On The Importance Of Plain Speech

21 Nov

My paternal grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a Lancashire Lass. Born and raised in Bolton, Lancashire, she was taught to be plain-spoken, in the manner of those times. The folk of Lancashire and Greater Manchester didn’t see any value in tip-toeing around the truth – my grandmother certainly never did. She was always calm and polite – she rarely raised her voice and I never saw her cry – but she always told the truth, as she saw it.

To Grandma, it was always better to tell the truth. It was better, she thought, that a bride should be told she looked bad in her chosen dress before the wedding, even though the bride’s feelings might be hurt by the remark. Better a cut, she would have said, than a broken arm. She would have made both the best and most terrifying of editors, I think; she had the right attitude and the willingness to tear something apart, just to make it better.

She was, in many ways, an immensely strong woman. My grandfather died when her son was very young and she brought my father up alone, in an age where single mothers were far rarer than they are today. She remained in the same house in Bolton as my father married and moved to Edinburgh, where he had me and my siblings. She would come up to Edinburgh to play with me when I was a child and, even after she grew too old to play with us she still did her best to keep in touch with the family. And yet, she tried hard to maintain her independence. She refused to move in with us until barely two months before her death.

I cannot help but think Grandma would have looked upon the current feminist movement (and many other PC movements) with scorn.

I’m sure there were more than a few assholes who used ‘plain-speaking’ as a cover for … well, being assholes. (They were, of course, the forerunners of internet trolls.) Certainly, the folk of that time would have thought nothing of peppering their speech with racial slurs, considering them nothing more than mere figures of speech. But the rise of political correctness has done so much harm to plain-speaking that we may be paying the bill for years to come. There are times when no amount of tip-toeing about the truth will help.

Just as there is a fundamental disconnect between hard science and soft science, between the objective and the subjective, there is a fundamental disconnect between political correctness and reality. Reality doesn’t change just because the terms of the debate have been altered.

You see, the original idea behind political correctness was that people shouldn’t set out to cause offence. And that isn’t actually a bad idea, as far as these things go. But the nebulous concept of ‘offence’ has been allowed to overwrite reality. The fear of offending someone – anyone – leads to self-censorship, that most damned of censorship, rather than facing up to the simple fact that certain unpleasant truths must be spoken, that certain unpleasant facts must be faced squarely.

The problem lies in the simple fact that PC demands a reversal of the standard accuser-accused dynamic. In a civilised world, the accuser must prove the guilt of the accused; the accused does not have to prove his innocence. But when PC is involved, the accuser is allowed to claim that he or she is offended, regardless of the objective truth of the words. The mere act of saying ‘I am offended,’ perhaps followed by charges of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, etc, seems to be enough to put the speaker on the defensive. But any fool can claim to be offended by anything.

This whole concept has been undermining the modern world for decades.

It isn’t hard for anyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand to realise that Radical Islam poses a threat to the entire world, up to and including every last Muslim. But politicians, rather than coming to grips with this unpleasant truth, seem unwilling to say it out loud. Watching the reaction to the Paris Attacks from many political quarters has been downright sickening. Donald Trump’s poll numbers jumped, I suspect, because Trump came right out and pointed his finger at the threat.

But one doesn’t have to look at that to see just how badly PC has eroded the fabric of our world. The current epidemic of ‘cry-bullies’ on American campuses comes, at least in part, from the simple failure of academic authorities to stand up and tell increasingly pathetic student protesters that their behaviour was unacceptable. But PC makes it impossible for administrators to do anything of the sort. (Expelling the entire football team at Missouri would have been an excellent step to restore sanity to the campus.) There are times when you just have to say NO – like you would to a child – rather than indulge adults in childish tantrums.

It is not easy – and I say this as a writer – to face up to critical remarks. There is a tendency to be angry with the person who points out the plot hole in chapter 10, or that you killed the hero’s love interest (chapter 13) back in chapter 5. And yes, writers encounter more than their fair share of critical remarks. Nor is it easy to respond with careful thought when one faces criticism from the outside. But failing to grasp that, at worst, the jerkass has a point can only lead to contempt.

Trying to put lipstick on a pig doesn’t magically turn the pig into a beautiful girl. It just makes you look stupid. Anyone who doesn’t have a strong reason to convince themselves that the pig is a girl can see that. And telling them that the pig is a girl merely convinces them that you’re a deluded idiot.

Because, you see, reality doesn’t change. And trying to put lipstick on a pig doesn’t magically turn the pig into a woman. And, most importantly of all, having the safety and security to allow yourself delusions about the world surrounding you doesn’t mean that others won’t suffer for your mistakes.

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9 Responses to “On The Importance Of Plain Speech”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard November 21, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

    While I dislike the “Jerk” what is worse is somebody who uses weasel words that give you the “idea” that they are a jerk but there’s nothing in their words to allow you to “pin them down” as a jerk. [Frown]

  2. Jas Pennock November 21, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

    Brilliant insight here Chris, so many trolls hide behind the ‘plain speak’ banner when they are just being parts. There is a major difference between honesty and cruelty.
    Too often these days people are afraid to speak the truth, and no one learns anything, we repeat the same mistakes, or make critical errors to avoid confrontation.
    Again, very insightful piece Chris, appreciate your time and effort.

  3. Dustin November 22, 2015 at 6:40 am #

    Your grandmother sounds like a nice woman. Unfortunately, a plainspoken person today will just be diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder.

  4. kendon81 November 22, 2015 at 7:47 am #

    True there is a big deference between plain speak and been cruel or in saying something for the sole benefit of insult or harm. The whole pc issue was on the beginning a way to try and stop the people using “plain speak” as a way to insult and use language to hide their racist, sexist, homophobic views but still make their point but it was approbated by the upcoming trolling crowd and those who wanted to use it for their own gain and to legitimise their own agendas, now it’s gotten to the point where it’s associated with some many good groups who tirelessly fight socially injustice and on the other hand been used by other groups to go after individuals and groups just to crush them or to make a point to ruin publicly people reputations and to humiliate others, the sad thing is what gives a lot of these groups their power is in the beginning a lot of these institutions were sexist, racist, homophobic in the past and in some case up until recentaly, but in order for them to take away these groups power they have to publicly admit this and change but this will not happen due to the public opinion backlash and the fact that these groups will rid that pc public backlash……..it’s a catch 22 situation, dawned if they do dined if they don’t.

  5. Anarchymedes November 23, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Why call a spade a spade when you can call it a bloody shovel? But even here in Australia calling a spade a spade may land you in trouble these days. This legislation-laden world is on its way to hypocritical hell. ‘Nioingr. The true meaning of the word. Liars of the worst sort. Self-deceivers.’ This is a quote from Gallow: The Fateguard Trilogy, by Nathan Hawke. I loved it — although the actual Old Norse word is Niðingr. Shame that the plain speakers remain only in fantasy novels… And — couldn’t resist it! — when will we have a military sci-fi story to equal this one? 🙂

  6. Jon December 1, 2015 at 12:10 am #

    I am going to disagree with you. I think most people, and possibly even you, are manipulating the term politically correct to argue for a change in policy. A policy position that is mainly supportive of racism and unfair discrimination. Maybe you don’t fully realize that this is your position. Or, that your position leads to that conclusion. But, I am calling this out, here and now, because I think its time someone stood up to this argument. Political correctness is not having any material effect on public debate, except as a straw man to attack when people don’t agree with you.

    It seems to me that being “politically correct” has been held in contempt mainly by racists. Individuals who have taken correct statements and argued that they are lies. For example, politically correct speech would discuss below average performance of black Americans in schools and income in a complex and nuanced way. Because, it is a complex and nuanced issue. This is a classic example of politically correct: public discourse trying to analyze causes without causing offense.

    But, those that decry the “politically correct” discourse attack nuanced discussion as “politically correct.” The emotional impact of this argument develops the feeling of the superiority of self, and in essence argues that political institutions should do as the purported truth-teller suggests.

    Racism in American institutions doesn’t exist, for white people. White people don’t experience it. Ever. But black people do experience it. Pointing this out isn’t political correctness; it is correctness.

    So, now let us turn to some of your examples. Your comments about the Missouri football team are exactly in line with a white person’s view of the truth. But, your off-hand comment is largely a justification for a racist truth. Those football players chose to protest discriminatory treatment on campus: campus institutions had failed to address specific threats of racial violence by other students (and yes, calling people niggers and painting swastikas are powerful symbolic threats of violence in America). Those players used their position to leverage political will: this is not political correctness, it is political action.

    Moreover, Trump is perfect example of an individual that knows how to attack “political correctness” to accuse his political opponents of failing to have the “guts to tell the truth.” When, in fact, Trump is manipulating the audience into an emotional response. He is arguing that you should vote for him because the political institutions — which justifiably have a more complex view of the world — aren’t in touch with reality. Ignoring, perhaps, the fact that those politicians are also correct – ISIS is at best an Islamic cult. Labeling them radical Islam doesn’t accomplish anything, except establish a feeling of superiority in the non-Muslim.

    Moreover, combating ISIS may very well rely on the cooperation of the very audience you suggest that political leaders should insult. We should attack an entire people’s religion because “its the truth!” Well, I don’t think it is. I don’t think your position is entirely correct. And, I think that’s why those politicians didn’t say what you thought they should. Its not about whether your position is a lie. Its about whether your position is truthful.

    I can find no justification for challenging people to be blunt when they don’t actually agree with you. You want bluntness? The western world has been fighting a war with ISIS, not radical Islam. Politicians aren’t going to tell you that they are at war with radical Islam, because we aren’t. Do you want to be?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard December 1, 2015 at 2:53 am #

      When a rich black college kid, son of a rich black man, can complain about oppression without being laughed at, then some thing is very wrong in Liberal society.

      I’d love to have the money that the black college kid has.

      By then, you’re likely call me racist the above statements.

    • chrishanger December 1, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

      I disagree with you.

      I fail to see how my position leads to racism. There is something of a difference between stating facts, as one believes them to be, and being a racist. A person who argued that black schoolchildren do worse than white schoolchildren because they are black would, by definition, be a racist. But a person who argued that black schoolchildren do worse because they face a number of problems, including teachers who are reluctant to discipline them for fear of being called racists, would not be a racist. He might be wrong, which is a whole different issue, but he wouldn’t be a racist.

      And he would be understandably angry at the suggestion he was a racist, or that he should shut up because his suggestions are not politically-correct.

      He would, I suspect, shut up if he were proven wrong. But that would require actual logical debate, not facile accusations of RACIST, RACIST.

      Addressing the issue of Missouri specifically, people in Britain (and America) have the right to protest peacefully. The keyword there is ‘peacefully.’ At no point is intimidation, threats, physical assault or property damage acceptable. Nor, looking at the football team, is melodramatic boycotts intended to pressure administrators into overreacting or backing down without ever bothering to consider what is going on. (And, for that matter, creating a situation where said football team could be legally expelled, without recourse.)

      The problems facing black Americans, as you say, are nuanced. Addressing them requires a honest attempt to assess the true source of the problems, not a narrative that blames everything on white Americans/the police/republicans/Jews/etc. It also requires a willingness to actually work on the problems, a reluctance to rush to judgement and a respect for the rule of law.

      I am not American, so my observations of Trump and his ilk are from a distance. I think, however, that Trump’s success lies in the simple observation that ordinary Americans are tired; tired of being race-shamed, tired of being hammered with false accusations, tired of being told that they’re to blame for all the problems of the world. There are times when nuance will not be accepted, when attempts to pussy-foot around the problem only make it worse, when people want strong leadership and firm lines in the sand.

      I could be wrong about that. And if you convince me that I am wrong, I will change my opinion. But it has to be a reasoned argument.

      The problem facing moderate Muslims is simple. If they stick their heads up, they get them lopped off by the extremists. Daring Muslims who do try to speak out come under threat – or wind up dead. We need to protect those people and, furthermore, root out those who would attack them. Our half-hearted reluctance to stand up and say that there are certain practices that are flatly illegal, in Britain or America, only encouraged the extremists. One should not waffle when core principles are at stake.

      My Site: http://www.chrishanger.net/
      My Blog: https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
      My Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall

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