The veteran broadcaster Eamonn Holmes from Northern Ireland recently got himself into trouble when he used the word ‘uppity’ when talking about the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.
The 60-year-old presenter was questioned by his broadcasting employer last month after a complaint was made about his use of the word which has racial connotations. The head of diversity for the broadcaster wrote to the complainant explaining Eamonn was unaware of the history of the term ‘uppity’ and how it could be interpreted when describing Meghan Markle.
Historically, the term ‘uppity’ has been used in America to describe slaves who were acting above their ‘rightful place’ but in the UK it is used in context of social standing with no racial undertones.
In the USA a movement is emerging and driven largely by students to remove words, ideas and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offence. In 2017, Professor Jeannie Suk of Harvard University wrote an online article for The New Yorker about law students requesting rape law should no longer be part of the syllabus. In another case students asked professors not to use the word violate as it causes students distress.
A number of popular comedians, including Jerry Seinfeld, have stopped performing on college campuses publicly condemning the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A new term microaggression impacts word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?” because this implies that he or she is not a real American.
The media has described these developments as a resurgence of past political correctness. There are important differences between what’s happening now and what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then there was a move to restrict hate speech aimed at marginalised groups. What is happening today is focused on not causing others emotional distress.
Historically those in the education profession focused on teaching students how to think and not what to think. The idea goes back as far as Socrates and is a way of teaching that develops critical thinking by encouraging students to question their own beliefs, as well as engrained ideas of others.
Part of the role of educational establishments and those who are teaching is to make sure students are taught to think in different ways. It must prepare them for professional life in the big wide world where they will have to survive. The real world demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas that might make others uncomfortable or even disgusted.
There is no doubt that the world where I grew up has for many vanished and been consigned to history. In recent years driven by increased awareness of crime, parents have restricted the freedoms children previously enjoyed. The freedoms I enjoyed as a child are viewed as irresponsible for many of the parents of today.
This change has resulted in many young people becoming young adults who are ill prepared for the real world. The social media generation of today fear what their words might do to their reputations and careers damage by stirring up online mobs against them.
This certainly is not progress.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org