Tuesday, February 13, 2007

ranting about PC

I'm usually a fan of being considerate with language. I favor many phrasings that others consider Political Correctness. I find that when people don't want to accept a new "PC" way to talk about something, more often than not they don't know much about the issue and don't really care to learn.

However:

Someone took someone else to task recently for using the phrase "That's the pot calling the kettle black." The concern was expressed politely:

I'd be careful about using this phrase, for reasons that are associated with modern modes of thought. When you refer to "the pot calling the kettle black," in the usual usage, you're implying that being dark-colored is a bad thing.

But to me, this borders on egregious silliness. With all due respect for this person's intelligence, class, erudition, and articulate-ivity-ness, I have to say this is waaaay too PC for me. At some point we need to move modern modes of thought out of the dark ages (ba-bump).

In the first place, the negative implications of the pot's and kettle's blackness is an extremely minor part of the metaphor; the point is they are both the same -- neither is more X than the other.

Secondly, the traditional conception of white/black as representing good/evil is emphatically NOT a racist invention. It's a natural and almost universal idea extending from the fact that daylight (the Sun) brings light, warmth, life, safety while night/darkness represents danger, cold, the unknown, the eternal sleep of death, etc.
The sky, clouds, water, etc. -- light/white things are types of purity, cleanliness, the desirable, the beautiful.
Mould, corruption, mud/earth -- dark things are easily seen as types of death and/or evil.

The racist part: For years our predisposition to think of white=good/black=evil WAS used to excuse racist attitudes and practices WRT white/non-white peoples’ place in the world. There have even been brown people who thought that whites were somehow more blessed by God.

But since most people now recognize that as nonsense, I think we can give human beings credit for being intelligent enough to understand that the life/death aspects of light/darkness
do not apply when we're talking about skin color. IMO, we don’t have to throw away a racially-neutral metaphor just because some have abused it or don’t understand it. What’s next? Should we abolish certain use of the uses of "high" and "low" (high art, high road, high achievement, high hopes, low expectations, lowbrow, low score, low class, etc) because short people might think it means they're not as good?

18 Comments:

At Tue Feb 13, 10:07:00 AM PST, Blogger jay aitch said...

Amen and amen! The color of our skin doesn't make us better or worse than anyone else, but taking these old sayings and tearing them apart and searching and digging for ways to make them out to be racist is beyond ridiculous.

 
At Tue Feb 13, 01:56:00 PM PST, Blogger jay are said...

when people talk about things like the "fatted calf" or a "bit, fat raise" I figure they're trying to be sly but really referring to me. I wish they'd just stop.

 
At Tue Feb 13, 02:06:00 PM PST, Blogger jay are said...

and that would actually be: "a biG, fat raise"...no little "bits" about it.

 
At Tue Feb 13, 06:04:00 PM PST, Blogger si said...

gee, never considered "pot calling kettle black" having to do with anything but being the same -- never considered it a racist term (may be naive here). agree with the hyper-sensitivity. brings to mind the superbowl commercial about kevin federline and the fast-food workers -- how this ad was offensive to them. i mean, please!

tho, the low/short terms should definitely be banned! ;-)

and jay are -- you made me laugh!

 
At Tue Feb 13, 06:35:00 PM PST, Blogger blogball said...

“I find that when people don't want to accept a new "PC" way to talk about something, more often than not they don't know much about the issue and don't really care to learn.”


Isn’t this statement a little presumptuous?
Maybe this person knows and doesn’t care and speaks from his or her heart because this person feels it’s even worse to patronize the person as if he or she doesn’t recognize when something is just a phrase or a figure of speech and has nothing to do with someone’s race, creed or color. (What ever the innocent phrase may be)

Aren’t we defeating the whole purpose when we introduce as you put it a “new PC way to talk” We start to be so conscience of saying the right thing that we are thinking more about that person’s color or race than the guy speaking from the heart.

 
At Tue Feb 13, 07:22:00 PM PST, Blogger Extrem4 said...

How about calling the kettle a "Carbonian" instead of black.
But that's just me, "I am not your colorman." Sorry I couldn't resist the inside joke.

 
At Wed Feb 14, 08:38:00 AM PST, Blogger unca said...

Well, for the record, I would never use the phrase, "Pot calling the kettle black" anywhere near an academic campus (that's how careful you have to be). What about the phrase, "That's very white of you"? (you don't hear it very often any more but what is meant? By the way, how many of us have stopped using the word "gypped"? I have. Sorry, I'm rambling.

 
At Wed Feb 14, 10:30:00 AM PST, Blogger jay are said...

I would think that "the pot calling the kettle black (or carbonian)" is far different than "that's very white of you". Different planets, even. And I can't believe it was only not so long ago that I clued into the connection between "gypped" and Gypsies. Duh. But that's how integrated many of these things are.

 
At Wed Feb 14, 11:58:00 AM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

ja aitch, thx for your support.

jay are, how do you feel about phat? as in "Dang, girl, you're lookin' phat!"

si, i missed the sooper bowl, but i'll look up the commercials on youtube.

blogball, you could be right (being presumptous is my self-appointed role), but i thot i covered myself by saying "more often than not". i *have* met people who are enlightened but choose to reject some PC phrases (i think i are one, actually). but i stand by my recollection of my experience: most of the time, when someone rejects a new term even after an explanation of the insult we're trying to avoid, it seems to stem from a basic anti-whatever bias.
example: if someone we know asks us to use her maiden name after her divorce, and we deliberately refuse, almost everyone woudl consider that rude; and that's exactly how it feels to me when someone refuses to let go of words like "squaw" or "negro" or "colored person" even after the context, the history or connotations of the word have been explained.

unca, i agree with jay are, "very white of you" is a way different deal than pots and kettles.

as to "gypped", i didn't know until now that there was a gypsy connection. i guess i'll just have to go back to saying "i got jewed..." ;-)

 
At Wed Feb 14, 12:01:00 PM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

speaking of which, a woman who worked for me was jewish and came from philadelphia. she told me she'd never heard the phrase "he jewed me down" till she came to california, which is supposed to be a hotbed of political correctness. go figure.

PS. i hope it's not necessary to clarify that i do NOT think that phrase is in any way okay...

 
At Wed Feb 14, 06:55:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

However, there's no reason to believe that the phrase, "Very white of you" means anything else than the black/white distinction Bryan makes, below. In fact, the origin may not have racial basis at all. However, I would say that because it sounds as if it has racial overtones it should proably be avoided (but then again, one could use the same logic to reject the black kettel thing too. "It's a natural and almost universal idea extending from the fact that daylight (the Sun) brings light, warmth, life, safety while night/darkness represents danger, cold, the unknown, the eternal sleep of death, etc.
The sky, clouds, water, etc. -- light/white things are types of purity, cleanliness, the desirable, the beautiful.
Mould, corruption, mud/earth -- dark things are easily seen as types of death and/or evil."

 
At Wed Feb 14, 06:56:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

How about if someone comments on someones "Irish Temper"? Bad?

 
At Wed Feb 14, 07:48:00 PM PST, Blogger Dan Agonistes said...

Ran into something similar awhile back:
http://danagonistes.blogspot.com/2006/10/case-of-politically-correct-pinkie.html

Also reminds me of the "Indian giver" exchange on Seinfeld, not that there's anything wrong with that...

 
At Thu Feb 15, 01:17:00 AM PST, Blogger Cal said...

Hm. I submit that "mighty white of you" (unlike the pot and kettle, which are clearly black because the fire has burned them), has no reasonable or rational non-racial explanation. While Bryan's points about the non-racial aspects of white/black and light/dark comparisons are perfectly valid, it does not therefore follow that any white/black phrase might be of ambiguous origin.

To my thinking, there is no ambiguity about either the connotations or the origins of "that's white of you". According to OED, an accepted meaning of "white", originating in the 1800's, is "honorable, fair-dealing". One needn't look too closely at the racial situation in english-speaking parts of the world at that time (slavery, colonialism) to figure out how this meaning of "white" came into usage.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 07:27:00 AM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

my $.02:

1) i agree with Cal. the YOU in "mighty white of you" makes it about the color of a person -- not necessarily specifically their skin, but nonetheless tightly enough tied to them, to their identity, to be more closely associated with race than with sunshine/darkness, and far more closely than pots and kettles.

2) thx for that reminder, Dan. i remember liking that post.

3) "Irish temper" i put in the category of "if you know it bothers a particular person, don't use it, but it's not necessary to make it a general rule, like the N-word is."

There's also another contextual factor that informs this discussion: that of Dominant Culture vs Oppressed Group. The OG naturally will be more picky about the standard of discourse than the DC will.
Generalizations about the DC, or highlighting DC membership almost never carries the negative impact that the equivalent statement about the OG does.
This may appear inequitable, but it is natural and right. Context is everything. Getting hung up on trying to make all the rules "even" at the micro level suggests a lack of understanding of the big picture, and in my experience is often an indicator of (possibly unacknowledged) bias.
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

 
At Thu Feb 15, 02:35:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

Just to clarify, I'm certainly not advocating the use of "very white of you" in anyone's conversation (though my sister used to use this phrase in a race-free way--or else she would never have used it). Anyway, the larger point is that this kind of language is not as categorical as we might like to think--not all black and white (pun intended).

 
At Fri Feb 16, 04:54:00 PM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

just so you know, i understood that you weren't lobbying for "mighty white of ya", unca.
i agree that the whole things a can of worms, a gray area, a slippery slope, very difficult to call a spade a spade, as it were.

 
At Sat Feb 17, 06:24:00 AM PST, Blogger unca said...

OK, now you ARE in trouble, Bryan.

 

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