Political correctness – blessing, or bane? Sometimes the one, sometimes the other, sometimes both, sometimes neither – it’s hard to say. The best intentions, carried to extremes, court absurdity. That’s what’s happening here, argues journalist and author Masumi Fukuda in Shukan Shincho (March 31).
Ideal, ideology, or satire? “PC” in everyday English, porikore in colloquial Japanese, the concept has roots traceable to an origin that taints any growth – Nazism. Wikipedia cites a 1934 New York Times report claiming Germany’s new Nazi government was granting reporting permits “only to pure Aryans whose opinions are politically correct.”
The liberal Western world that emerged from World War II lent it a different significance. It came to express the tone one should strike with regard to various collectives that had been persecuted in the past but no longer ethically or reasonably could be – blacks, women, religious faiths, sexual minorities and so on. Demeaning terms must go. Who defines “demeaning”? Whoever feels demeaned – blacks by racial epithets once commonplace and now scarcely utterable; women by “sexism”; sexual minorities by laws against them and social disapproval of them; and, ultimately, anyone by anything felt as casting aspersions on individual identity or orientation.
It got out of hand, says Fukuda. The examples she cites are mostly American, but a corner of her eye is on Japan, where she sees nascent symptoms of overkill – as, for instance, at Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea, where English announcements now shun “ladies and gentlemen” in favor of the gender-neutral “everyone.”
How far can gender neutrality go? To the point, says Fukuda, of imposing standards that substitute “spouse” for “husband” or “wife”; “child” for “son” or “daughter”; “parent” for “mother” or “father”; “they” for “he” or “she.” She cites an ongoing lawsuit involving a high school teacher in the U.S. state of Virginia who committed a consequential faux pas in regard to gender pronouns.
The teacher meant well. A transgender student born female asked to be referred to with masculine pronouns. The teacher, Peter Vlaming, said he could not comply without violating his religious convictions but would instead use no pronouns at all, only the student’s name. One day he had his students walk around the classroom wearing virtual-reality goggles. The transgender student seemed in danger of falling and Vlaming reflexively called out, “Don’t let her hit the wall!”
He was fired. He sued. The school’s defense of the student’s human rights violated his own, he maintains. The suit drags on, now in its fourth year.
That’s an extreme case. Or is it? What about the ban – social if not legal – on “Merry Christmas”? One must now, in many parts of the U.S. at least, say “Happy Holidays” instead, for fear of seeming to exclude non-Christians. A “Christmas tree” is now a “holiday tree.” Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before somebody notices that the word “holiday” derives from “holy,” which may offend atheists who deny holiness. How neutral can one be? How clean can language be scrubbed?
How clean should language be? The issue arose, Fukuda recalls, in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” A totalitarian regime imposed on its slave-subjects a simplified language called Newspeak. Pared down to the barest essentials, its vocabulary could express only sanctioned thoughts. Unsanctioned thoughts would not merely be suppressed, they would cease to be thinkable. Impoverished language risks impoverishing thought. “Thought control” is the Orwellian term; “word hunting” is Fukuda’s. Essentially, she says, they amount to the same thing.
Excesses aside, political correctness serves a civilizing purpose. Persecution once rampant has been restrained; abusive language by powerful majorities against powerless minorities raises public ire as never before – as Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister forced to resign in disgrace last year as head of the Tokyo Olympics, learned to his cost.
He didn’t seem to know what hit him, as Shukan Shincho reminds us. Straining for laughs in a speech, he quipped to the effect that women talk too much and are therefore nuisances at meetings. He got his laughs but they came back to haunt him. Responding later to the backlash, he said, “My remarks went against the spirit of the Olympics and Paralympics and were inappropriate. For that, I feel deep remorse and I would like to retract my remarks. I also want to apologize to the people I offended.”
A generation earlier there would have been nothing to apologize for and he would have served, dignity and reputation intact, to the end.© Japan Today