GRAHAM ENGLISH. Virtue signallers, the left wing, and the politically correct

May 2, 2019

I try to follow the advice of one of my old teachers that if you cannot write as well as Jane Austen or one of the greats you can at least aim to be intelligible. Avoiding clichés and popular catch phrases is always a good start.

We studied a book in the last two years of school, The Use of English by Professor Mitchell of Sydney University. Boys at our school used add a few words to the title so it became What’s the Use of English? It had lots of comprehension passages and grammar and it looked at the various ways English is used. I remember a chapter on emotive language and other misuses of English. I also remember our teacher, Brother Athanasius McGlade pointing out that the Sydney evening papers, now long defunct had a reading age of nine years. I used have a questionnaire for judging students’ reading ages prepared by another professor at Sydney but I lost it somewhere. I’d like to apply it to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph which I think would be struggling to get to nine.

Mitchell warned us about emotive language. He didn’t like clichés either though I think it was him who pointed out that clichés persist because they usually contain some truth. He detested though the kind of clichés that are used to avoid arguing a case or that are thrown in as if they mean something when they have no meaning at all. I presume Mitchell is long dead but suggest he’d have something nasty to say about ‘virtue signalling’, ‘the left wing’, and ‘the politically correct’.

I was reminded of Mitchell this morning while reading an article in The Australian claiming that ‘the politically correct’ have taken over in Australia and this will lead to the possible demise of the Liberal Party. The author claimed that Australians in the 1950s were basically conservative. Now the opinion formers are basically ‘the politically correct’. The writer hastened to add that the population is not left wing. They must be just easily swayed.

I must admit that I don’t know the exact meanings of ‘virtue signalling’, ‘the left wing’, and ‘the politically correct’. For a few years I taught at university people who work with others who have a disability. The course they were doing was called ‘Habilitation’. Habilitation the dictionary says is ‘the process of supplying a person with the means to develop maximum independence in activities of daily living through training, education, and/or treatment’. Most of the habilitation students were already working with people with some disability. They were a bolshy lot. Their clients usually had little say for themselves so their carers had become advocates for them.

One of the things they advocated was the correct use of language. This became tricky for me; I haven’t worked in habilitation, because the language changed all the time. Some description that was adequate when it was first used was now not accepted. When I was a child there was a place called ‘the Spastic Centre.’ That phrase was long out of use and ‘cerebral palsy’ had taken its place. This getting of more appropriate descriptions seemed fair enough to me. Often more than fair. It gave dignity to the people it described. But ‘political correctness’ apparently is much more insidious than that. It has taken over and the conservatives are suffering from it and intent on fighting it. I think Professor Mitchell would have said that language changes all the time and we need to keep up but clearly that is not enough here.

It is the same it seems for ‘virtue signalling’. I came across this label only lately. It is used willy-nilly by some people to shoot down those they disagree with. As far as I can understand it means that some people do all they can to appear virtuous when they are not virtuous at all. In the days I was reading Mitchell such a ploy would have been called hypocrisy and there is still a lot of that about. Some people who are angry with the Catholic Church are angry for this very reason. They claim that while sexual abuse was going on and it was blatantly and intentionally covered up Church authorities were telling everyone else how to behave. But now as far as I can gather it is ‘the left wing’ and ‘the politically correct’ who are the virtue signallers but they give few examples. Apparently those who use the phrase all know what it means and know that it is bad. There is no need to argue the case.

Then there is ‘the left wing’.

The description comes originally from the French Revolution, the revolutionaries sat on one side of the chamber and the loyalists sat on the other. Later it seems to have meant the communists or anyone the right wing didn’t like. Now as far as I can see it is anyone who thinks the Labor Party is a good idea. It especially means the Greens. When I was child during the Labor Party Split the conservatives called people they didn’t like communists or at least ‘fellow travellers’. This led to family break ups among some Catholics and quite a lot of name calling mostly on the part of the right wing. Our family had few doubts about where they stood though I doubt they ever heard the term ‘left wing’ and certainly they would not have applied it or any other label to themselves except ‘Catholics’. By the way in Eastern Europe during the 1930s, the War and after a lot of Catholic intellectuals considered themselves left wing and people like Czeslaw Milosz, Leszek Kolakowski and Vaclav Haval wrote very good books about their experience. I recommend them to any young person wanting to understand some of this history of Europe.

On the ABC website at present people can fill in a questionnaire called ‘Vote Compass’ and it will tell you where you stand relative to the main political parties in the federal election. I am not sure why but when you get your results back One Nation is to the far right of the page and the Greens are to the far left and your position is placed wherever the Compass thinks you fit. I suspect that the placing of the parties is a quiet joke. One of the odd things about left and right at present is that anyone who feels our attitude to refugees is not compassionate is called ‘left wing’. A few years ago these people would have been called ‘bleeding hearts’, another odd phrase whose origin I can’t even guess. Perhaps it was coined by a conservative cardiologist.

Graham English is retired. He worked for forty-six years in Catholic Education from year three to Australian Catholic University.

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