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Questionable wisdom of being politically correct

Questionable wisdom of being politically correct
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 10 58 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 10 58 PM IST
So, I’m wondering: is it OK to be sexist but not so OK to be racist? I ask this question not in the background of Hillary vs Obama but maa ki vs monkey.
Now, if you’ve ever sat in a DTC bus in Delhi, you’ll be pretty familiar with the maa ki lexicon. In its expanded form, it refers not to motherly love but to a rather delicate part of her anatomy. Harbhajan Singh has admitted to referring disparagingly to Andrew Symonds’s mother (and I’m sure Zinedine Zidane has some thoughts on this), which, in some strange way, is less offensive than if he had called him a monkey, an animal that is venerated and even worshipped in India.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the protocol that governs the ‘gentleman’s game’, but we do live in times where political correctness can take bizarre overtones. There’s a famous story—probably apocryphal—about a waiter in a coffee shop who refused to serve a man who ordered “black coffee,” insisting that his order was racist and that he change it to “coffee without milk.” I’ve been reading about some classrooms in the US that have chalk-boards not blackboards. And I’m not even going to take you through “herstory” instead of history and “womyn” rather than women.
Indian context
Political correctness in India, thank God, has not reached the heights of obsession that it has in the West, particularly in Western academia. Yet, we are seeing signs. In December last year, Lucknow police charged Anil Ambani and his Reliance Communications Ltd with “insulting a religion or faith” after Sikhs in Meerut staged protests over the mobile company’s “joke of the day” to subscribers via a text message.
Reliance protested that the joke had been supplied by a third-party supplier. No matter, the joke was withdrawn, apologies were issued all around and tempers soon cooled down.
Are sardarji jokes offensive? Most certainly, as offensive as blonde jokes or Irish jokes (though not in the same league as George Bush jokes – he’s fair game).
In December, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati threatened to take action against Aaja Nachle, Madhuri Dixit’s comeback film, because a line in a song made a derogatory reference to a certain backward community (I never heard the song; I don’t know what the reference was). The line was promptly withdrawn.
So far, so good. But sometimes, political correctness (PC) can seem suspiciously like tokenism.
My PC Crown of the Week goes to health minister Anbumani Ramadoss who during the course of a TV interview asked film star Shah Rukh Khan to stop smoking on screen. Ramadoss, as is well known, is a bitter opponent of the cigarette lobby and past efforts include introducing a bill that will make smoking illegal in the workplace (many offices already, quite rightly, have a no-smoking rule). He would also like to see graphic pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packets.
All this is fine. India, reportedly has 10 million people under the age of 15 who smoke. Some 2,500 die every day because of tobacco use. But, I’m not sure the situation will change if actors quit smoking on screen. And why stop at cigarettes? Why not ban showing violence against women? Why not outlaw the depiction of harsh words spoken to children?
Bigotry charges
Further off, a controversy in American academia has been played down a bit in India. Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s South African born grandson and the founder of the MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, located in the University of Rochester in New York, posted a blog hosted by The Washington Post. Titled Jewish identity can’t depend on violence, Gandhi argued that Jewish identity had been locked into the holocaust experience and that, ”any nation that remains anchored to the past is unable to move ahead.”
The post generated a huge controversy. Gandhi was accused of bigotry. He apologized. No matter, the furore refused to die down. He resigned, a resignation that was promptly accepted by the University of Rochester president, ironically, just two days before the anniversary of Gandhiji’s martyrdom. And, just as ironically, at a time when thousands of hungry, needy Palestinians desperate for food and medicine breached a wall in Gaza to enter Egypt.
Now the resignation has resulted in a counter-furore: this time the allegation is that the powerful Jewish lobby has stifled Gandhi’s right to free speech.
Political correctness has its origin in removing language that is derogatory or insulting to people based on their sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or physical ability. Let’s face it, certain words are offensive and should be deleted from public memory. The intention behind PC is entirely laudable.
But, when it becomes absurd (as in Bhajji) or superficial (Ramadoss) or even inimical to the right to speak your mind (Arun Gandhi), you have to question its wisdom.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Feb 04 2008. 10 58 PM IST