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Political Correctness:

The first thing to remember about PC is — it’s political!

a polemic on language, editing and political correctness by Janet Blagg

Political correctness is a term that only exists in the consciousness of those who are frightened that the power they’ve been able to exercise in the past is under threat.

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Joseph Toscano

The thing I want to elucidate on here doesn’t actually exist. There are no thought police waiting to pounce on us and batter us for saying something ‘politically incorrect.’ There is no PC movement, and never was, though we’ve all heard plenty about it. It’s the emperor’s new clothes.

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Still, googling the news for mentions of PC comes up with headlines like:

PC could kill us

PC intimidates science

Cowardice and PC prevail

And hundreds more, in just seven days, just as pejorative. See for yourself.

Who has heard in the last week any of the sorts of demands for political correctness that could elicit such responses? Where are these really powerful people who are setting this all-prevailing and intimidating PC agenda? Do you see them on the news or in the mainstream print media? I don’t.

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In fact these days I guarantee you will find the term used only in three respects. First, by right-wing commentators to demonise/ ridicule/demolish what they also call the ‘elitist, bleeding heart left’ — and even that label can stretch to conservatives like David Williamson or Malcolm Fraser when they question the dominant paradigm. Second, by people saying something like, ‘Oo-er, that was a bit politically incorrect of me!’ and who, when asked to explain, have no cogent response. Third, by stand-up comics. It makes such an easy target because it is so little understood, because it is such a political issue, and because the precedent for ridicule is so strongly set by the media.

Many people are uncomfortable with the politics of it. In talks on PC I’ve been asked why I have to bring politics into it, and why I characterise the voices against PC (shock jocks and media commentators like Henderson, Albrechtsen; politicians like Howard) as ‘right-wing’, ‘neocon’ or ‘market fundamentalist’. Nor are they happier if I explain that the critics themselves ascribe to the polarity with their attacks on ‘the left-wing intelligentsia.’

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People complain about the terminology: I always called it a blackboy, I’m in good faith but I won’t say grasstree — and I think they are in good faith. Most people are sure their use of language is as impeccable as their conscious values.

I don’t say we should never use the term blackboy, but it’s good to think about where and when such names arose — in the context of a parcel of images that make a tidy paternal story out of white dealings with Aborigines and especially hopes of their dying out. One example like blackboy might seem unimportant, but it is only one element of a package that is now embedded in the lexicon. We can refuse to play that game.

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This is not the same as trying to sanitise the language. For instance, changing the name of Liverpool’s Penny Lane because it was named after a slaver. Rather than whitewash the reference to slavery, it would be better to remember that this was the reality of history.

You might then say we should keep the word blackboy because it reminds us how Aborigines have been, at best, infantilised in white speech. The difference though, is that paternalism (whether benign or not) is an ongoing process — consider moves in the federal government in 2006 to impose white caretakers on Aboriginal communities.

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It is impossible to talk about PC without getting entangled in personal and political attitudes about it — which is why this paper is a bit of a circle route, with many stops, a few digressions and no unequivocal starting point.

By my reckoning, the-thing-that-is-called political correctness arose in the social justice and self-determination movements of the 1960s, long before the term PC arrived. That non-discriminatory codes are now everywhere in place is due to efforts by feminists, gays, blackfellas, deaf people, etc insisting on how they will be publicly called (and reclaiming ‘negative’ terms, like nigger and queer, when they want to). So it is interesting that many who embrace social justice are suspicious of PC — hardly anyone will say a word on its behalf.

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I would like to convince you that it is not the people who care about the use of language who are responsible for the things we are told they have done to the language. I’d also like to convince you that the term PC has been so thoroughly demonised that it would be better never to use it at all, and to think critically when you do hear it used. And if PC isn’t really the issue, think about what is.

A digression. There is also no such thing as ‘an elite’ in the sense that it is used as a companion term of abuse. Obviously, the people who run the country are a powerful elite in the true sense of the word. Along with their friends in the media who are able to say and write what they like without being called to account, they exercise the sort of power that non-militant social and environmental activists only dream of. (If this thinking is new to you, Mickler and Lucy in The War on Democracy illustrate it brilliantly.)

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PC language is not censorship: it is honest, accurate and fair language

Critics of PC often claim to be defending free speech against censorship (although, notably, they expressed no concern about the very real censorship in the 2006 sedition laws). But non-discriminatory language is not censorship.

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To clarify, in defending PC (which doesn’t exist), I am defending honest and accurate (or ‘inclusive’ or ‘non-discriminatory’) language. I use the term PC because that is the thing we need to get clear about.

PC need not be narrow or prescriptive and it does not aim to create a canon of PC words. It aims to clarify and distinguish, to refrain from labelling and name-calling. By making the terminology problematic, people are also forced to think consciously about what they are saying.

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Why does language matter so much? Because language is the basis of thought, and society operates through language.

Language is a major carrier of societal expectations and, conversely, societal changes are reflected in language change.

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Language has a part in shaping our ideas — largely unconsciously — so by bringing attention to our language use we also bring our unconscious biases into awareness. This is one of the major goals of PC — to shine a torch on the unconscious and implicit assumptions embedded in ordinary language. Not eliminate them or disguise them or sweep them under the table — but to be aware that they exist and that they affect how we think. This is also an important aim of poststructuralism (see Appendix).

PC language is not primarily about avoiding offence

While PC is often represented as being concerned with not offending certain groups (which makes it sound very prissy), this was never its main point. It seems odd to have to point out that there was not always the stream of intentional offence that is now associated with ‘shock jocks’ and their ilk.

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In the early 1990s radio jock Howard Sattler was repeatedly delivering such anti-Aboriginal commentary as (regarding the deaths of three Aborigines in a car chase): ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish … they’re dead and I think that’s good.’ Steve Mickler researched and wrote a report on this campaign which Greens senator Christabel Chamarette tabled in parliament. Liberal senator Sue Knowles called the report, ‘an example of that despicable American doctrine of political correctness whereby the values of the left-wing intelligentsia are to be … foisted on the Australian media.’ In a complete twisting of Mickler’s enterprise into its exact opposite, Knowles claimed his report denigrated Aborigines by treating them as victims and ‘diminished moral beings’ (see Steve Mickler, Myth of Privilege, pp. 88ff).

Man is not generic and he doesn’t stand for she

The problems of discriminatory language go well beyond offence and denigration. My special interest has been in the problems of sexist language, so I will here go into a little detail (with an extract from my notes Taking the Dick out of Dic(k)tionary) to show why sexist writing matters so much. I do this to give some idea of the substance that is ignored in routine attacks on PC. If these ideas are new to you, I refer you to a handbook on non-sexist writing, such as Miller & Swift 1995, to which the following notes owe much.

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Using man as generic and he/his for the indefinite singular contribute to a situation which makes half the human race and its achievements invisible at the same time as it falsely elevates the other half. A vocabulary that attributes positive qualities to males and negative qualities to females fosters a stereotyping that hinders both sexes, but particularly women, as does the assumption of male-as-norm which makes the female diminutive, non-standard. In the Heinemann Australian Dictionary, 2nd ed, for example, more than 80% of the sentences illustrating word meanings had males as their subject, including nearly all the words denoting strong, clever, positive values (sentences exemplifying words connoting weakness had a female subject).

When sexist language is intended, writers have plenty of words to choose from. More often though it is subconscious, or simply lazy: it’s easier to talk as if all doctors are male and all nurses female; mothers are female, so for convenience infants are ‘he’. Whose convenience though? It’s easier to accept and so perpetuate stereotypes than to think them through.

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While the generic ‘man’ is supposed to stand for all humankind, that is not what is taught or understood. There are no end of examples like Erich Fromm’s: ‘man’s vital interests are life, food, access to females, etc.’ And if a small boy is asked to draw a man he might well be taken to a counsellor if he draws a woman. Similarly, it seems perfectly normal for a book called The Spiritual Problems of Modern Man to carry a picture of a man on its cover. If man truly were generic, an image of a woman should seem just as normal. In fact, it would appear quite disorienting to most people.

A variety of tests indicate that man used generically is read as adult male. For instance, of 300 tertiary students asked to select pictures for chapters of a sociology textbook, half were given headings like ‘Social Man’, ‘Political Man’, etc., while the rest were given headings like ‘Society’ and ‘Political Life’. In 40% of subjects of both sexes, the word ‘man’ in the title resulted in images of males only — filtering out recognition of women’s participation in these major aspects of life.

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Similarly, the use of the masculine pronoun — he, his, etc — following the indefinite singular (someone, etc) is still seen by some as the only correct (or elegant) form, even though in most minds it means males only, and thus makes women invisible. Or it sets up a mental obstacle for the woman reader, who has to determine ‘Does this mean me or not?’ before she can fully process the meaning. Yet we use they, their etc as singular pronouns automatically in speech and there are no shortage of literary precedents like Shakespeare’s ‘Everyone to rest themselves,’ and Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Nobody likes a mind quicker than their own.’

The language lover’s objections to PC

Although objections to PC language are sometimes mischievous, it can be easy to identify with them. The challenge is to stand back from your objections as a lover of language or a gate-keeper of standards, to see the bigger picture.

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If language hides prejudice with euphemism, or tries to disguise social problems, or pays lip service to superficial change while ignoring the harder issues, don’t assume that PC is to blame — these are not usually the intentions of those who strive for fair and honest language.

As for complaints like ‘Gays have hijacked the word gay’ — no one forced anyone to restrict the word’s meaning to that definition alone. Lots of words get put to new uses without losing their old meanings. That people no longer want to use ‘gay’ for joyous, bright or showy is their choice.

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1. That PC language is euphemistic and forces us to accept absurd labels

People who care about the effects of language don’t usually wish to dress bad things up or hide them. There are no euphemisms in the chapter on ‘Effective and inclusive language’ in the Style Manual (bible of government departments and publishers) or in the style guides of any publishing houses I know.

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No serious writing ever included such absurd terms as ‘vertically challenged’. No one uses or proposes to use any such terms — they are a total fiction of course, part of the campaign to ridicule the credibility of PC.

That terms like hearing impaired are now used instead of deaf is as much a result of marketing strategy as self-determination. It is true some people prefer hearing impaired, and that is their right. Not everyone will, and that’s important too because, to explode another objection to PC, people are not forced to accept terms they do not like. (As we were supposedly forced to accept Ms.)

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If, as editors or writers, some prescribed or proscribed usage bothers you, exercise your skills and positions to devise creative alternatives and persuade their adoption on those you answer to. Do what good writing has always done — avoid stereotyping and find out what is appropriate for any specific group.

For my part, I am sickened by euphemisms like ‘collateral damage’ for the killing of men, women and children who don’t matter because they’re the wrong colour or religion. And I want to shout ‘Not me!’ every time the PM says he speaks for ‘all ordinary Australians’ and ‘my fellow Australians’.

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2. That PC language is dead language, clumsy, grotesque, boring

As in any writing, non-discriminatory writing can be done well or horribly. Certainly, avoiding the generic use of he and man sometimes presents serious challenges. Half-hearted solutions can continue to make women invisible, at the same time that they make writing clumsy, annoying and opaque.

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The problem arises when writers and institutions who are now obliged to adopt inclusive language aren’t committed to it, or they do it without thought, employing the easiest token solutions. Entrenched attitudes are not examined and so continue to flourish, even in socially aware writers.

The problem isn’t helped when the institutional ambience is for the kind of horrible corporatese that Don Watson complains of in Death Sentence — but this has nothing to do with PC! Its roots are in corporate spin.

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There are lots of sources showing how to produce strong, beautiful and creative non-discriminatory writing (see Doyle; Miller & Swift). But the best solutions lie in a deep engagement with the issues. If we really know what we want to do with language we don’t need formulaic solutions. Our awareness of the existence of unconscious and entrenched attitudes and our desire to weed them out will make our writing a lucid contribution to ethical and honest relations. There is nothing to stop us pushing against the worst manifestations of PC writing. We are not forced to follow guidelines mindlessly. We can always make a case for a brilliant solution.

3. The special problem of postmodernism/poststructuralism

Many of us who did not grow up with poststructuralism find it frustratingly inaccessible. In its extreme forms it is a whole other language, and one that seems to be the enemy of plain speech in its density and convolutions. For a long time I loathed it. But, like any language, it can be written badly or well, and I have now come to think the project is a worthy one (see also Appendix). If you are editing PM writing for a general readership and it is impenetrable to you, then you have to work with the author to tease out its meaning until it is in the same lucid English you work to extract from any writer.

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The PM project is also anathema to the neocon. For instance, Kate Auty’s Black Glass received this criticism in a review: ‘Academics no doubt use this somewhat impenetrable writing to impress their peers.’ The book examines the semblance of justice for Aboriginal defendants in special Courts of Native Affairs and demolishes the received wisdom of anthropology luminaries Strehlow and Elkin. I can assure you, as the editor, the author was not simply ‘trying to impress her peers’ and the writing was (after a couple of rigorous revisions) pellucid. So why the spiteful comment?

First, it’s the standard insult for both PM and PC: everyone knows academics (left-wing intelligentsia) disdain the common punter. Note, though, this criticism is only applied to the humanities, which can have a political edge — not to scientific writing, which is often even less penetrable for the common punter.

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Second, PM forces us to look at ourselves and see to what extent we are tied up with the forces of domination. To the extent that we are annoyed by PC or PM, we are probably identified with those forces.

Of course, true old-fashioned intellectual elitists may be masquerading as trendy poststructuralists, and then our annoyance is justified. But we need to ascertain this, not take it for granted.

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Neoconservative spunky rebel against liberal tyranny

Under media attacks on PC these days I include the History and Culture Wars. The scholarship of historians like Henry Reynolds and Neville Green — derided as ‘black armband school’ — is increasingly the subject of revisionist attacks that are noticeably lacking in any scholarship themselves. It is hard not to conclude that the intention is to destroy the credibility of such writers so as to deflect any sense of national responsibility for racist policies.

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Priyamvada Gopal, commenting on Britain’s History Wars in the Guardian Weekly (July 7–13 2006), describes how new BBC imperial historian Niall Ferguson rewrites history with ‘pseudo-scientific nonsense’ and:

the insistence that we are being offered gutsy truths that the ‘politically correct’ establishment would love to suppress. This is the neoconservative spunky rebel against liberal tyranny. Yet Ferguson peddles nothing more than the most hackneyed, self-aggrandising myths of empire, canards once championed by old imperialists …: western imperialism brings freedom, democracy and prosperity to primitive cultures … By anointing Ferguson and his fellow imperial apologists … as semi-official historians, the British media are colluding in a dangerous denial of the past and lending support to contemporary US imperial propaganda.

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Socially conservative David Williamson provided an amusing instance of the Culture Wars with his ‘Cruise Ship Australia’ (2005) lecture (see David Musgrove’s article in Overland 182, 2006). Ten years earlier Williamson’s Dead White Males reviled feminism, multiculturalism and poststructuralism for enforcing PC agendas. But when he gave a fairly middle of the road talk about the absence of values in ‘aspirational Australia’ he was himself reviled by almost every conservative commentator. ‘Elitist sneers at battlers’ (Piers Akerman) is representative. This savaging probably reflects the extent to which these market propagandists saw Williamson as a traitor to their fantasy of unlimited growth. It’s serious business.

The word propagandist might seem inflationary to some, but it may be easier to recognise the propaganda of the past than of the present (queue jumpers throw children into the sea). It’s also easier to see the racism of the past (cover image of 1950s book, Our Aborigines, spear carrier standing on one leg) …

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No-one tells this little black duck what to say

We all hate being told what to say, or that our use of language is less than impeccable. But no-one hates it more than those commentators pushing their market fundamentalist line. Unfortunately their influence is disproportionate: the mainstream media is the primary source of information for many, and it works hard to convince readers of its authority and impartiality.

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The spin is clever, and has already demolished my following statement: that the media has manipulated people’s opinions about PC — even people whose values otherwise differ. The spin says I insult ordinary Australians by implying they are not capable of evaluating the issues and making up their own minds.

I think the only PC actually apparent today is that reflected in the eagerness with which conservative commentators echo the government line.

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So, let’s ponder again why the neocon response to an alternative discourse is so vicious — from ridicule to character assassination. Why do they pretend they are threatened by people who have far less power than their own, and complain they are struggling against the dictates of a tyrannical PC agenda?

For the latter, the complaint is surely mischievous, or spin. Steve Mickler in The Myth of Privilege (p. 89) explains why:

The label PC calls into question the moral legitimacy of a certain ground of principled criticism. It directly accuses this criticism of having strategic purposes that serve ends other than those professed. Alleging ‘PC’ also has the effect of politically repositioning the critique from the margins to the centre. … [It] implies that one is complicit with, or even representative and an agent of, an already powerful and indeed dominant political and social regime …

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Of course, projection is also an effective form of attack — the PM frequently complains that PC seeks to constrain him and all ordinary Australians, yet, with the assistance of the media, he has constrained free speech to an extraordinary degree. The public discourse in Australia on crucial subjects has been woeful, even lagging behind that of our Coalition cousins.

Ultimately though, the struggle over PC is about who controls the language — which is why it is so fierce. How you call boat people, for instance — asylum seekers or illegal immigrants — determines how you can treat them. Whoever controls the language sets the terms of the discourse.

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‘Human nature’ can be defined in terms of social aspirations towards community, justice, environmental responsibility (these are not just pie in the sky ideals) — or in terms of individual aspirational consumers. Howard insists his fellow Australians don’t want (and, his history warriors insist, never wanted) political ideals — their only aspiration is to consumer power. It’s all about the economy, the market, profit for shareholders.

Finally, whoever controls language determines how democracy is defined.

PC and the democratic project

(The following ideas culled from Mickler & Lucy’s The War on Democracy.)

It is largely forgotten in the clamour to impose democracy in the Middle East that democracy means more than just the free election of parliamentary government. The Macquarie dictionary says it means ‘equal rights and privileges for all’. That is, not just for the rich and the powerful.

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A central tenet of democracy, then, is the protection of the weak and the different from exploitation by the powerful. And who is it that speaks up for the rights of the weak and the different? Our same friends who strive for non-discriminatory language and all other things mocked as PC, that’s who!

Today’s neocons are committed to pushing back the social gains of the last half century. They know it is not clever politics to oppose the principles of liberal democracy directly (after all, that is what they pretend to be fighting for) so they have to first misrepresent those principles as radical, loony, dangerous, and out of touch with ordinary Australia — which is exactly what they’ve done with PC. For all the power they wield, the thing they mock as PC is, after all, a real threat to them. Deep down, they know they are only a paper dragon. So give them more of what drives them nuts! The thing we call PC is what’s defending democracy. It’s an ongoing process. It deserves our support.

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worth reading

Michael J Christie & Stephen Harris A Dialogue About Poststructuralism (unpublished draft), 1996

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Margaret Doyle, The A–Z of Non-Sexist Writing, Women’s Press, 1995

Steve Mickler, The Myth of Privilege: Aboriginal Status, Media Visions, Public Ideas, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998

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Steve Mickler & Niall Lucy, The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press, University of Western Australia Press, 2006

Casey Miller & Kate Swift, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, Women’s Press, 1995

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Dale Spender, Man Made Language, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980

Appendix: How postmodernism helps us understand all this

Culled from A Dialogue About Poststructuralism by Christie & Harris.

Poststructuralism (PS) warns us about putting people in boxes. Not because boxes are wrong, but because we too easily forget the box is just language — an aid to categorising — and begin to think it has an independent existence.

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The effort to distinguish between what realities we create through language and what realities may or may not be ‘out there’ is the debate about ontology — what it means to be. The extreme form of PS … problematises all ontological claims.

You can’t avoid categorising. But you can be aware that the categories come from your imagination. You need also to be aware where your own stereotypes come from.

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Those who control the dominant discourses (government, media) work hard to persuade us of the objective reality of the boxes they have an interest in. Claiming to hold an objective position, they impugn (with ridicule etc) the objectivity of those who challenge the reality of the boxes they set up.

That is one reason why the PS project itself is especially derided, with comments like: ‘PS says there is no truth!’ That PS ‘problematises all ontological claims’ does not mean it holds that there is no truth; but it does also like to expose ‘truth claims’ that are really power plays, not a genuine struggle towards objective truth.

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PS sees power as lying largely with the privileging of certain discourses (science, objectivism, intellectualism) over others. It says power is diffuse, and arises in every small instance of discourse when categories of language — gender, race, sexuality, class etc — compete for the definition of the situation. This is why language is so important.

Individuals and interest groups — even the dominant interest groups — have power only because others let them take it. Those who rail against PC see their hold on power slipping as the bases of their claims to objective truth are eroded by those who insist we use language honestly and fairly.

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In, say, Aboriginal issues, what’s important is (1) examining our fantasies that enlightenment changes things, and (2) how Aborigines are so often ‘othered’ in white discourse, and how that means that whitefellas (including ourselves) end up with the power and the voice. The insidious ‘othering’ of Aborigines (or women or refugees) is accomplished with great ease in contemporary discourse. PS acknowledges cultural differences and commonalities, but says that while we can talk of essences, they’re not real. To say ‘typical X’ means nothing; we might say it for convenience (at best) in argument. But always we should ask, whose convenience?

‘Cultural difference’ is always a stereotype; a lot of diverse individuals lumped together and treated the same through naming. PS prefers to talk of diversity rather than difference. Diversity is difference before the boundaries are set in place. Difference, like all structure, is imposed. This is not, of itself, a bad thing; but we need to admit it if we don’t want our intellectualising to exploit other people’s realities or drown out their voices.

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