I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change.'

After the battering he has received, I doubt if Cumberbatch will take the trouble to argue for fairer treatment for ethnic minority and working class actors again. Pursed lipped prudes, who damn others for their sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language, while doing nothing to confront real injustice, are characteristic figures of our time. As characteristic are well-meaning people abandoning good causes because they cannot take the prudes’ condemnations.

On its own terms, political correctness is self-defeating. It drives away potential supporters, and substitutes linguistic change for social change. It replaces the desire to reform society with the desire to reform manners, and fails to understand that practised hypocrites and seasoned manipulators can meet the demand to observe correct form with ease. Indeed, they will welcome political correctness because it gives them new opportunities to intimidate and control.

Radhika Sanghani unintentionally reveals the futility and stupidity of the project in this morning’s Telegraph. She talks to the readers in the sing-song voice of a school teacher lecturing children. More in sorrow than anger, she wants to chide us into replacing 'outdated and potentially derogatory terms' with acceptable alternatives.

Gay and Dyke must go because the young are now using them as insults – 'that’s the gayest thing I’ve ever seen'. Sanghani doesn’t stop to ask why they have become insults, or say if gays must stop calling themselves 'gays' and dykes must stop calling themselves 'dykes'. However, she is adamant that everyone else must stop using 'gay' to mean 'terrible' or dyke to mean 'overly masculine'.

She suggests replacing gay with 'crap' – so 'that is so gay' becomes 'that is so crap'. Except that either she or the Telegraph’s style editors cannot bring themselves to say 'crap'. So Sanghani tells us:

'Use this instead: C**p'

Thus Victorian prudery meets PC piety and they unite to make common cause against all who say what should not be said.

Retarded has to go. As does Spastic, Cretin and Special. They are all offensive terms to describe people with disabilities, Sanghani says. She informs Telegraph readers that cretin

'might seem a bit outdated – hence safer. it’s true meaning is little known. The seemingly harmless word for ‘idiot’ actually refers to someone with ‘cretinism’ – a congenital disease.

Use this instead: Stupid.'

Leave aside, if you can, that you can’t replace a noun with an adjective – try replacing 'He’s a cretin' with 'He’s a stupid,' and you will see my point – and consider the depth of her ignorance. The 'true meaning' of cretin was 'Christian', and was an appeal by the doctors and priests of 18


century France for their fellow citizens not to forget that mentally handicapped people suffering from iodine deficiency were fellow believers, equally worthy of respect and God’s love.

Spastic too was once a euphemism that became an insult. In 1994, the Spastics’ Society changed its name to ‘Scope’ because children were 'shouting you big spastic' at each other in the playground. No good did the substitution do. As current dictionaries of slang report 'scopey'  is now 'a byword for spaz'.

I have seen half my generation of leftists waste their lives and everyone else’s time in petty and priggish disputes about language. They do it because it’s easy, and struggles for real change are hard. They do it because correct form identifies social class and confirms your membership of a privileged group, as surely for the middle-class left as the upper-class right.

They do not understand that the only way to judge a language is by its use. When, in Cumberbatch’s case, generations of linguistic sticklers have insisted that 'coloured' should replace 'negro,' then 'black' should replace 'coloured' then 'African-American' should replace 'black' and now 'people of colour' should replace 'African-American', they are missing the persistence racism. If they had genuinely tackled it, they would have no need to demand self-censorship or linguistic change. But as I said before, tackling social problems is difficult, while playing language games is what middle-class intellectuals are trained to do.

In 1928, the great American civil rights campaigner W.E.B. DuBois, came out with a statement I would make my comrades learn by rote if I had the power. A young activist was appalled that DuBois used the word 'negro' in his speeches. Negro was a slave name, he said, which should be abolished. DuBois told him to concentrate on what mattered.

Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name. If men despise Negroes, they will not despise them less if Negroes are called “colored” or “Afro-Americans…” It is not the name – it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!

I feel the same about mental health. If cretin, spastic, special and scopey all become insults that is because of prejudice against and lack of concern for the mentally ill survives. You do not only waste precious time by trying to find and impose replacements, which will soon need to be replaced again. When you wrap up sickness in euphemism, you play into the hands of the Right by suggesting that the handicapped do not need expensive care just soft words and non-pejorative language.

Trigger warning: plain English Please forgive my bluntness, but if that is all you can offer, the best and most progressive course you can take is to shut the fuck up.