1990s >> 1996 >> no-1097-january-1996

A Word In Your Ear: ‘They Say, We Say’

Advertised on some carriages of the London Underground is a new spoof book called More Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. The assumption behind the joke, intended to arouse howls of tittering derision from dopey dupes of the tabloid press, is that the world has gone totally mad because these days people are generally a little more careful than they used to be about using language which is insensitively offensive. The term “political correctness” was not invented by blacks who objected to being called niggers and wogs, women who found rape jokes unfunny or disabled people who were uneasy at the use of the term spastic as a slogan of playground abuse. It was invented by sour and miserable types, angered by the fact that they are losing the battle for the control of popular language. So, who are these bores who persist in this tedious campaign of whining against what they, and nobody else, call “political correctness”?

Firstly, there are those within the political elite who for decades have assumed that language, like everything else on the earth, belongs to them. They have traditionally believed that they effectively owned words; do they not even call it the Queen’s English? (Who wants their children growing up speaking with the stilted, pompous aloofness of that parasitic relic?) These arrogant monopolists of speech have been quite happy for many years to twist language into their own politically poisonous notion of “correctness”. So, for the indiscriminate murder of war read “defence” and for kicking workers out of their homes read “repossession” and for throwing workers out of jobs read “rationalisation” and for beating up strikers read “public order” and for pauperism read “negative equity”. These are the liars and frauds of language who propagandise endlessly to us about “the markets wanting lower wages” and “the markets being unhappy unless welfare expenditure is cut”, when the “markets” is in fact simply the politically correct code word for them and their class interests. As they have twisted language, so they have done their best to liquidate those words which are a threat to them. So, in early 1991 Andrew Neil, the Murdoch messenger boy, announced on the radio that nobody but a lunatic would ever use the word socialism again. They do their best to discredit terms like class, and try to suggest that concepts like racism and sexism are mere figments of the fevered imaginations of people who think they are being oppressed.

Then there are the dead and the dying, largely readers of the Express or Mail, whose resentment against all change takes the form of a more-to-be-pitied-than-condemned conservative neurosis. “We always used to call poofters queers when I was a boy — why should we lose a perfectly good word like gay so that they can have it?” This is a linguistic siege mentality, the reaction of the frightened, mean-minded and disorientated who had no sooner got used to the awful idea of women having the vote than now they must psychologically adjust to traditionally disrespected workers being treated, at least on the cheapest level of language, without offence if not with respect.

Then there are the committed bigots. These are to be distinguished from the first group: the political elite whose possession of language was not a product of intended malice, but of ideological delusion. The bigots are people who take the view that there is something harmless about hate-speech. They think that jokes about smelly Asians and mean Scots and thick Irishmen and all women wanting to be raped by pot-bellied lager-louts are either good harmless fun or, if not, the kind of harmful fun which is perfectly harmless to them because the objects of their verbal hatred have difficulty in defending themselves. What has happened — not everywhere, not fast enough, and not always in the most appropriate way — is that defenders of hate-speak are being discomforted by a society made up increasingly of younger people who, confused as they are about lots of things (including the system which exploits them), are no longer happy for hatred against whole groups to be part of their daily vocabulary. Where Baden-Powell taught boys to speak of “nig-nogs” and to fear girls, there is now a movement the other way. This is not to say that there are not still plenty of young dummies who prefer to subscribe to the legacy of verbal insensitivity of their stupid parents or of Bernard Manning videos, but these are a declining and increasingly conspicuous, embarrassing number.

The decline of verbal division within the working class is clearly an irritant to certain people. Smug little public schoolboys who believe that language is what you learn at Eton and that wage slaves who are afraid to say “fuck” but happy to say “nuke” are the best kind, are simply bad losers. The unsuccessful campaign against what they call political correctness is no more than the sulk of the oppressors (so much more pleasing to observe than the sigh of the oppressed).

But we socialists won’t mince our words: we don’t say that these captains of industry will in the course of the constitutional process meet with a hearty challenge — we say: Watch out you thieving parasites because it won’t only be the language you’ve arrogantly stolen, but the world you’ve thieved, which is going to be taken away from you, leaving you somewhat revolutionary-challenged.

Steve Coleman

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