Sunday, 26 July 2009

Isms and ists

As human beings, we are attracted to isms. I think there are strong anthropological motivations going on here. In fact, the evolutionary routes of such behaviour may be the same as the rational case which might be made for isms in general. I'm not, of course, talking here about the virtues of any particular ism, any particular bundle of views, which may be sufficiently structured to qualify as an ideology or system of thought. I'm talking about what draws us to want to be part of something bigger than we are.

If we come across a body of thought which vaguely represents our position, we get that coming home feeling. If it's a position that others may attack, we are going to draw comfort from the safety of being among the like minded, and from feeling less vulnerable to being picked off as some crazy loaner. We will have our sacred texts and the thoughts of the wise originators of our chosen ism to which we can refer to bolster our opinions, and add weight to them by quoting those whose scholarship we admire; scholarship which might impress the opposition.

But here's the danger zone in my opinion. Because the ism can easily take on an institutionalised life of its own, and render us less critical of what it says than we might otherwise be. Our luminaries can easily take on almost sacred status, and we may almost imperceptibly start feeling nervous about entertaining thought which doesn't toe the party line. We would somehow be acting disloyally, betraying "the cause". How nuch accommodation are we making to this tendency in us? Are we allowing our instinctive, if rationally defensible, need for solidarity to undermine our capacity for independent thought?

I'm aware that being an anti-ismist is itself an ism in the making. I'm simply suggesting that if we choose to define ourselves as any kind of ist, we might do well to think how far that ism reflects our true views, and how far we any longer permit ourselves to have such views without reference to higher authority.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Politically correct purposes

For newcomers to Tangentville, what follows is the output of someone who reads less than most denizens of the blogosphere. It's just mulled over thoughts written down.

On the subject of political correctness, its excesses have been lampooned at length by others - others better at lampooning. What struck me just now is a question about what political correctness is for? Do we need it and why?

I assume it had its genesis in a well intentioned wish to help increasingly heterogeneous societies peaceably come to terms with their heterogeneity, in a social context in which commonly accepted codes of "good manners", or "common courtesy" seem to be less generally accepted (discuss).

This impulse was enthusiastically embraced by thosee who think we can't get by without a manual, hopefully and profitably written by them. The implication is that us poor regular folks don't understand the huge anthropological complexities which experts can plumb, allowing them freely to consort with aliens from alien cultures. And that's not so bad: It's just the good old self-help industry we know and love.

What struck me as more worrying was a change of emphasis. The focus seems to have movved towards self-advertising virtue. "Look at me, I use all the right language, therefore I am a mature integrated person".

If we are genuinely concerned about the comfort of others in social situations, as represented in posters or on the screen ETC, what should we do? For what it's worth, my experience of meeting all kinds of people over many years is, if you want to know, for instance, how you should refer to them, you - surprise surprise - ASK THEM, and then they tell you, and then that's what you call them. Is that difficult?

We have laws designed to protect the vulnerable against physical and/or verbal abuse, negative discrimination and hatred. Maybe we need better laws, or maybe a better sense of humanity and community would help us to better inforce those we have.

The fact is that human decency will not be encouraged by means of someone else's lexicon. Political correctness is often a self-agrandising triumph of style over content. If we are serious about treating one another like human beings, we need to look beyond someone else's linguistic prescriptions; labels are not enough.

Politicians talk a lot about "The contest for hearts and minds". Any contest is within our own heart and our own mind. Are we truly interested in demonstrating the respect for others which we expect to be shown to us, or are we using the words of the Political Correctness word factory as a means of convincing ourselves that we're the people we would like to be?

It is how we really feel and how we act which will make a difference.