Atanu Dey On India's Development

Denying reality

The business plan was about creating a business which would help the blind become more productive. But the presenter took elaborate pains to avoid the word “blind”and instead constantly referred to the “visually challenged.” I suppose the PC police would have immediately handcuffed and hauled off anyone who was so insensitive as to directly point to blindness and call it such. No, a person is not blind but visually challenged. And I wondered how long before the PC police decree that “visually challenged” is itself un-PC and now you have to refer to blind people as “visually differently enabled” and in due time, it would have to be “non-visually enhanced” and then to “non-visually gifted.”

There is something perverse in the verbal contortions attempted to appear politically correct. Being blind is abnormal but it is not a stigma. Making the word unacceptable needlessly stigmatizes the person. If it were possible to alter reality by denying it, I would be wholeheartedly in the business of denial. If we could get rid of poverty by calling poor people “economically challenged,” you bet I would never ever talk about poor people but go one step ahead and call them “economic opportunity group.” Short people would first be “vertically challenged” and then “horizontally gifted” and finally perhaps “potential vertical opportunity group.”

This phenomenon of attempting to alter reality by denying uncomfortable aspects of it reaches it pinnacle in the automatic replacement of certain words. In the US, the word “black” to refer to people of African descent was considered an improvement on the racial term “negro” (which etymologically means black in Spanish and Portuguese). Then black itself got demoted to being a derogatory term and the new correct way was “colored” and then colored became “African American.” Every instance of black was automatically replaced by “African American” in word processing software of some PC newspapers. So a black and white photograph now became “African American and white photo” or the company’s bottomline was finally in the “African American.”

All this verbal gymnastics would be amusing were it not that there are real world adverse consequences that arise from it. Terrorism, for instance, is a reality which cannot be confronted by denying the root causes of terrorism. Poverty, similarly, has very easy to identify causes but which must not be named. There is an infantile superstition that makes some people believe that by naming something, that something comes into being. It is like African American, err, I mean black magic.

It is not hard to look squarely at reality and admit that things are not perfect. That acknowledgment is a necessary first step on the long journey to change whatever we can change. Yes, poverty exists because poor people exist. By calling them “economically disadvantaged” you do not reduce poverty. As the Buddha taught, we have to mindfully observe the both the internal and the external world so that we can comprehend the nature of reality. Only then can we hope to be effective. We need to acknowledge that we many of us are metaphorically blind and a few of us are literally blind, and only then we can make progress on our path of enlightenment.


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  2. Language is often used to blur the truth rather than communicate effectively. All of us do this is different contexts. The PC brigade (IMHO) attempts to blur the distinction between the have’s and the have not’s, more to lessen the guilt of the haves. The have not’s dont give a damn. I am yet to meet a poor guy (or is that person :) who called himself financially challenged or a blind guy who said he is visually challenged. When we were kids people did not think twice about this. For instance anyone who was squint eyed was called ‘dori’. To their face. In fact to me it seemed that it helped these guys shake off any stigma about it or fix it if it made that much of an impact. Bipasha basu is certianly ‘dori’ and is all the better for it :)I have had various such nicknames ‘sotai’ (baldy, though i am not) ‘pal'(tooth, as one of mine sticks out), ‘karia’ (black, For my Afro-Amer hue) etc. Never has bothered me (the tooth still sticks out and i am as afro-american as ever :)… Guess this shit is not worth the time we waste on it. Calling a blind guy visually challenged seems to lessen the need to do something about it. IAC most of the PC brigade if pressed will admit they will do everyting in their power to help, short of real help.

  3. My understanding is that the term visually challenged, is used to group several degrees of visual impairment, from complete blindness to partial cases like extreme myopia. People with partial blindness are slightly better off, but they often have to use the same tools as those who are completely blind.

    Was the business plan in question targetted exclusively towards those with complete blindness ? I’m guessing it wasn’t. Ergo, the use of “visually impaired”.

  4. And it doesn’t stop at newspapers too. I must tell you the new PC-version of the popular nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ that’s on the CD I just picked up for my son. It goes something like this:

    Mother: Baa Baa Pink Sheep
    Child: Noooooooo…it’s not pink
    Mother: It isn’t? Ok, let’s start again. Baa Baa Yellow Sheep
    Child: No…..sheep are not yellow, they’re black or white.
    Mother: Really? Ok then. Baa Baa Black Sheep….

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  6. While I agree that political correctness is taken too far, some of these did have reasons behind them; ‘Negro’ for example by virtue of offensive usage over time, I think, became offensive, though as you mentioned, the word itself doesnt mean anything offensive.

  7. Reminds me of that post on poverty in US where hungry people were replaced ‘people with low food security’:

  8. Sir,
    the same verbal gymnasts are enacted with regard to “lunatics”. changed to disabled due to mentalillness.Then someone came up with mentally challenged,intellectually challenged.Immediately the mental retarded lobby usurped the same and started calling themselves as mentally challenged.Now the mentallyill have come up with Psychoscocial disabled. i donot know how thew bureacracy in the social justice ministry will react to this as still rehabilitation council act 1992 doesnot include pscyhosocial disabled while Persons with disabilities equal opportunities act 1995 included disabled with mentalillness.So they just donot help and the mentallyill wander the streets after abondoned by the family.only the banyan of chennai accomodates 500 abondoned mentallyill woman. Not even delhi has ahome for the ABONDONED MENTALLYILL while skudglerry with words continue.

  9. I do not think that there is a sharp line demarcating black and white in verbal gymnastics. Some times it doesn’t make sense – such as replacing ‘blind’ by ‘visually challenged’. On other times it does make sense – such as replacing ‘chamaar’ by ‘harijan’ or ‘dalit’.

    The guiding principle should be to respect the sensitivities of the affected group. If the label has been used in derogative reference, it is justified to change it, otherwise not.

  10. Wholeheartedly agree with your post. These verbal gymnastics act as a means to distract people from the real problem. I don’t really understand the modern worlds obsession with political correctness at all. To me it seems that it is only an attempt at not doing anything concrete and just playing around with words at the dinner table. Calling blacks as african americans is not going to change the fact that they are being discriminated left right and centre in the US of A.

  11. Some observations:
    1. Discrimination against words appears to be an American invention. Imagine my surprise when going through ‘racial discrimination information session for Teaching Assistants’ at a US university, I discovered that ‘Oriental’ can be perceived as a racially charged epithet!

    2. The height of hypocrisy is that Afro-Americans refer to each other as ‘niggers’ all the time and it’s okay. But if a non-AA person as much as utters the word, it is a serious offense.

    3. Sanjay – chamaar is just apabhransha of charmakaar i.e. leather artisan. Harijan / dalit was created for the untouchables (‘bhangis’) who were in the business of cleaning toilets.

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