BBC News


Page last updated at 11:39 GMT, Tuesday, 21 October 2008 12:39 UK

Is this the end of PC?


Clive Anderson
People are forever complaining about it, but has political correctness had its day and what has it achieved? Broadcaster Clive Anderson considers its value and its future.

I suppose the title "PC RIP?" could just as well have been: "Is political correctness now the established religion?" PC certainly has its own commandments, code and creed, including: "Thou shall not be racist, in word, thought or deed."

If sexism offends you, pluck it out. Do not say a disabled person is handicapped, nor yet a handicapped person is anything but differently abled. For in the beginning was the word, but the word has been changed. Do keep up.

The term was apparently used in an American Supreme Court case as long ago as 1793, but it was only in the last few decades of the 20th Century that the concept really took off. It rabidly spread through American university campuses and into public life.

But on both sides of the Atlantic, it is more often used ironically, sarcastically or pejoratively. Or inaccurately.

The Black and White Minstrel Show
The Black and White Minstrel Show was prime-time TV
I was walking my dog the other day and I got chatting to a man in the street. (Please note, I am not offending against the guidelines of the British Association of Sociologists, which counsels against the term "man in the street" and says "ordinary person" is better. This was an actual man on an actual street.)

He said he used to have a dog, but since it had become politically correct to clear up after your pet he could no longer be bothered. Was he really talking about political correctness? I would have said it was more health and safety.

There is all sorts of other mess associated with the PC debate. How many of the weirder examples of "political correctness gone mad" started life as a heavy-handed joke?

PC RIP?, BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 21 October at 0930 BST.

Does anyone seriously call short people "vertically challenged"? Did schools really replace blackboards with whiteboards in the interests of racial harmony? Was "Winterval" really intended to replace Christmas? Or are these all urban myths or Aunt Sallies, just there for us all to take pleasure in deriding and knocking down.

But beneath the froth, there are more serious issues at stake. In an article for the New York Magazine in 1992, writer John Taylor suggested the quads and lecture halls of America were in the grip of thought police, creating an atmosphere akin to Germany in the 1930s. Allan Bloom had similarly lamented the undermining of intellectual standards in his best-selling book of 1987, The Closing of the American Mind.


So does a rule against using inappropriate, inaccurate or even offensive terms militate against learning and offend against free speech? Is it right that worthy, liberal people rather illiberally want to take words out of other people's mouths?

Most of us find the po-faced strictures of the very politically correct either unnecessary or unnecessarily intrusive. We do not wish to be told what we can or cannot say, and find being pointed towards the euphemism which happens to be politically or fashionably correct rather irksome.

And though we may wish to be correct, being politically correct carries with it the implication that we are not going about things in a straightforward way. Compare and contrast the expressions "the right man for the job" and "the politically correct person to appoint".

Jim Davidson
Comedian Jim Davidson is not known for being PC
So is PC RIP? I asked comedian Jim Davidson to consider the sort of jokes he used to tell about his imaginary, or composite, black friend Chalky White. He agreed the world had moved on since then. If Davison, so long the bete noire - if you will forgive the term - of the politically correct, is becoming politically aware, perhaps things have changed more than we realise.

Looking back at programmes broadcast as recently as the 1970s, there are any number examples of what seems now hopelessly out of date and even distinctly unpleasant: Irishmen are endearingly stupid, more exotic immigrants are largely unwelcome and homosexuals are there to be laughed at.

These sentiments, or assumptions, are not only to be found in the work of red-necked comedians or saloon-bar favourites, but are there in peak-time television favourites and even cutting-edge sketch shows. To say nothing of the Black and White Minstrels.

So it may well be that while sucking our teeth we gradually absorb these changes to our use of language, and our patterns of thought follow as well. We are forever complaining about the rising tide but it, and we, move up the beach anyway.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think that the term "political correctness" has been taken over and used by people who just cannot be bothered to be polite any longer. They complain that they cannot use words like "nigger", "whitey" or "paki" any longer due to their being PC, but they are just plain rude and should not be used whether PC or not. Like you said, "Winterval" and "vertically challenged" are completely pointless, and as far as I know have never been used in anything I have watched or read. People just complain when words they want to use are actually rude, and group them all under the pejorative term "PC" to hide the fact they are rude. Many PC words are euphemisms, just like "holocaust" is a euphemism for the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Doesn't mean they're PC.
James, London, UK

Like many things, political correctness has its place, just as health and safety does. The problems occur when people take the ideas to the extreme (or just spread rumours that the ideas have been taken to the extreme), such as suggesting renaming History to Herstory and changing Hymns to Herns. These were almost certainly never seriously suggested by anyone, but they tarnish and deride the philosophy behind political correctness. While freedom of speech is something that must be defended, people need to be educated to understand that words can cause harm.
DS, Croydon, England

I find it interesting that in the last few paragraphs of the article, Clive points out the 'un-PC' programming of the 1970's. There are a huge number of programmes, such as the Black and White Minstrels, that were hugely popular but offensive, but sadly, other programmes that used some of the same imagery to try and comment on the racism and sexism of the day have been tarred with the same brush. Each situation needs to be taken by it's own merit, and this is something that is sadly lacking in modern society. People are looking for things to be offended by, and by saying that something is un-PC, they have the power to have that thing removed.
Heather, Willenhall

I do wonder sometimes if Political Correctness started out as quite an honourable attempt to introduce fairness. Bigoted attitudes as clearly seen in programmes such as 'Love thy Neighbour' or signs on hotels saying 'No blacks' etc. were a disgrace. Gays were (and are) attacked for simply being gay etc. Remember the school book 'Little Black Sambo'? I bet black children just LOVED that....not. However, as with most things, extremists steal the limelight and a sensation hungry press feeds 'moral outrage'. Many of the most sensational stories are simply not backed by facts but then, whenever did fact get in the way of a good story? Perhaps PC has helped us to actually think about what we say and how we think. However, once it becomes a shackle then it simply replaces that which it sought to challenge with something equally damaging. Nevertheless, I do also wonder if those who howl loudest against PC have hidden agendas. Perhaps they would rather hang on to outdated views. Just a thought.
KJN, Rosyth, Fife

I'm not politically correct. Anybody I offend is welcome to stay away from me and not talk to me ever again. I won't be offended if they do.
Nic, Nottingham, England.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific