Saturday, January 17, 2009

Doctress Who and the Waitrons

Welcome one and all to the Saturday post.

Today I want to talk about political correctness in language. It will mean mentioning a couple of words that are known to cause offence. But, as we will discuss, such words only have power if their use is motivated by racism, homophobia, sexism or some other equally vitrolic-ism ... and you'll find none of that negative stuff here. Oh no.

I was prompted to write this post following a discussion at work about the term brainstorm, which I used during a lesson. I rather took umbrage when a senior colleague rapped me across the knuckles because the term was, in his words, 'offensive to epileptics'. My immediate reaction was to point out that no one says 'epileptics' any more - the preferred expression is 'person with epilepsy'. Certainly within the care profession, it is seen as wholly inappropriate to define someone solely by their illness. After all, we don't say 'There's John. He's a herpes' do we? Or 'This is Susan. She's thrushy.' Anyhow, this issue aside, I was curious as to where this idea that 'brainstorm' was somehow wrong had come from. 'Oh, from the Epilepsy Society', was his reply. Now, this was interesting as my wife Dawn worked for the National Society for Epilepsy for years ... and their staff didn't object to using the term. It's also used widely in business and commerce. So where had this notion started? And why? What this little incident did was make me remember the many incidents I've witnessed in which people have shown their utter misunderstanding of what's come to be known (and in many cases loathed) as political correctness.
Me in 1984. Young. Slim. Idealistic. With a rubbish car.

My first real taste of PC came in the early 1980s. After a decade of hippy-drippy happiness (for many people) and political and industrial unrest (for many others), we entered the angry decade of prolonged strikes, race riots, AIDS, Thatcherism, anti-Reaganism and, never forget, the horror of the New Romantics and their floppy, floppy hair. It was also a time when people became suddenly very sensitive about the language they used lest they cause offence and spark further incidents. I was in my early 20s and was a spanky new, fresh out the box, idealistic young copper (see photo a couple of posts ago) and, of course, I knew that certain words were taboo. The Gangsta Rappers had yet to reclaim 'nigger' and it was the same with gay people and 'poof'. Both words were completely off limits and, if I'm honest, they're words that I find it uncomfortable to type, let alone say. Coming as I did from Cornwall, there were certain words that I'd used in my youth that I discovered were a no-no in London but I was keen to learn and anxious not to offend people so I was willing to adapt.

Music in 1984. New Romantic also-rans Seona Dancing. And yes, that really is Ricky Gervais on the right.

I'd been sent along to County Hall, the huge building that squats at one end of Westminster Bridge beside the London Eye and which now houses a hotel, the Saatchi Collection, the London Aquarium and other premises. But back then it was the HQ of the Greater London Council, and its leader 'Red' Ken Livingstone, and I'd been despatched to take a statement from the victim of a bag snatch who worked in the staff restaurant. While doing my business, I was asked if I'd like a drink so I asked for a black tea. The lady who'd asked frowned and her hands flew to her sides so quickly that she must have had powerful hand magnets implanted in her hips. 'It's tea without milk!' she snapped and fixed me with a glare that would boil granite. She then stormed off and I never got my tea. I was dumbfounded and confused as I couldn't figure out what I'd done wrong.
Back at the station, I told the story to my colleagues. Some treated it with derision: 'It's political correctness gone mad!' they cried. Others reacted by spending a couple of days using 'without milk' instead of the word 'black' on every occasion (I remember one discussion about the ex-Avengers actor Honor Withoutmilkperson). One officer told me that teachers at his daughter's infant school had been instructed to call the blackboards 'chalkboards' and that Baa Baa Green Sheep was the only acceptable version of the rhyme that could be sung. I was flabberghasted. It made no sense to me. Surely you couldn't ban all usage of a word that, in an innocent context like 'blackboard', simply described a colour (or a non-colour if we're going to be specific)?

I could understand that 'black' had traditionally been associated with negative things. There were phrases like black magic, black sheep of the family, accident black spot etc. But that was because black is the colour of night and darkness held hidden fears for our ancestors. Black is the colour of putrefaction and death (who goes to a funeral in white?). Judges would don the black cap to order an execution. You get my drift. So, yes, many uses of the word were negative. But not one of them, it seemed to me, was because of black people.

Baa Baa Green Sheep by Bethany Tetlow, Jessica Sheppard, Amelia Jones, Jessic Hone and Sophie Giles at Lakers School, Gloucestershire.

There's nothing negative about a blackboard*. Or a blackbird. Or a black tea. Therefore, the problem stemmed not from the word itself but the meaning behind it. And the issue had been made all the more confusing for me because people from an African-Caribbean background - most of which, if we're being pedantic, are shades of brown - were saying that 'coloured' and 'negro' were wrong and were calling themselves 'black'. Consequently, their racial self-definition had placed them smack bang in the middle of the argument. It was all very confusing for a young chap.

Like many others at that time, I became scared of saying pretty much anything that could be construed as being prejudiced. And it's easy to see why. As recently as 1999, a US politician felt it necessary to resign when he was accused of racism after using the word 'niggardly'. Now, this is a very old and perfectly innocent word that stems from the Middle English nigon and which means 'miserly'. It has never had any relationship to the word 'nigger' and has no racial connotations whatsoever. But when David Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate in Washington DC, used the word in a conversation about funding, he brewed up a storm of indignation. Rumours quickly spread throughout local government and soon made Howard's position untenable. He resigned stating that, 'I realise that staff members present were offended by the word. I immediately apologised. I would never think of making a racist remark. I regret that the word I did use offended anyone.' It's kind of sad that Howard felt the need to apologise for other people's lack of vocabulary, let alone resign. But it was also somewhat naive of him to use the word in the first place.

A decade on, I'd like to think that we live in a much more sensible and enlightened age where people take a more reasoned view based upon facts rather than the fear of recrimination. Words are not in themselves good or bad. It is the sentiment and feeling behind them that makes the difference. However, I return again to my recent encounter with the term 'brainstorm'. I was told that the acceptable alternatives were phrases like boardblast or thinkstorm or the truly execrable thought shower. I was left pondering why someone had gone to all the bother of creating alternatives when the original was (a) perfectly acceptable, and (b) in common usage in the business community. I can only conclude that it was driven by that very real fear of recrimination I mentioned just now. That's no way to live is it? We need to challenge these kinds of assumptions and make sensible decisions about the words we use.

Which brings me to the world of gender-specific terms. There's been a general shift in recent years towards referring to all people of a thespian disposition as actors rather than actresses. That makes sense to me. I mean, why have a different term simply to differentiate the sex of the worker or workeress? Many job titles are plainly descriptive: waiters wait, actors act, and doctors ... er ... doct. So why not use them for everyone? After all, we don't have paintresses or decoratresses. And there are (to my knowledge) no teacheresses, or taxi driveresses or Prime Ministresses. It will also do away with pathetic attempts to create non-gender-specific titles too. I once saw - hand on heart - a job advert in a magazine for waitrons to work in a restaurant. Waitrons, for goodness sake! They sound like some dreadful foam latex 1980s Doctor Who monster.

A clumsy waitron that has fallen into a big pile of Hula-Hoops.

At the height of the 80s PC tsunami, I can remember reading feminist articles on phallocentricity - the idea that in order to change the world from being dominated by men, we needed to change the language. Suggestions included fairly sensible things like replacing 'manpower' with 'human resources' (clumsy but more accurate) or talking about 'working hours' instead of 'man hours'. But at the other end of the scale there was talk of 'manholes' becoming 'femholes', or of 'history' being re-termed as 'herstory' (even though the 'his' in history has no more to do with male possession than a set jelly has with a TV set). I even remember talk of the sexual act being talked about in terms of 'enclosure' rather than 'penetration' because the latter put the onus on the man's perspective. Again, I'd like to think that these days we take a more balanced view. 'Manhole' and 'femhole' both intimate that one gender is more important than the other, so 'access hatch' or similar is actually a better term and, more importantly, describes what the thing actually does.

So there's my tuppenny'worth. My personal mantra has always been to treat others as I'd like to be treated myself which, by definition, means that I would never intentionally offend anyone by the words I use. Although I quite often refer to myself as chubby, tubby or plain fat, I wouldn't do it to anyone else and, to be honest, I'm not that keen on people calling me by those words either. However, it's all about intent and if one of my family or close friends called me 'Fatty' or similar, I'd know that it's an affectionate goad so I'm unlikely to get annoyed. I am all for any change in terminology that promotes fairness and equality. But not just for the sake of political correctness please. Let's make sure than any such change is supported by evidence and is not simply driven by paranoia. It's not rocket science. All we need to do is avoid using words that are likely to cause offence by being derogatory, insulting or in some other way innappropriate. That counts for private conversations too; after all, ask yourself ... why you would want to use such words in the first place?

Prince Harry - take note. What were you thinking?

*Interestingly, the blackboard issue was resolved by the move to dry-wipe marker boards which we have come to call 'whiteboards'. I've never heard anyone accuse the users of this term of perpetuating the idea of Caucasian Supremacy even though white is supposedly 'good'. However, I did hear a story that these boards were originally called Whyte Boards after the company that invented them. This is tosh. As far as I can discover, whiteboards were first introduced because chalk dust did horrible things to those old 1980s mainframes and computer terminals. Companies started producing melamine or enameled hardboard surfaces for their workers to write on. Then along came a company called Claridge Products who created the first magnetic porcelain on steel (Liquid Chalk Surface) boards. The rest is history. Or herstory.


chris hale said...

Stevyn, your post is particularly apt at present, bearing in mind the column inches that have been expended upon the remarks of Charles and Harry. I remember a conversation at work some time ago, when the subject of nicknames was brought up. 'Suppose I'm black and decide to give myself the nickname Chalky, that's surely up to me', said one young officer. 'No,' said the trainer, 'it merely makes you complicit in your own oppression.' You can't win! And nor, I suspect, can Charles' friend, 'Sooty'.

Of course, most of us would never knowingly say something to offend a fellow human being. Unfortunately, some people seem to live their lives in a permanent state of (how shall we say) offence arousal, just waiting for someone to say to them something that they can misconstrue and then pounce upon. And if you encounter such a one, you might as well resign yourself to a bumpy ride.

As regards whiteboards, I recall a trainer who very clearly referred to them as wipeboards because, dear Stevyn, you wiped them clean!

One final thought. As you know, I'm not the tallest of people. It's something I'm used to. But why was it deemed acceptable for others to make 'humorous' remarks about my height, to the general merriment of the group, when I could no more help my size than Nelson Mandela could help being black?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Chris - Wise, sage and balanced as ever.

Adrian Reynolds said...

Interesting stuff. Underlying this is the assumption that power strucutres are implicit in language. Problem being, as soon as you start to investigate language in this way, you give power to another person: the one who can detect previously unknown nuances in words.

As an example, some years ago an acquaintance of mine was servicing electronic equipment at a university. And discovered that in the sociology department, any mention of 'delivery' was verbotten, since that presupposed a deliverER and a deliverEE, the former subordinate to the latter.

Bollocks of course, but the arse who came up with that scored, err, brownie points for doing so. Yes, words can hurt, no doubting that -- but let's be sane about it.

SweetPeaSurry said...

Freaky good post man!!! I agree that PC has gone way to bloody far. It's nearly an annoyance!!!

Amen to this diatribe!

Anonymous said...


Stevyn Colgan said...

Adrian, Surry - My point exactly. Balance, commonsense, integrity and sensitivity in how we talk to each other. It's not rocket science is it?

Anonymous - Looks like an interesting book. I will hunt it down. It's fascinating (and very funny) to watch Chris Rock's take on it too. Thanks!

Piers said...

The word actress makes me annoyed, and prone to shouting and waving my arms about.

As does the word waitron.

Gah. It's a me-too-I-agree-with-everything-you-said-comment.

Me too.

I agree with everything you said.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Cheers Piers m'dear(s).

Ah, the poet doth stir within me like an undigested pie.