I so bridle at the term “political correctness” that I resolved at the beginning of this year to avoid it. One reason for that is that the term often becomes a fall-back position for those who want to justify their prejudices, to do or say something that probably deserves to be “unspeakable”, or wish to beat up on folk with even mildly progressive thoughts in their heads, asserting as “common sense” the most reactionary attitudes and propositions. On the other hand, Nicholas Hudson pretty much gets it right in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Australian Usage (2ed 1997).
This phrase is not about politics or correctness. It is about acceptable attitudes and behaviour.
(1) Politically correct language avoids words which may offend somebody. In this context the term is generally neutral: We may question whether the word manhole is politically incorrect. But it may be used ironically: I am happy to use the politically incorrect term, manhole.
(2) Political incorrectness is a set of attitudes on a syndrome of social and environmental issues. In this sense it is almost invariably pejorative, implying mindless parroting of fashionable radical views: Political correctness is all about land rights for gay whales.
See SEXIST LANGUAGE and TABOO WORDS.
Where, if you have Hudson’s book, you will find excellent advice. I am absolutely in favour of inclusiveness and even multiculturalism, as anyone who has followed this blog knows. At the same time, there is a puritanical streak, an excess, on my side of things at times which I find frustrating. Even the Uniting Church, which I dearly love, goes overboard sometimes, and I am sure this can be off-putting if well-meaning. For example, while I have no issue with the use of inclusive language in worship, indeed applaud it, there is an excessively inclusive translation of the Bible in favour with some at the moment which I frankly think is dishonest, not to mention quite ugly. There are much bigger problems about the Bible, let’s face it, than those addressed by these translators, especially as somewhat more felicitous but sensitive translations already exist, the NRSV for one. (Of course the actual original texts remain as problematic as ever, despite the way the “Inclusive Bible” translators fracture the language and tie themselves in knots: that is what I mean by “dishonest”.) Don’t conclude from this that I would be comfortable with an unreflective return to older versions where the issue of inclusiveness was not even thought of; there is however a balance to be struck here, and a discretion that needs to come into play when considering texts that come from a different time and place from our own.
This is all prelude to last night’s episode of Summer Heights High. Satire almost by definition comes up against political correctness. Satire is an unruly beast, and Summer Heights High is no exception. I thought it was brilliant. It is exceptionally well observed. Curiously, looked at carefully the program was a powerful defence of teachers and public education. Allowing for hyperbole and caricature, it nonetheless raises the question of the realities teachers deal with every day, and brings us back to earth from the rarefied heights of educational policy and conservative critique that constantly tell us what teachers ought to be doing — if only they operated in the mythical golden age conservatives and Quadrant readers tend to inhabit. OK, smartarses, what would you do if you were confronted with the real people — “bogans” (that bit of snobbery skewered in the revolting Ja’mie — see the YouTube below) or Islanders or whatever — that actually live in our suburbs, towns and classrooms. Give them a standardised test? Retreat to a nice cosy office in the Sandstone Gothic of the university? Ring Alan Jones and complain? Or try somehow to reach students, whoever they are, and make a real difference despite everything?
Yes, I think I have met that Drama Teacher…! Yes, I winced quite a bit while watching. But I would never call the show ill-informed. In fact, if I were still in the Dip Ed business I think I might consider using the show in tutorials. It would be a great discussion starter, if confronting. Something like the straight documentary series Plumpton High Babies or Our Boys could be used as corrective.
A couple of years ago the Kiwis brought us another politically incorrect look at schooling, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby. Episode 1 of that was brilliant, but it fell away afterwards. Summer Heights High is better. I hope it lives up to the promise of its Episode 1.
On another approach to education, see What works on my English/ESL site.