Daily Archives: 11/30/2011

Political correctness. Where did it go wrong?

 The first thing a foreigner resident in the UK notice about the British is their   overwhelming politeness. Of course I am talking about a particular layer of society which starts with the  educated middle class and upwards.

This politeness is often perceived by foreigners as cynicism.  A common complaint of foreigners engaged in debate with the British, is that they rarely say what they  really think and when the debate escalates to vivacious opposition, they change the conversation without ever clarifying their point. Perhaps they run out of arguments,  or the counter argument stings too deeply in the person’s beliefs which they  want to keep free from cracks of doubt. Perhaps they just escape the argument for  political correctness. They fear to say something that can be used against themselves.

I never heard of the concept “political correctness” (PC) until I came to live in the UK. I lived in countries where  PC was not an issue and people said whatever bulshit was squeezed out of their heads. Worrying about political correctness is something that the Latin people’s did not do. They  hit the back of a big black man with a friendly compliment referring to their colour.   “E aí negão! Tudo jóia?”  which translates “ how does it go your big negro man?”, to which he responds with a large smile and a  noisy hug. When I heard the word “Paki” for the first time I thought it was a term of endearment.  Like “Jacky” for Jaqueline.  I almost feel threatened when I need to refer to a person of dark brown colour. How should I describe them? Black?  Negro?  Dark-brown? Sun-tan? African even though he never saw Africa?  What should I call the white people  born in Africa?  You never know when one of these people is offended by declarations about their skin colour.  If you want to go far enough in our human ancestry, aren’t we all Africans after all?

Because political correctness is not such a big  issue is some Latin countries, people are expected not to take offense over the jokes that are told about their race, or ethnic group. Since I started travelling to Brazil to deliver courses and talks, I lost count of how many times  I had to endure jokes about Portuguese people. Such jokes do not emphasise the best aspects of Portuguese intelligence but by  telling them to me, my  Brazilian friends assume that I  would be finding them funny. Those jokes do not affect me, because although they intend to reduce the Portuguese people  to a stereotype, I do not find myself in that stereotype just because I was born in that country.

But the  The Portuguese jokes are not  candid either. They are  about sex, chauvinism,  race or the people of a region called Alentejo, where the summer heat makes us breathless and evaporates every drop of energy that may  rest in our bodies.

(Alentejanos are hard working people who have suffered the repression of Fascism which kept them in poverty for decades, but the climate in Alentejo e unbearably hot and unsuitable to great energy expenditure under the burning sun. )

In the old days, these non-PC jokes were told openly in cafés and public gatherings, whether women, blacks or Alentejanos were present or not. Few people took offence. Some Alentejanos perhaps!

But now, 25 years after I left my country and I hear my family and friends telling these jokes to one another I feel uneasy. I am critical of the context and I do not find them funny at all. Twenty five years outside of our  mother land is more than enough to erase a great deal of our cultural imprinting. (And now, as the grey hairs start colonizing my head and reproducing faster than rabbits, I am even forgetting  words of my own mother tongue.)

I am getting too critical- or perhaps too British- as a Brazilian friend complained! ” This thing about expecting people to arrive on time, is too British, it is almost an offence to the relaxed Brazilians!”

In the time I lived in the UK  I noticed a change in social attitudes towards religious beliefs. The raise of  political Islamism ravaging in psychopathic tantrums of irrationality, is met by the British middle classes with a fear to offend whatever wacky religious beliefs permeate our society. Politicians make laws to refrain if not prevent comedians  to make jokes about religion or race .  Unless it is a Muslim or a black person making fun about themselves and their own culture, everybody else is seen as subversive.   I remember in early days, when foreigners complained about the attitudes of my compatriots, I was offended, but then, we Portuguese could say whatever ugly things we wanted about our selves.  We did not like to hear  Northern Europeans commenting on  Portugese backwardness, but we were the first to bring this up  and complain about it. We  left the country precisely to escape that very backwardness. However, only WE had the right to complain, and if a foreigner did the  same, we would fall on him like wolves defending their pack.

Negative comments about our race, beliefs and cultural identity, are taken as offenses because they threaten our ego, our image and the very symbols that we identify ourselves with.  But taking offense is different from harm. Claims about Portuguese backwardness or jokes about Portuguese foolishness may offend, but not harm. And here is where the British are confused with their concept of political correctness. Some people may be offended by my opinions about their beliefs, but they are not harmed.  Opinions don’t harm. Actions  fuelled by those opinions do! A democratic state  should not prevent free speech for the fear of offending others, but  it should take measure to prevent actions fueled but some speeches that may harm others.

If someone induces a harm on me, I have a right to require explanations and compensation. I wasn’t actively seeking to be harmed. However, if someone  utters words about my cultural identity or my beliefs, if I took offense, I have an active part in that process. I can choose either to take offense or not. It is me and only me who decides.

So I am quite fed up with all these religious peoples claiming that they feel offended by  others who don’t share their beliefs. As the Portuguese use to say; “if you take offense you have two jobs;  the first is that of getting offended, the second is to  “dis-offend” yourself”.  No one can do it for you. No court  can change how you feel about what others think about you, your culture or your beliefs. The world is a tough place! Learn to live with it or become a eremite monk on the top of some isolated mountain in the Himalayas.

I have to live in a world soaked in all types of religions, if I took offense  of every thought and act that is inspired by a religious belief I would have to kill myself. As far as the freedom of religion of others does not prevent my freedom of their religion then there is not case to take offense. I have the most valuable tool under my control. I have the freedom to choose!