Friday, March 26, 2010

Pristine History

I really hate political correctness. I dislike being required to treat people with 'cultural' sensitivity when they refuse to treat me with the same respect.

I believe political correctness has gone beyond the realms of common sense and into the dungeon of divisiveness where ethnicity is singled out for special treatment because of modern day interpretation of historic events.

To name names in the current environment, tempts people who don't agree with me, to call me a 'racist' rather than engage in meaningful dialogue.

Let's take an example. (Any example will be a hot button topic, so be warned.)

When writing historical fiction, is it acceptable to use the word 'nigger' or 'wog' or 'mick'? How about a 'Yank' or a 'Kraut' or 'Frog', a 'Lobster', a 'Ruskie' or a 'Skip'?

When you look at the list, why is the latter list more acceptable than the former? Is it because yanks, etc. represent Caucasian skin colour and the others don't? (Hell, pressed one of my own buttons there.)

To write a book set during the American Civil War - from the South's perspective - will necessitate the use of the word 'nigger'; it was the accepted term for the slaves. To write a book set during the Second World War - from a front-line soldier's perspective - necessitates using the words 'kraut', 'Nazi' or 'Ruskie'. New York in the 1880s-1900s, Irish immigrants were 'micks'.

Just because we have a veneer of sophistication and civilisation now, doesn't mean we can white-wash history of all its glory and dirt by creating taboos. History, the good and the bad, happened. It can't be changed. The words were used - even as the attempts to have them expunged from history continues.

The Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, was long ago turned into a folk hero for standing up to authority. Yet, this is a man who, with his gang, gunned down three police officers and had a history of assault and theft. He was eventually hanged for the shootout at Glenrowan. It is a matter of history that, in some aspects of his life, he was treated poorly by the police. Yet as little as thirty years after his death, his actions were justified by the social discord surrounding squatter-land selection rights. He is still regarded as a folk hero.

There was a time when having convict ancestors was vaguely uncomfortable for a family; now it is a source of pride. And yes, we do have a convict in the tree - probably more if I can connect them. A sheep-stealer, in fact. Acquitted the first time 'on compassionate grounds' (his father died while awaiting trial for the same offence), but convicted when he did it again! I'm not sympathetic to his plight because he was a recidivist, he'd been in trouble for most of his life. But he did manage to create a new life for himself here, in Australia, following the commutation of the execution order to life in the penal colony.

When bad men do bad things, it's not acceptable to ascribe moral motives to their actions centuries later and call those actions justified. Just as it is not acceptable to re-write words already spoken and recorded because we find them distasteful now. Nor do I believe in teaching sanitised history to reflect the modern political correctness of apologising for the actions of the population generations ago.

Captain James Cook should be accorded the respect of his name, his title and his achievements in navigation, astronomy and exploration, not reduced to a sneering descriptor as 'Jimmy Cook'.

I've had this argument before and the end result was an agreement to disagree. But should I write historical pieces as fiction, I'll use the words spoken at the time. If I'm vilified for it, so be it; at least I won't be a history denier.

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