Calling a spade a horticultural appliance or ...
Don't call me politically incorrect, you fat git
by
William McIlvaney
This amusing and thought provoking item appeared in the Glasgow Herald, 6 June 1998 as part of a continuing series. The assumption is made that the dialogue takes place in a Glasgow pub called  "The Jury Room".
(Note: the lack of inverted commas to show dialogue is as in the original.)

 You're getting as fat as a pig, Harry, Matt the Mesomorph says. Soon have to demolish the gantry just to let you turn round.

 Pure muscle, Harry Kari says. Ah've overdone the fitness thing. Almost completely muscle-bound by now. Funny how overdoin the right thing can turn out bad.

 Harry lumbers away to serve a new arrival.

 As he watches Harry slowly approach his customer (also a very large man), Gus the Guru speaks, perhaps reflecting on Harry's tendency to dispense an air of disaster with the drink.

 The iceberg is about to meet the Titanic, Gus says.

 He is getting fat, right enough, Matt the Mesomorph says.

 If you cleaned him out, Dave the Rave says, he would make a good garage.

 He is fat, though, inty? Matt says.

 Once Matt gets hold of an idea, he tends not to let it go easily, rather like someone who doesn't receive many callers postponing the departure of a rare visitor.

 Harry is not fat, Greyman says.

 Not fat? (Gus appeals to the ceiling, as if somewhere beyond it is a higher authority.) He'd make a sumo wrestler look anorexic.

 Harry is not fat, Greyman says.

 What the hell is he then? Dave asks.

 Harry - Greyman waits for his audience to settle into total attention - is differently sized.

 Among the general puzzlement, Gus is nodding knowingly. He isn't called the Purple Sage for nothing.

 Oh, I'm getting it now, Gus says.

 Political correctness, OU Wilson says.

 How do you know about that? (Greyman asks OU) Samantha?

 One of her friends, OU says. Goes to the Open University with her. Ah just call her PC Pauline. Anything you say may be taken down and used in evidence against you.

 Aye, Gus says. Ah've had a look at that stuff myself. But Matt and Dave haven't. Elucidation is called for. I step bravely into the breach.

 I suggest that politically correct speech was originally the creation of American academics who saw it as a way to wage war on social injustice. They chose to do this not by the old fashioned methods of the Sixties, protest marches and sit-ins, but with more subtle, internal techniques. Their chosen battleground would be semantics. They would change the way we speak. It was as if the Civil Rights Movement had turned away from the White House and the Pentagon and found itself marching through a dictionary.

 It was certainly less bother. Nobody would throw you in the paddy wagon. (But wait - we would no longer be calling it the paddy wagon since that has connotations of Irish criminality, or at least drunkenness, and is therefore racist.) Nobody would throw you in the Black Maria. (But wait - that would suggest a colour bias as well, perhaps, as a bias against people of the Catholic faith.) Nobody would throw you in the vehicle of detention used by uniformed aggressors.

 It would also be less sore on the feet. You could sit in your university office or your study and forge a new world on your personal computer. Let your fingers do the walking. Without breaking sweat, you could transform the world by tapping on some keys. You could take part in a revolution without missing lunch.

 And so the great revolutionary achievements of political correctness came to pass. And enlightenment came to all the campuses of America and the new Genesis was upon them. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with the academics. And they brought it to pass that there was a renaming of all things and strange were the words in the mouths of their students.

 For the academics spake and they spake thus. Henceforth shall a small man be not a small man but a person who is vertically challenged (though he add not one cubit to his height thereby). And they said more. For to be psychotic was to be socially misaligned and to be drunk was to be sobriety-deprived and a serial killer was called a person with difficult-to-meet needs and a corpse was said to be metabolically different or terminally inconvenienced (and strange to relate, no dead person has yet expressed any appreciation of this semantic kindness shown towards them). And the process went on. And on.

 And the academics looked upon Their work and They saw that it was good. And beyond the groves of academe the social fabric of America continued to fall - even more spectacularly - apart. Yet the academics heeded this not for they were time-servers and they reasoned thus: what the shit, it's a job.

 I don't know why but all of this doesn't seem to help Matt and Dave much. Dave, surprisingly enough, claims to be still unclear about what political correctness is, or PC as it is already being called. He would like more personal examples.

 That's right. For example, what about me? (Matt offers himself with innocent eagerness, like a bull queuing for a ticket to the abattoir) What would Ah be in this fancy talk - yer PC?

 You, Greyman says, are an alternatively schooled former client of the correctional system.

 Whit? Matt says.

 That's quite good, Gus says. Let me help you, Matt. All that means is ye could hardly write your name and ye've been in the nick.

 True enough, Matt says. His eyes are widening in wonder at how impressive the ordinariness of his life can sound.

 This could be good fun, Gus says. Like verbal charades. Who am Ah talkin about? (He pauses, choosing his sterilised words with care.) This is an indefinitely idled person with a pharmacological preference and a deep motivational deficiency

 Well, Greyman says. We're obviously looking for a lazy sod on drugs.

 Did you call? Dave the Rave says.

 The fun goes on but washes over me. I am beached briefly on yet another attempt to work out what it is I find so offensive about the elaborate inoffensiveness of political correctness. Here goes.

 In the beginning was the word and the word was with people. It is human nature that gives words their accretions of meaning. Social attitudes will never be changed by linguistic engineering, for it is the nature of people that determines the nature of words, not words that determine the nature of people.

 That is why I think political correctness has as dynamic a connection with the troubled reality of these times as the etiquette of the court of King Louis had with the horrific injustices of late eighteenth-century France, lying beyond the decadent niceties and thick walls of Versailles. It is like a linguistic minuet that tries to drown out the sound of social suffering.

 It's like an intellectual cottage industry for the manufacture of verbal lace handkerchiefs, scented with sweet abstraction, to be held against the nose so that the stench of reality doesn't assault our senses too much. Like most prescriptive thinking, its purpose isn't to liberate us into discovery of ourselves but to trap us in an invented perception of ourselves.

 What can the corpse care if it is rebaptised from the dead to the metabolically different? It can't hear us and, if it could, I think it might tell us (since it would presumably also be able to speak) that it has more to worry it than the label we hang on its unfeeling toe. Such a term, like a Musak-numbed cremation, could only be for the solace of the living, a way of denying the brute reality of death. Like most politically correct usage, it could only be for the false comfort of the user of the term not the person about whom it is used.

 I like the story a Glaswegian told me of a blind friend to whom he remarked that he was now referred to as visually challenged. The man's response was to say, Ah'm bloody stone blind. Don't demean ma condition wi yer fancy words.

 I respect the blind man.

 And if - impossibly, given our endless and not always unhealthy creativity in mutual insult - the sterile humourlessness of political correctness were ever to achieve vernacular acceptance, what would be the result? It would weaken language's most crucial gift to us - its dangerous and dynamic ability to explore without inhibition the complex and sometimes unpleasant realities of our nature. It would do this by gagging us with clichés. And it would miss entirely the target it purports to be aiming at, our habitual cruelty to one another. It would shoot the messenger but the message wouldn't change For, Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, the medium is not the message. The human use of the medium is the message.

 Humanly created context makes meaning, not plastic phrases. You vertically challenged person with an anal olfactory preference might in time become as effective an insult as ya wee brown nose. It lacks immediacy, right enough But then some of the best gibes have a delayed action effect. And it does have a certain ring to it.

 I suggest this to my merry compadres.

 Gus likes the idea. He leans over the bar and calls to Harry.

 Excuse me, horizontally challenged person of informal parentage. May we have another round of fermented and distilled substances?

 Sorry? Harry says.

 There is a pause.

 Gies a drink, ya fat bastart.

 Wait yer turn, ya geriatric balloon.

 Still, Gus says, sighing happily. Maybe the old ways are the best.


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