We were having a family meal (you know, back in the old days when you could) and I made a comment about something or other I think involving a jazz singer. My children half-gasped and then laughed. ‘You can’t say that, Mum!’
I sighed. I am too old/naive/stupid (delete as appropriate) for the world today.
It wasn’t so long ago* that political correctness was ‘the thing’. That was okay; I could sort of cope with that if I really concentrated. But now ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ are ‘the things’, and there are far too many opportunities for me to get it wrong.
If you know me, either in real life or through my writings, I hope you will consider me a well-meaning person. I hate the thought of causing offence to anyone. I genuinely want to say the right thing but I do find life, and in particular, vocabulary, flummoxing.
I’m a child of the 60s – okay, a teenager of the 60s – a time of love and peace (apart from the Vietnam war), when we all dreamed of going to San Francisco wearing flowers in our hair. The only thing we were anti was war.
Now I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be anti. I know I definitely shouldn’t be anti-Semitic –and that sort of double negative plays havoc with my head especially as the anti-bit is the bad bit.
Are you still with me? I need to be ‘woke’.
The term ‘woke’ originated in African American dialect and means to be socially aware, particul-arly in relation to racial issues, but now taken more generally to mean awareness of inequal-ities because of colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or age.
So far so good. That seems straightforward and as it should be. I’ve read enough to know that white privilege is a fact, and I’ve had enough men address my chest, while patronising me, to appreciate the gender imbalance.
So, to call offenders out on those things is the right thing to do. And that’s where cancel culture comes in. According to one dictionary, cancel culture is ‘the withdrawal of support, mostly on social media platforms, from public figures who have said or done something considered socially unacceptable.’
Again, that seems reasonable provided the offender is given an opportunity to explain, learn, apologise. Things that were acceptable to say when I was young are no longer tolerated, and I need to realise and appreciate that. The problem arises when no opportunity is given. It is punishment with no chance of rehabilitation, and, as with most good ideas, it can be taken to extremes, and can become little more than a witch hunt.
People – and I include myself here – can be quick to judge and slow to question or check the veracity of statements, especially on social media. I used to be really gullible. Anyone could tell me anything and I’d believe it was the truth. Now, sadly, it’s the opposite: I doubt everything, especially anything that comes out of the mouth of a government minister.
I hope I’m not the only person struggling to work out what is and isn’t acceptable, especially when there is a bit of my non-pc brain that is saying, ‘Oh for goodness sake, does that really matter in the grand scheme of things?’ (Correct answer, yes it does. And in case there’s any doubt it might help to remember that ex-President Trump was a vociferous opponent of political correctness.)
The trouble is that, at my age, even if I’ve work-ed out what I can say, by the time I get to say it chances are I’ll have forgotten what it was I wanted to say anyway. So maybe it’s best if I just remember what Jesus said.
He’d been asked why his disciples didn’t wash their hands before eating. To be fair, in these post-Covid days, we would probably ask the same question, but it wasn’t for health and safety reasons that the religious leaders of the day were asking. They were just grouchy because Jesus’ disciples weren’t following their rules.
Jesus threw the charge back at them and point-ed out that, ‘What goes into someone’s mouth isn’t the problem. It’s the things that come out of a person’s mouth that cause the trouble.’ Meaning what we say, even when it’s inadvertent and innocently meant, can hurt.
On reflection, maybe I should follow the course recommended by the writer of Ecclesiastes: Let your words be few. Or if I can’t do that, take the advice of my favourite bible character, Peter, who said, ‘Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.’
Thank God for that.
*Apparently the phrase ‘politically correct’ has been in use in various guises since 1793 but was popularised in the early 1990s, and I realise even that is about thirty years ago.