Saturday, May 23, 2009

Am I Politically Correct?

Political correctness has been occupying my thoughts a bit recently for some reason, and I've been trying to find some order to my opinions. You see, on the one hand I cringe visibly when "spastic" is used as an insult, on the other, I resent having to eat Scalliwags*.

I started down a classification path. There are words that are not actually offensive in and of themselves, they become that way when someone adds an offensive meaning to something that describes ordinary people - such as spastic. Then there are words that are offensive because of the cultural baggage those words have - such as Golliwog.

I have always had much more sympathy for changing my behaviour with respect to the former, than the latter. Someone using a category that applies to you as an insult is always offensive, regardless of how you behave. On the other hand, the words with cultural baggage only continue to have power if the people on the receiving end choose to let them.

I know it's more complicated than that, not everyone has the luxury of the self confidence to make those choices. Also, I would not choose to call Tania Major a coon, nor would I call Michael Kirby a faggot. I'm all for "coon" and "faggot" being appropriated by their targets and having their negative connotations removed, however, it's not my right to thrust that upon those who it affects. But that's in a personal setting. In a more general setting, I try to guess where the sentiment is, and provide momentum for the movement. I have friends who happily claim wog heritage, and I happily support them by using wog with no negative connotations. Similarly with dyke, fag and no doubt quite a lot of others.

And this is where I run into conflict with others - I don't believe that you can fix the problem by not using the words. Further, I think you exacerbate the problem when you stop letting people who never even knew about the negative connotations, much less implied them, use the words. Cultural baggage is context dependent.

Golliwog is an interesting case in point. I grew up knowing golliwogs as rag dolls made out of black material and tasty chocolate biscuits. I had no idea that the term carried all sorts of nastiness in some parts of the world. When I look back on the dolls and the biscuits, the problematic thing I see is when they tend towards the clownish, black and white minstrels look. The golliwog I had as a kid wasn't that kind, it was a girl holding a doll. The problem to me was with the icon, not the word. But in the case of the biscuits, we kept the icon, and not the word. This strikes me as condescending and massively point missing. Bring back the gorgeous little girl golliwog and its positive connotations!

So I have a policy of repair on those words. I thought I had a zero tolerance policy on the other ones. I remember a teacher in 3rd class telling us not to use spastic as an insult, since it was horrible to children who were spastic. It was a revelation to me that spastic had another meaning, but I really took that to heart. Well mostly. Over the years I've had to break other similar habits (misusing schizophrenic, for example) and then I ran into one that I balked at. Lame. I use it a lot. It feels to me that it has been redefined. The only time I have heard the word used to describe disability in the last 20 years is on ads for child sponsorship, and that's a whole separate kettle of exploitative fish. I don't believe a doctor has told anyone recently that they will be lame for the rest of their life.

So I guess the question comes down to whether anyone really thinks the category "lame" applies to them. I would argue not, but then I currently have no disability that could possibly count. Oddly, everyone I know that has had a qualifying disability, either temporarily or permanently, has used the term cripple. Does anyone know anyone that claims "lame" as their own?

*Golliwog chocolate biscuits got renamed as Scalliwags. They still look the same.


  1. Take it from a real live PWD who has been around for less than those twenty years: don't use lame. Really.

  2. I understand your position on this Chally, and I respect your opinion. Problem for me is, argument by authority has never worked for me. I know of PWD who disagree with your opinion, so to internalise the advice to not use lame, I need to understand the why.

    Of course, I get why you may not have the energy or inclination to explain it to me, that's fine. Definitely not your responsibility.

    It's always hard to have an academic discussion about things that involve people in non-academic ways - as anyone who has looked at ANY discussion about breastfeeding or child birth knows (being a topic that I have participated in from both an academic and emotional standpoint). I think the discussions still need to be had, but everyone need not feel obliged to participate.

  3. You're right, I don't have the spoons. Maybe another time, yeah?

  4. Of course. You need to keep your spoons for important things!