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Not crossing the word limit in speech

If political correctness in speech is still not quite the norm here it is probably because there are too many gross inequalities in India

columns Updated: Apr 26, 2016 20:58 IST
Referring to rape, Mulayam Singh Yadav (right) had said: ‘Boys make mistakes, but that should not mean you hang them’
Referring to rape, Mulayam Singh Yadav (right) had said: ‘Boys make mistakes, but that should not mean you hang them’(PTI)

Short of switching over to left-hand drives, are we becoming too American? Not just blue jeans and Hollywood, but political correctness too is growing on us.

The RBI governor got a taste of this when he used the metaphor of ‘a one-eyed king in the land of the blind’. Going by the flak he received, we must find a replacement for the phrase ‘short-sighted’ when criticising policy makers. The American president serving out a second term should not be called a ‘lame duck’ leader either. Sushma Swaraj too may have unknowingly offended many when she dubbed those from the North-East as ‘flat nosed’. Try making the simple point that corruption is caste-neutral and you may end up with your chin hanging out to dry. Why JRR Tolkein, of the Lord of the Rings, blamed Shakespeare for giving elves a bad name in Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The phrase Indian rope trick is also potentially offensive, and so is squatting ‘Indian style’. It is probably more acceptable to say: sitting crisscross, apple sauce, whatever that means. The term ‘half caste’ is definitely a ‘trigger word’ because ‘half’ is insulting, and not nearly as good as ‘full’. Some Americans prefer to be called ‘blacks’, others ‘Afro-Americans’, and then there is this growing group that would rather be known as ‘coloured’. Nor is it risk-free to call a blindingly white person ‘Aryan’. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between a politically correct word and an almost correct word is the difference between a bug and a humbug.

As low-hanging sour grapes are nearly everywhere, it is hard to tell which bunch might offend whom and make them victims of ‘micro aggression’ — another American term. Harvard Law School has gone the distance on this. Women students have mobilised to take the word ‘violate’ out of their rape law texts for it can bring back memories of victimisation. This is why when one is charged with being politically incorrect, it is best to quickly apologise or else the hole you are in will soon become a well. The help number for this one has gone dead a long time back.

Yet, compared to the Americans there are much fewer instances in India of politically incorrectness. No doubt, the tendency is growing, but it is still far from being a full blown clinical case. Instead, what we have are frequent examples of ‘legal incorrectness’, and they go unpunished, even unmolested. Azam Khan can say, without fear, that ‘any woman who goes out with any man, with or without his consent, should be hanged’. Or, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s statement, when confronted by the many rape incidents in UP: ‘Boys make mistakes, but that should not mean you hang them.’ Or, Adityanath’s decisive intervention: ‘Those who oppose Yoga can leave India and should be drowned.’

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Legal incorrectness, such as the ones peddled by Mulayam, Azam Khan or Adityanath come from the other side of the moon, as far as political correctness is concerned. Political correctness kicks in when there is a suspicion that a phrase or a word is not inclusive enough and separates a section of people from the rest. Legal incorrectness, on the other hand, thrives on exclusion; on sentiments of what ‘should’ be done to a cornered few because they offend ‘majority’ opinion. That we have more examples of legal incorrectness than political incorrectness gives us a fair indication of where our country stands on the democratic index, and on matters of law.

At the same time, where both these types of incorrectness converge is that they succeed in squishing debates out of a sponge whose original condition is unquestionable truth. The first is bad for democracy as it hopes to ram down the majority view and the latter by giving in to a kind of consensual tyranny of the mind. The Mandalites played the victimhood card well by tagging their opponents as agents of Brahmans. Who can stand up and fight after this withering abuse? Legal incorrectness works on a different principle and can turn perfectly normal people into victims: either as national enemies, cultural outsiders or as brassy, ill-mannered women. In contrast, political correctness thrives when unsuspecting adults kick themselves for being unintentional ‘victimisers’, even for that fleeting moment.

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Political correctness can soon wipe out metaphors from our language as these are, by definition, built on differences, but in a playful, and, even ungrammatical way. When a man is called a tiger it can signify viciousness, grace or bravery, depending on the occasion. If, at times, a young male is called a ‘wolf’ it does not mean that the person is a carnivore or the accuser, an animal lover. In the 1960s, the hippies called the policemen ‘pigs’ but that did not make them cannibals when they sat down to a breakfast of bacon and salami. Likewise, a one-eyed man could also mean a person of accomplishment, like a Pataudi or a Raja Ranjit Singh.

If political correctness is still not quite the norm here it is probably because there are far too many gross inequalities in India and they negate one another out. Political correctness flourishes only in a situation of mild inequality and where the charge of exclusion by oversight can leave a guilty conscience. India has a long way to go on that scale because most of us don’t even bother to hold back from addressing a handicapped person by precisely that handicap. Hence the frequent use of ‘langra’, ‘kana’, andha’, and so on.

The fact that the larynx is placed much lower in the human throat than it is with other animals gives us the unique ability to speak but also makes us the only creatures on earth who can choke on their food. Likewise, a long-established democracy is the only social arrangement where freedom of speech can make us choke on a metaphor.

Dipankar Gupta is an eminent sociologist and taught at JNU for nearly three decades

The views expressed are personal