The New Etiquette?

People sometimes claim that ‘political correctness’ (whatever precisely that is*) is ‘the new censorship’. Usually this is because they’re dickwads.

It occurred to me that perhaps a more appropriate phrase might be ‘the new etiquette’. That is – things like how to ask a transperson what gender identity they prefer, or what ethnic description, etc. doesn’t really bear any relationship to a government sending the secret police to stamp out those criticising it. But they do bear a strong relationship to Victorian Britons reading manuals on how to propose marriage, how to discuss religion, or whatever.

I think this is quite a nice way to look at the matter – though like any analogy it’s not perfect. I like it firstly because it locates the ideas of politeness and rudeness at the centre of the issue, downplaying the element of ‘politics’. It also clarifies the relationship of political correctness to freedom of speech –  an etiquette manual aims to help people to do certain things more smoothly and confidently, rather than dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Of course your opinion of the analogy is liable to be affected by your opinion of etiquette itself – if you think it’s a prudish, pointless waste of time, serving only to forge pedantry into a form of class discrimination, then you’ll want to distance anything considered positive from it. But conversely, one might feel that whatever particular form it took in past cases, the idea of a code that clarifies how we are to interact is a basically good one.

To push a little more, it’s clearly not bad that there be some regularity, some collectively-recognised protocols, for there is no interaction without them. Even when we are chilling with our friends on the sofa in our pyamas, there are ways of speaking that aren’t considered appropriate, ways of phrasing things that minimise or needlessly increase tension and awkwardness.

The distinctive feature of etiquette is really just that we have to make it explicit, that we don’t just use it, we talk about it. And in that case, it’s neither a bad thing nor a good thing in itself, because it is bound up with the reason why it needs to be talked about.

One reason might be that this allows it to be restricted to a certain class, or that this allows it to become pointlessly complex. But in the case of what’s called “political correctness”, that clearly isn’t the main reason – the main reason is that we are trying to transform society, to make a break with, for example, heteronormativity. Consequently, we cannot simply draw on the unspoken codes of heteronormative society, but must rather try to forge the codes of a future society, differently constituted, inclusive and pluralistic where this one is violently exclusive and conformist.

*While the notion is ill-defined and quite possibly should be dropped, hopefully readers have some idea what sorts of things I have in mind.

5 Responses to “The New Etiquette?”

  1. missivesfrommarx Says:

    Hey, I LOVE this post, especially the first paragraph. I’m sharing it with friends now …

  2. charliemarks Says:

    I’m guessing this was inspired by last night’s episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle? ‘Twas very funny.

    Isn’t it interesting that people like Jim Davidson express feelings of oppression at not being able to make racist, sexist, or homophobic jokes? The ironic use of stereotypes in the comedy of, for example, Matt Lucas and David Walliams is tolerated because the intent is seemingly benign. The problem for comics of Davidsons ilk is that they are unable to adjust to a new comedic paradigm – to use the old material in a new way, which is pretty much what Little Britain does.

  3. Clare Says:

    Thanks for this post, I’m going to remember this. I hate the term “political correctness” – nowadays it’s usually used sneeringly by people who don’t want to modify their behaviour. “Etiquette” is a neat way of framing the issue. It makes sense intuitively. Nice.

  4. Being Amber Rhea » Blog Archive » links for 2009-04-23 Says:

    […] The New Etiquette? « Directionless Bones "It occurred to me that perhaps a more appropriate phrase might be ‘the new etiquette’. That is – things like how to ask a transperson what gender identity they prefer, or what ethnic description, etc. doesn’t really bear any relationship to a government sending the secret police to stamp out those criticising it. But they do bear a strong relationship to Victorian Britons reading manuals on how to propose marriage, how to discuss religion, or whatever. […]

  5. stuff i’ve been reading (on the ‘net) | the feminist librarian Says:

    […] A new way to think about the concept of “political correctness.” […]


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