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Sunday, 20 February 2011

Brokeback Cartulary: Thoughts inspired by Queer History Month. 1: 'Politically Correct' and Proud

It is Queer - or LGBT - History Month, an umbrella for a series of events established in (I think) 2004 or 2005 on the model of Black History Month.  As a politically committed historian and - as I firmly believe - because the politics of good history, embedded in its very methodology, are inescapably those of the secular, humanist left (I have given a paper on this topic - see my CV - and some day I will write something up about this, but for now you'll just have to bear with me) I thought I would pen a few pieces in support.

The first thing I wanted to say - which is not entirely on-topic but it'll serve as an introduction because it's something I've been meaning to write for a while - is that it is important for historians to be 'politically correct'.  I hate the fact that the term 'politically correct' has become a term of abuse.  One only needs to read (if one can stomach it) the odious Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail* or watch the only marginally less odious Jeremy Clarkson and his slimy sidekick on Top Gear (watch this clip because it's brilliant, but watch the whole clip or you'll miss the point, just like the Daily Mail - unsurprisingly - did) to see how this is.  Tragically, one can all too often hear university history students in seminars starting comments with 'I know it sounds a bit politically correct but...' (just like the girls say 'I'm not a feminist but...', because they don't want to put the boys off**), or saying 'but isn't that just 'political correctness'?

So what exactly do we mean by 'politically correct'?  We mean this.  We mean avoiding vocabulary that will cause unnecessary offence to particular groups within society, especially groups who lack the institutionally-ingrained levels of power (social, cultural, formal political) that dominant groups have and are thus likely to suffer casual discrimination, abuse and violence as a result.  Now, as an historian it is my job to try and project myself into other ways of seeing the world, to try and explain and understand (if not to excuse them) but try as I might I do find it hard to find any even remotely cogent or humane reason why political correctness so defined should be viewed as a bad thing, as something to be mocked.  Indeed, trying to project yourself into other world views to attempt to understand and explain them and see that there isn't just one way of seeing the world (even if they aren't all necessaily equally valid) - something I would see as one of the Two Really Important Things about being an historian - lies fundamentally at the core of what is denigrated as 'political correctness'.  Therefore, I would say that good history is, by its very nature, politically correct.

Sometimes I hear it said that 'political correctness' is something new. A case in point is the furore, led naturally by the right-wing press, about the desire to change the name of Guy Gibson's dog, 'Nigger' in a remake of the film The Dambusters. The issue I raise does not concern whether or not this would be the right thing to do, historically, or indeed the ethics of celebrating a raid that was extremely destructive of civilian lives (and cost the lives of over 50 RAF/RCAF crew) and made little or no difference to the course of the war - tricky issues - but simply the idea I heard expressed, in a 'Today' programme interview with Richard Todd (who played Gibson in the original) and one of the last surviving crew-members (perhaps the last surviving crew-member), that 'we didn't have political correctness in our day'.

Actually, of course you did. It wasn't called 'political correctness' then but it was just as political. In the 1954 film's portrayal of the event we are expected to believe that a squadron of specially-designed Lancaster bombers flew low over the Netherlands and Germany, dodging night-fighters, heavy flak and obstacles like trees, hills and power-cables (no one's saying they weren't brave!) and yet, throughout the entire operation, not one of the crews uttered a single expletive.  At all.  Ever.  Why was the swearing that doubtless went on edited out?  Because changing it made little difference to the film and leaving it in would offend people.  Superficially, that looks like the same fundamental principle as 'political correctness', doesn't it?  I wondered at the time whether Richard Todd thought that, if Guy Gibson's dog had been called 'Fucker', the name wouldn't have been changed in 1954*** to avoid offending people.  Of course it would.  It'd have been offensive not to.  No question of tampering with history, or of being 'politically correct' there!

The irony is that the people who would fulminate against 'sex and bad language' on TV, because of the offence caused (to them) or who rail against those who insult the royal family (sorry, the Royal Family, Gawd bless 'em) are often the very same as those who launch their diatribes against 'political correctness'.  If one looks at the buffoons who comment on this site here, you'll see that 'politically correct', 'multi-faith, multi-ethnic, tolerant Britain' is 'a Bad Thing but woe betide anyone who speaks out against the royal family (sorry, the Royal Family, etc.). 

I wonder if they realise they are demanding everyone's subscription to their own 'political correctness'.  I doubt it.  Now, I'm not in favour of the needless belittling or offending of anyone.  The problem is that by saying that these people can be insulted but these can't, you eventually start forcing prejudice and cheap 'bad humour' into other outlets.  For example, it now seems to be acceptable to make pretty nasty jokes about ginger-haired people.  Can't make jokes about people with funny-coloured skin anymore (political correctness gone mad, eh?) but we can make jokes about people with funny-coloured hair.  I'll admit that if I had to choose between the regulation of speech to avoid insulting the wealthy, the over-privileged, the members of the dominant social groups with little really to fear, and regulation of speech to avoid offending people who have to cope with legal disadvantage, regular verbal abuse in the institutionalised press (TV and print: see above), institutionalised prejudice, physical violence, even bombings of gatherings (it's not so very long since The Admiral Duncan bombing), then I think I know which I would prefer.  I'd rather not have to choose.  The humane solution, and the more in line with the ethical demands of history, would simply be to try and understand other people.  A simple application of Kant's categorical imperative.  After all, that is all 'political correctness' really is.  Is that something to mock, or to feel one has to apologise for?


* Something that delights me is that York's (sadly but probably unsurprisingly) only gay bar is called The Little John.  Something that I would dearly love would be for them to put Richard Littlejohn's smug face on the pub sign.  A picture of his face, that is, because - obviously - flaying his nasty, empty, prejudiced head and draping the bloody, eyeless skin over the sign like a sort of grotesque pillow-case would be just so very wrong.

** I know it's demeaning to infantilise adult women by calling them girls but hey, that's OK with you, isn't it?  After all, you're not a feminist.
*** Maybe to 'Foxy' - David Frost cannily wants to change Nigger's name to 'Nigsy', a form which Guy Gibson did apparently use.