“Political Correctness” is a myth, now stop being dicks

Last night, I ended up briefly channel hopping (you know, kids, that’s a thing we used to do before Netflix) and came across a BBC Four interview where some old, white-haired bearded guy was talking pretentiously in an interview about some arts subject or other. I forget the details, but suddenly, and seemingly apropos of nothing, he launched into some great tirade against “political correctness”.

“I’m sick of political correctness!” he moaned, “Where will it end?!” he screamed, practically jumping out of his chair and being the most animated he had been so far in the interview. Someone had apparently done something (I dunno, something like casting an actual black guy as Othello, that kind of madness) and my, my, was he angry about it.

The details are mere salad dressing and not worth my time to check out via iPlayer, the point is that this was an absurdly over-the-top reaction against what is, actually, just the concept of not treating people like shit. The haughty sense of self-entitlement; the weird bewilderment that someone might think or do slightly differently to how it was in the past; and the tutting and scoffing, oh my you should listen to that tutting and scoffing, it’s something to behold. As I’ve said before, we’re not offended, we’re something else entirely – but the people who deride others as “offended”, well, that’s what mere offence actually looks like.

He seemed hellishly offended by not treating people like shit.

At this point, it’s worth just quoting Neil Gaiman (I’ve said a similar thing before, but I’m not a world-famous author so he wins regardless of who said it first).

I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”

Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.

You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.

I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”

It’s quite enlightening to view it that way. A little mad-lib goes a long way, and “political correctness” as a pair of words is ripe for it.

And when you do that, you find that there’s no such thing as political correctness. Really, is it a thing that exists? No.

I’ve certainly never seen it used as a self-identity. Its use seems to be exclusively reactionary; it’s a title given to “not treating people like shit” (as I put it) and “treating other people with respect” (as Gaiman put it) by people who are offended by such crazy notions, as the white-haired interviewee above clearly was. We hear “it’s political correctness gone mad” and “political correctness has gone too far” from reactionaries far more than we’d hear, for instance, “in order to be politically correct, you must…” from liberal progressives.

In fact, if you see a related term as an identity, it tends to be “politically incorrect”, as seen with Bill Maher’s show of the same name. People identify as politically incorrect, and wear that as a badge of honour; almost as if their entire raison d’être was to go out of their way to offend, hate, insult and belittled others for their mere differences, and as if their entire motivation for doing so was nothing except “because we can”.

…someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.

So while “incorrect” is a form of pride for reactionaries and their love of dickishness, it’s almost invisible the other way around. Quite literally, people who supposedly “are” politically correct never use the term; because we understand that, actually, we just want to treat people with respect and not like shit.

But it’s not just the term that’s absent. There is no underlying philosophy or cannonical book of rules to follow to be “politically correct”. I’m certainly not aware of it. There’s nothing that can go mad, and nothing that is there expanding and enveloping the world in its iron grip.

What of it tangibly exists? Well, individual guidelines from disability charities exist. These guide us on how to talk to and treat people with respect and dignity, particularly as they might run into issues us able-bodied folk won’t even see as “issues” – these shouldn’t have to exist, but they do. Occasionally I hear someone say they’d rather be referred to as a person of colour rather than as, say, “a towel-headed sand-nigger”. Sure, we have those sorts of guidelines, but they’re not one unified source of political correctness.

And if they were, what is so bad about that anyway?

Still, “PC” is not really a thing. It’s not even a set of rules declared from on high. We just ask  a series of questions and get a series of answers – some of the answers even consistently agree with each other. This monolithic “political correctness” is, actually, just thoughtful people asking other people how not to be a complete dick, and figuring it out from there.

“Erm, hi, I see you’ve… erm… gone through one of those ‘sex-change’ things, what do you call that?”

“I prefer to call it a ‘transition’, and I’d like to be known as a woman from now on and as a ‘she’, thanks.”

“Okay, cool. Will do… oooh, pretzels!”

My my, it’s fucking anarchy out there. It’s political correctness gone barking mad that I now have to call a woman a woman because she said she’s a woman. Jesus, where will it end?! What next, toddlers dressed as gimps? Am I not going to be allowed to shout at a deaf person? Will I have to treat someone in a wheelchair like they’re still a member of Homo sapiens? Do I now have to go about talking to women’s faces instead of their breasts? Gods-forbid I have to put any thought or effort into how I treat other people; that political correctness thing has just gone too far!

Look, guys, I get it. I really do. I understand that you’ve never had your position challenged or even pointed out to you before. That gives you a sense of what the “default” should be from a perspective, and it’s a valid perspective, but it’s limited to one only. You go around hopping up steps all day on your perfectly working legs, so you don’t get to see what it’s like to get up those steps with a crippling injury and the necessity of a fucking ramp. You read “inspirational” quotes next to pictures of Minions on JPEG files and think literally nothing of it because, thanks to functioning eyeballs, you don’t have to use a screen reader to interact with your computer. You’re completely de-sensitised to churches being everywhere in the country, but get antsy when it turns out there’s a mosque within a ten mile radius of your house simply because it’s unfamiliar, and strange, and it’s new so must be an encroachment of some kind. You’re male so you haven’t had the demeaning effect of wolf-whistling thrown at you, but you imagine it happening and you think it must be a compliment, and you’d love it to happen to you because your life doesn’t have the background context of conflicting pressures to be raucous-but-not-slutty, prim-but-not-prude, and nor do you feel the effects of tangible sexual assault statistics so you wonder what’s the harm as you shout “Smile, luv! You’ve got nice tits!” at someone for no fucking reason at all. You can hold hands with your heterosexual partner without consequence every day, and so not see the irony when you declare that two men holding hands in public counts as ‘ramming it down our throats’ because you’re not against gay people per se, just that…

You don’t get it because you’re not exposed to it – and when we ask you to think about it, it feels like effort. It feels like an affront to your fundamental rights to go about your business without thinking. It can be hard to jump out of your skin and think like someone else for a change. I’m one of those cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied white guys, too – I know the unending struggle of culture treating you as the baseline for normal, the default for every entity, and the core market to tailor everything towards. And a brave new world that doesn’t put you in the middle can seem pretty scary, so it’s perfectly understandable if you don’t want it to change.

And that’s okay. It’s fine. We understand. It’s easy to change nothing, do nothing, and dismiss the other side as “politically correct” when they ask you to do something as outlandish as consider your behaviour, or to reflect upon your attitudes.

But understand that, by doing so, you’re being a dick.

If you want to wilfully and knowingly push back against “treating other people with respect” and “not treating people like shit”, then you’re being a dick.

If you want to make up this phantom rulebook that’s oppressing your ability to bluster about the world like you own it, no matter how it affects others because fuck them, you’re being a dick.

No-one is demanding perfection first time (fuck, I’m far from it and I know it), but if you don’t at least take it on the chin and think, and instead double-down on your position, decrying “political correctness” because we told you to stop saying “coon” all the fucking time, you’re being a dick.

If you think it’s political correctness gone too far simply because in 2015 we don’t think it’s appropriate to replicate the racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, hate, disgust, mistrust, abuse, and horrible attitudes of the past, you’re being a decrepit old dinosaur who needs to die of old age already so us smart people can get on with fixing things. And you’re being a dick.

Can we please all stop being dicks?

As a Matter of Fact…

Just to clear something up.

According to some (mentioned in a Breaskfast News piece) David Cameron referring to asylum seekers as a “swarm” is just “plain speaking” and “telling it like it is” – those phrases being the world’s most common euphemisms for assholes to excuse their asshole-ness.

But no.

No it isn’t.

Plain speaking, if it has to be anything, is factual, non-emotive, and free from connotation, simile and metaphor. It doesn’t have to be restricted to the most common 1,000 words in the language but it should stick closely to a few simple verbs and nouns common enough to be used without ambiguity, as close to their literal definitions as possible. And since humans can’t literally swarm because the primary definition of “swarm” refers to insects, calling a group of a people a “swarm” isn’t plain, nor matter-of-fact.

The connotation of the word is that people are now insect-like, insignificant, worthy of extermination and brutal inhuman treatment. Anything in “plain English” shouldn’t have such connotation.

I have no problem with David Cameron calling people a “swarm”. I have no problem with people using words outside their literal definitions for effect – it’s the joy of speaking something as wonderfully incoherent as English. But don’t deny this is what you’re doing. Don’t pretend that you’re not doing it, or pretend that you’re speaking plainly when you’re riddling your rhetoric with bullshit.

“The cat sat on the mat” is plain, matter-of-fact speaking. “The bloody mongrel dragged its scabby, sordid arse all over my nice new rug” is not, quite obviously. “The cat squatted on the mat” alters it less with a slightly negative connotation, “the cat postured on the mat” alters it for a slightly positive connotation – yet the facts do not change. It’s also no accident that the terms “climate change denialist” and “climate change skeptic” are used on different sides of the fence (though I’m obligated at this point to mention that one of those is more appropriate than the other).

“A group of people”, “many people”, “people,” or “X-thousand people” is matter-of-fact. “A swarm” or a “hoard” is something else that implies more by association of the words with concepts outside of the mere facts at hand.

So if you’re one of those people who likes to “tell it as it is”, I hope this helps.

Percentages (Procedures vs Understanding)

I can’t remember if I’ve ranted about this before somewhere, but here it is for posterity anyway.

Have you ever noticed how at school you’re taught this:


Basic percentages. Divide your numbers, multiply by 100, and you get your percentage. Easy, simple, procedural, and easily rattled off in an exam.

Except, no. No. Not at all. You don’t multiply by 100. That gets you the number, it doesn’t get you the percentage. “100*(14/20)” gets you “70”, not “70%”.

This is because by its own definition, a percentage is a fraction, where by one full unit is normalised to “100”. So 70%, as a digital number, is 0.7.* As a fraction, 70% is 7/10, or 14/20 or 70/100. It is not equivalent to 70. Although it’s implied to get you that number (the equivalent implicit multiplication by 1,000 gets you the rarely used “per-mille” unit, ‰), at no point does multiplying by 100 actually get that actual percentage. It’s effectively included in the definition already.

* It could be anything, of course. 70% of 2 is 1.4 – but you get that by multiplying 2 by 0.7, not by 1.4 or by 70. In any case, the whole thing itself, no matter what it is, is normalised to 100, the equivalent decimal is normalised to 1 the same way.

Have you ever looked at the “%” and “‰” symbols?

In fact, the word “per” usually translates to “divided by” (kilometres per hour means kilometres travelled divided by the time taken) and “cent” means 100. So “percent” means “divided by 100”. The symbol “%” is quite literally a unit, and the unit conveys meaning just as much as km/hr or m/s or Js or Kgm-2s-2. And sticking numbers in there and having a “per hundred” or “per 250” or something like that isn’t unheard of, and pops up whenever it’s convenient to rescale your units to sensible numbers. That’s already what we do when we talk about “kilometers per hour” because the SI unit is the metre, so kph is actually “1,000 meters per hour” – or “1,000 meters per 3,600 seconds” since we may as well go all out on this.

What you have really written when you’ve formally put “x100” in your expression/equation is the following:


“(14/20) * 100 = 70%” implies that “7,000 = 70”. Which is absurd.

If you take out that “x100” you get 14/20 = 70/100 = 70%, which is arithmetically correct.

So far, so obnoxiously trivial.

But I think from a pedagogical point of view this might, actually, be quite important. Not just in a narrow, pedantic sense about a bit of numeracy, but in a wider sense about how we (by which, I mean “schools”) teach things as procedures to be followed, rather than as concepts to be applied and understood. The “x100” bit is certainly implied, and it gets you the right number, but it’s not a formal part of getting you the percentage. Sticking it there as a formality strips out understanding percentages, and changes it into a set of steps to be triggered one after each other, without stopping to think about exactly what is happening.

The trouble with procedural steps is that they then only get applied to one situation and one situation only. Thinking about “%” as a unit that means “per 100” is, in fact, incredibly powerful, as looking at units and letting them guide you will let you blag your way through physics, mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetics and near-enough all times that arithmetic rears its head in science. But no, every school kid out there is left just thinking that when they want a “%”, they need to divide and multiply by 100. It’s nothing but sticking a bit of trivia into a drop down menu to be used in a few narrow situations.

And not to mention that procedural steps put together are notoriously difficult to recall. For anyone with even a mild gift at numbers the percent thing might look too simple, so to illustrate this let’s jump to an example from chemistry:

That’s a rotary evaporator, a common piece of laboratory equipment for evaporating solvents – whenever you see a generic scientist on the TV and they’re not using a Gilson pipette, they’ll probably be using a rotovap. The thing just screams “lab” at you.

The main aim is to use a water bath to heat a sample and evaporate solvent. It also uses a reduced pressure so that you don’t need as much heat to do it – the vacuum does the hard work for you. It’s a fairly simple piece of kit under all that mess, and only a handful of components are involved. Yet the first time an undergraduate chemist sees one they practically shit themselves.

So what’s the first thing a student will look for? Of course, the instructions – usually a point-by-point procedure on how to go about doing it.

And they read the procedure.

And they follow it.

And they do it.

And, hell, they successfully complete the task without getting parts of their body stuck in a lettuce and screaming “my god, the blood, it’s everywhere!”.

And then they promptly forget how to do it less than ten minutes later.

I’m not kidding, the recall on using these things is fucking appalling if all students are given is the step-by-step instructions.

It’s not because the equipment is particularly complicated. It’s just that when written out formally the procedure is about a dozen steps long, and it induces a sudden panic about doing things in the right order. “Do I do this before that? Do I turn this valve first or press this button first, and… oh gods, when do I turn this dial and when do I stop it… and…”

Well, pretty soon you’re dealing with a supposedly grown adult freaking the fuck out.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

If you know why the bloody thing works in the first place, the procedure pretty much writes itself.

“Do I lower the flask into the water first, or turn the vacuum on first?” Well, if you know that the vacuum lowers the boiling point of the solvent, then you’ll know that heating it up first, and then turning the vacuum on risks flash-boiling the entire thing as you lower the boiling point to below the water bath’s temperature. If you turn the vacuum on first, then the pressure lowers, the solvent evaporates, adiabatic expansion cools it down, then you warm it up by lowering the flask into the water bath.

The same thing applies to gas lines, where instructions tend to be along the lines of “Open tap 1, now close tap 5, after that close tap 6 and open tap 2 slowly, break the seal on tap 4 and close tap 1 again…” Even I glaze over reading those things andknow what the hell I’m doing with that kit! Yet if you ask “now, what do you need to expose to the vacuum pump right now?” and let them figure out which tap to open, they can usually do it. You might have to stop, flick them on the nose, and actually prompt the question, but it’s absolutely not beyond the capabilities of someone to figure it out on their own. The procedure writes itself.

It’s a bit more information to take in at first, and it might be quite a bit of effort to actually teach it compared to writing down the procedural list. But you can’t get the procedure wrong once you’ve learned the actual inner workings of the equipment: because the wrong procedure makes no sense at all.

And that can apply back to percentages, too. Someone just taught it might ask “I can’t remember, do I divide by 100, or multiply by 100 to get the percentage?” Don’t laugh there, anyone just taught to rote-memorise the procedure can seriously fall into that trap. But when you actually know what “%” means, that question literally answers itself.