Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The abuse of history, part whatever

The Open University Student Association's conference for the AA309 Roman Empire course has been full of discussion inspired by the following article about the notion of a 'political correctness eradicator', discussion which has centred around whether one should use BC/AD or BCE/CE:

What no-one seems to have noticed is that Philip Davies, the Tory MP whose idea this is (and despite the way it's been written up by the BBC journalist, it appears to be his idea alone, with, as yet, no support from Central Office), has got his facts wrong.

He cites an (unnamed) Somerset museum, and says: "Somebody decided that BC - Before Christ - was going to be offensive to other religions, so they changed BC to BP, which was Before the Present, I think it stood for."

The trouble is, 'BP' is not a politically-correct alternative for 'BC' - it's a shorthand way of saying 'x years ago', and it is used of archaeological material from a prehistoric context, e.g. 10,000 BP, 50,000 BP, 100,000 BP, etc. It actually originates from carbon dating practices, where of course the data comes out without the Christian era taken into account, but it is also true that the bigger these numbers get, the less sense it makes to lop two thousand years off. (Plus, for me at least, c. 8000 BC implies a greater level of precision than c. 10000 BP.) Conversely, the closer one gets to the start of that era, the less useful and more confusing it is to use the seemingly movable BP. In fact it's not movable, as the 'Present' is fixed on 1950, but that's not obvious to most people.

Nevertheless, some archaeologists do, for consistency's sake, use BP right down into the Iron Age. But only for archaeological material of imprecise date, where the margin of error could be fifty or a hundred years. One would never replace say, 54 BC, with 2003 BP, not least because one might at first assume that AD 2 was meant.

Obviously, without going to the museum concerned, I can't check, but I would expect that the use of BP was confined to prehistoric material that could not be precisely dated, and was done for reasons of archaeological practice rather than of ideology. Mr Davies, who has clearly received this information at second- or third-hand, either was told by someone at a party, or has got the story from some newspaper more concerned with sensation than accuracy.

On the wider question that has been vexing students, well, personally, I use BC/AD, but more out of habit and a feeling that it is more commonly understood than any conviction that it is right. I can see that there is force in the argument that those who do not accept Jesus as their Lord might well prefer the compromise of the Common Era. I certainly wouldn't resent being told to use it in publications, or dismiss it as silly.

This is rather emblematic of what I find in many stories of 'political correctness'. Certainly there are some examples of silliness, but if you dig deeper you'll often find, as in this case, that it's less unreasonable than the anti-PC brigade have suggested. At the heart of the notion of 'politically correct language' is the notion that one should try to use language that does not automatically offend. Often, those most vociferously anti-PC are those who don't see the need to be polite to everyone, and behind their campaign against 'silliness' one often suspects a desire to return Britain to a society where white male Protestants could do what they liked without having to apologize to anyone. From the sort of pronouncements Mr Davies makes, I do rather fancy that he is such a person.

Frankly, I don't think I want to return to those old days. And I do think it behooves those who condemn 'nonsense' to themselves have a clue.

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