Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Because the Lord Chamberlain Says So

If I were being criticized, I think I would rather it be for something vulgar, coarse, or tactless than for something inappropriate and unacceptable. I could be inappropriate by standing out in the crowd or unacceptable because I am the wrong height or age - hardly much fun or even my fault. But I could be tactless because I had just told off the person everyone loves to hate at work, or vulgar because I showed too much cleavage - things more worthy of criticism (and surely more fun).

Edward Skidelsky, in his article "Words That Think for Us" in Prospect (Nov.18/09), believes that the words"inappropriate" and "unacceptable" should be removed from the language. They are words of political correctness that reduce what was previously labelled as immoral behaviour to mere faux pas against social and professional convention.

We avoid moral judgement, "hoping to eliminate....intolerance,"  but may not be as successful as we would like to think:
But this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom. When I call your action indecent, I state a fact that can be controverted. When I call it inappropriate, I invoke an institutional context—one which, by implication, I know better than you. Who can gainsay the Lord Chamberlain when he pronounces it “inappropriate” to wear jeans to the Queen’s garden party? This is what makes the new idiom so sinister. Calling your action indecent appeals to you as a human being; calling it inappropriate asserts official power.
According to Skidelsky, we just drive intolerance underground, where it rages against seeming "bureaucratic neutrality," which is his main reason for doing away with the words.

Skidelsky is right that one can raise an argument about what is indecent in a way that one cannot about what is inappropriate. Some of the older words of moral judgement are even defined by law which provides precedent for many such arguments. He is wrong, though, about the reason for the successful "career" of the newer words.

I disagree with Skidelsky's analysis about why we use the more politically correct words. He sees it as an attempt at tolerance, an avoidance of prickly morality. I see it as a power ploy, the cousin of 1984-type double speak.

"Inappropriate" and "unacceptable" should be thrown out, not because they neutralize, unlike older words of moral judgement, but because they are more vague and less defined. They are slippery and can define pretty much anything.

So it's not a liberal pluralist agenda to use these words; I see it, rather, as a conservative authoritarian agenda. Without the well-understood definitions of the older words of moral judgement, those in power in government, in business, anywhere really, can find anything inappropriate and unacceptable as it suits them. Skidelsky says it himself: the words invoke official power, without reference to the nuisance of argument.

Much is and has been at stake in the business of definition. Greek citizens could vote in the youth of democracy, but by definition women and slaves were not citizens. In Canada, the status (definition of who is aboriginal) of aboriginal peoples is established by parliament. Women are venerated and protected by law and religion, as long as they do not stray from the official definition of what a real woman is.

Skidelsky's example of the Lord Chamberlain makes the point perfectly. The Lord Chamberlain may find your jeans tasteless, crass, vulgar, inappropriate, and/or unacceptable attire for the Queen's garden party. The point is not the adjective he uses; the point is that in his official capacity, the Lord Chamberlain may find anything he (or the Queen) chooses as inappropriate or unacceptable for any reason at all.

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at Exeter University. His book Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.

I would like to invite Edward Skidelsky to my soiree.

(flower photo credit)


Owen Gray said...

Orwell knew that power rested with those who controlled the definitions of words. And he knew that if we were lazy enough to let the powerful define the terms of any debate, we were all in trouble.

We have taken to using euphemism so that we don't offend people. But, occasionally, some people -- particularly the powerful -- need to be offended. To everything there is a season.

ChrisJ said...

Owen, your comments are always exactgly right.

One of my professors once told us that if we don't have the right to be offensive, then we have no rights at all.