February 22, 2005

What do you really mean?

Mister Neil Falloon writes progressively, with liberal, gay abandon....

ACT social welfare spokesman and amateur etymologist Dr Muriel Newman has started a new campaign. Her goal: ” to end political correctness as we know it”.

One could simply cynically write off Newman’s new PCFreeNZ ‘campaign’ as a blatant election-year ploy to raise her profile with ACT voters who will soon decide the order of the party’s list. But let’s take Dr Newman at face value.

Her PCFreeNZ campaign comes complete with a website (yes, it's taxpayer-funded, for those who enjoy noting such things). There are even tee-shirts for sale from Dr Newman’s husband Frank. (A quick question: why is a man’s shirt $10 cheaper than a woman’s?)

Dr Newman’s primary concern is that “certain words have been hijacked - stolen from our English language heritage - for political gain. It is not hard to see the objective here, creating a new veneer of legitimacy for what [sic] a failed social, economic and political philosophy.”

Dr Newman provides examples:

Think about the word "Liberal", which used to mean 'Libertarian', but is now often misused to mean 'Socialist'. "Gay" used to mean 'Happy', but is now 'Homosexual'. "Progressive" was symbolic of economic and technical advancement, but is now applied to those espousing the collectivist ideals - and 'progress' toward them.

Yes. Let’s think about the word ‘Liberal’. It did not mean ‘Libertarian’ when it was first used as a noun in a political sense by the editors of the Spanish constitution of Cadiz in 1812: they were not trying to install Lindsay Perigo as president, but simply opposed the absolutist power of the Spanish monarchy. Today there are many strains of philosophical thought laying claim to the mantle of the original 19th century Enlightenment doctrine, from American liberalism to neo-liberalism. Dr Newman’s desire to eradicate some definitions of the word seems just a little authoritarian.

What about Dr Newman’s other examples?

Well, perhaps political correctness started earlier than the MP suspects: the word ‘Gay’ has had a sexual meaning since at least the nineteenth century, and possibly earlier. In Victorian England, female and male prostitutes were called "gay" because they dressed in bright, happy clothes. Eventually "gay" became a term for any male homosexual. In the United States, the term may have arisen from the hobo community: a young hobo, a "gay cat", often had to befriend an older more experienced hobo for education and survival. Such a relationship was implicitly sexual, hence the term "gay cat" came to mean "a young homosexual".

Then there's the word 'Progressive'. Dr Newman seems to have genuinely never heard of the Progressive movement in United States politics, or the (admittedly short-lived) political party by that name. Let’s not disturb her tranquility.

Dr Newman’s PC campaign is about more than just words. She recently expressed her outrage when a newspaper article pointed out (in a very tabloid manner) that some early childcare centres no longer provide playdough because some cultures, including Maori, consider playing with food inappropriate. Dr Newman wrote:

“In the playdough case, political correctness has been used as a weapon to silence and intimidate opposition. By claiming the use of food in play is culturally offensive to Maori, [they...] can call anyone who speaks out in opposition, a racist. It is a classic example of the modern-day tyranny that is constantly being wreaked by minority groups over the majority of New Zealanders, through the use of political correctness.”

Muriel is not a racist but nor, it seems, is she a close-reader. She appears to have missed the principle of the story. The playdough incident shows that individual childcare centres, run autonomously by boards elected from the parents of attending children, are doing exactly what a freedom-and-choice-loving party like ACT should hope for: responding to individual community needs.

It would be a completely different story if the government issued a blanket order to every school or kindergarten saying Thou Shalt Not Play With Food. But that’s not what is happening. Some independently-owned (so-called ‘for profit’) early childhood centres have implemented the same policies. This is an example of communities choosing the environment in which their own children will be educated. Another name for this sort of activity? School Choice.

Sure, the communities involved have different values from Dr Newman. But it’s a bit rich to prize Freedom and Choice only when people make the same choices that you would.

This drama has been played out before. Let's flashback to an ACT national conference from many years ago. The crowd applauded a highschool principal who said that “there is no such thing as ‘Maori science’, there is only science". Yet at the same conference, a focus group on education was incensed that Christian parents had to fund schools that dismissed out-of-hand Biblical creation myths. They were enraged because “parents should be allowed to choose” the education their children received.

There is a tension within ACT - an undercurrent of unresolved conflict between competing claims. One might be tempted to say “a dialectic”, but then one might be accused by PCFreeNZ of being a communist sympathiser.

It seems odd that the campaign 'against political correctness' has been chosen as a personal platform in an election year. In many ways it highlights a gap between the conservative beliefs of Dr Newman and those officially espoused by the party.

The Institute for Liberal Values (a ‘classical liberal’ thinktank with Rodney Hide on its board of directors) wrote last year that Dr Newman was “the most hard core conservative in the ACT Party caucus”. Some might suggest Stephen Franks should hold that title. Regardless, the Institute says of Dr Newman, “this basically means she is a member of a party that stands opposed to her own basic ideology.”

In fact, Muriel’s repeated invocation of “liberal” and “choice” to further her own (opposed, and very basic) ideological position could itself be characterised as doublespeak.

These arguments always tend to degenerate into discussions of who is being more petty and unreasonable. But a rule of thumb is that the benefit of western society and enlightenment is we can choose what we are going to do within very broad parameters, but that also includes choosing not to do things.

Perhaps the problem is one of perspective. The Western philosophical and cultural tradition which Dr Newman wishes to see defended against the barbarism of 'political correctness', is distinguishable as an entity in toto from edible children's putty. The corollary of being able to choose to do things is the right to choose not to do things.

Perhaps Muriel and her conception of Western enlightenment need to be reminded, like some kindergarten children, that just because you have some playdough, you don't need to put it in your mouth.

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