Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rainbow-colored sheep take Britain by storm

LONDON - Has anyone ever actually seen a rainbow-colored sheep? That's surely what a few British toddlers are asking.

Teachers at nursery schools in Oxfordshire, England, have asked children to change the words of "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" to "Baa, Baa, Rainbow Sheep" to avoid the possibility of offending anyone.

"This type of thing is definitely happening in all parts of the country," said Laura Midgley, co-founder of Britain's Campaign Against Political Correctness. "This makes an issue about the color black when there should not be one."

"It's just a color at the end of the day," she said.

As in the United States, the removal of alienating or potentially offensive words is part of a political-correctness drive that has gained momentum in recent years across British society.

Many argue that the power of words is underestimated and are pleased that more people seem to be showing sensitivity toward ethnicity and sexuality.

But others wonder whether the desire not to offend anyone has gone too far.

This isn't the first time nursery rhymes have fallen victim to the British PC campaign. In 2003, the Mothercare store chain in England began selling cassette tapes and CDs featuring a new version of Humpty Dumpty in which there was a happy ending. The new version said that "Humpty Dumpty opened his eyes, falling down was such a surprise, Humpty Dumpty counted to 10, then Humpty Dumpty got up again."

"The political correctness campaign has been going on for some time, but we are seeing more of it these days than we have in the past," Midgley said.

She and others say this latest desire to not offend by getting rid of "black sheep" is ludicrous.

Most have argued that "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" has nothing to do with race. The nursery rhyme dates back to the mid-1700s and is related to a tax imposed on wool by the king, which divided receipts equally between the local lord (the master), the church (the dame), and the farmer (the little boy). Black wool was apparently taxed at a lower rate than white wool.

A spate of headline-grabbing cases in recent weeks -- not all related to the nursery rhyme change -- have helped spark widespread criticism in the British media over the ongoing movement to be politically correct.

For example, a school principal in Devon, England, garnered attention earlier this month when he announced a ban on snowball fights unless the thrower first obtained permission from the target. In a newsletter, Tiverton High School's 1,200 students were told not to throw a snowball without prior consent.

Also this month, the Dudley Wood Methodist Church in Dudley Wood, England, was told it must pay $130 to obtain a permit from local planning officials before it can erect a freestanding cross outside.

Local officials say the universal Christian symbol has been officially classified as an advertisement.

But it was news of the change to "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" that pushed the local press -- and even media around the world -- into a frenzy of negative commentary.

"The fact that black is a color appears to be lost on the PC police," wrote Ian McPhedran in a column in the Advertiser, a newspaper in Adelaide, Australia.

In the current climate, "black coffee becomes coffee without milk, the blackboard is now the chalkboard. And forget about the black economy or black-listing anything," he wrote.

Stuart Chamberlain, manager of the Family Center in Abingdon, England, and the nearby Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, told the Oxford Star weekly newspaper that the nursery schools had changed the words of "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" to follow stringent equal-opportunity rules.

"No one should feel pointed out because of their race, their gender, or anything else," he said. "This is fairly standard across nurseries."

The charity group that runs the nurseries, Parents and Children Together, said that changes to the nursery rhyme have nothing to do with race.

In a statement, the group said it has established that the children at the nurseries would now sing a variety of descriptive words so that the rhyme becomes an active one.

The children will be asked to sing "sad," "blue," "pink," "black," "white," "happy," "hopping," and "bouncing" when describing the sheep to encourage the children to extend their vocabulary and use up energy.

Nick Seaton, chairman of Britain's Campaign for Real Education, which aims to improve state education standards, said most parents believe it's wrong to outlaw certain words and ideas.

"I think it's totally wrong to interfere with traditional nursery rhymes that have been around for generations," he said. "Political correctness is preventing children from even considering any idea that may or may not be outlandish."


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