In defence of political correctness

The purpose of Political Correctness is a noble one. It seeks to refine our political debate. It identifies and eliminates prejudice. Inconvenienty for Civitas and Anthony Browne, some of this prejudice exists within the traditions and social mores of British Civil Society, the homogenising behemoth that they exist to defend.

“They’re calling asylums ‘care homes’ now. It’s madness gone politically correct.”
– Armando Iannucci

The think-tank Civitas has published Retreat of Reason by Anthony Browne. In the book, Browne attacks the concept of ‘Political Correctness’ as being a harmful to free speech. A dictatorship of liberalism has overrun the country, he argues, and any viewpoint that does not conform to the rules of Political Correctness is condemned, even if it is backed up by facts that expose the PC viewpoint as entirely false.

The facts and statistics in the report are presented with brash confidence, both in the publication and when it was publicised on the Today programme. However, their truth is apparently not so clear cut. Others, such as Pickled Politics, have begun to fact check these aspects.

Whether the facts cited turn out to be true or not, the so-called ‘problem’ of Political Correctness remains. Armando Iannucci’s joke is funny because the cliche is so well known.

It is telling, yet unsurprising, that Browne’s examples all attack those on the progressive left-wing, the primary purveyors (in his eyes) of the PC ideology. When we encounter more traditional groups using politcally loaded phrases, designed to stifle and muddle the debate, not a peep from Browne or his cronies can be heard. Indeed, in the case of fox-hunting, Anthony Browne himself has fallen for the trick:

… the Prince of Wales was right: if foxhunters were ethnic minorities like Muslims or Jews, they would not be persecuted in the way they are.

This has the sheen of an attack on PC behaviour… but Prince Charles’ sentiment, recycled by Browne, is the classic example of the sneeky rhetoric used by the Countryside Alliance to justify their opposition to the hunting ban. Misuse of language is their Trojan Horse. Throughout the CA press statements and public discourse they refer to themselves a ‘minority’. Using this word gives them access to the language of the oppressed, and they hope to gain sympathy as a result.

Now I hope you will allow me a short digression here. In common political usage, ‘minority’ is applied to groups made up of people who do not necessarily choose to be a part of that group – they just are. Therefore, a special focus is given to ethnic minorities and the disabled – both groups are visibly different, and visibly in the minority. Gay people are also born into their minority (this is debated by some, unfortunately), as are many religious people, and they lobby the government for recognition and support accordingly. But fox hunters are a ‘minority’ only in the show-of-hands, head count sense of the word. They choose an activity as one would choose any other sport. And crucially it is the sport that the government is against, not the people who practice it.

One of Browne’s own suggestions:

A binding referendum should be called on any proposal if supported by a certain percentage of the population. Such ‘citizens’ initiatives’ return power to the people, encouraging ordinary citizens to re-engage with the political process

The fox-hunting ban would a prime candidate for this, since more people support than oppose it, and it was part of the successful 2001 Labour Manifesto.

So it is not just the uber-liberal loony lefties that make use of Political Correctness as described by Browne. People with a conservative outlook closer to his own employ it too, but he does not condemn them, because it does not suit his or Civitas’ right-wing agenda to do so.

I mention the misuse of the word ‘minority’, because we are all very aware that this word has a political meaning. This awareness is the positive side of Political Correctness, a much-maligned concept. It is right that we should combat prejudices, and the first step to doing this is to identify the minorities who may be suffering. The act of naming oneself is an important step of empowerment. Thus we have to go through the process of re-naming: be it cities that are shrugging of a colonial past; mental asylums morphing to ‘care’ homes; or simply people who are not white choosing to call themselves ‘black’ (even if they are Asian). Those who say they are proud to “call a spade a spade” should not be praised for being anti-PC, but reprimanded for calling the Spade something that encourages prejudice…

This has been the foundation of Political Correctness – a simple acknowledgement that our common language is been loaded with derogatory words. It is a subliminal prejudice, set as our factory default, which we must work hard to overcome. And if we acknowledge the undesirable aspects of our society, an recognition of the many undesirable aspects of our history must be a part of that too.

Anthony Browne says this is “the invention of Western intellectuals who feel guilty about the universal triumph of Western values and economic prosperity.” This is a lazy stereotype. Members of the PC-Brigade who whine on about the evils of colonialism feel guilty about one thing only: the evils aspects of colonialism! We do not wish the rest of our culture to be undermined by this legacy. Only with the whole picture in place can we define, and then take pride in, our country and our culture. It is only acceptable to to take credit for positive Western values if we simultaneously show some contrition for the bloodier part of our history. It is good that Political Correctness spoils the myth of Great Britain. Anything else is as intellectually dishonest as the innacuracies that Browne alleges.

None of this is necessarily a rebuttal to Retreat of Reason itself, just and argument against the tone and attitude of its creators. The idea that there has been a retreat from reason in political debate is not one I would wish to argue against! Anthony Browne is correct in saying that a problem exists… but he identifies it incorrectly. It is not the concept of PC that is at fault, but the fools who weild it, without understanding its purpose.

Any policy or ideology can hamper debate if it is applied without thought, or indeed if it is misused by special interest groups. However, this should not discredit the ideology itself. In the past year, the most stark examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad have actually been perpetrated by well-meaning stupid people second guessing what minorities may think, without consulting them. When an artwork was removed from the Tate Britain, for example, it was on the assumption that Muslims would be offended. No Muslims were consulted. This was a prejudice in itself, made worse by the fact that the policy-makers completely misunderstood the actual meaning of John Latham’s work. Likewise with over-zealous council officials cancelling Christmas Lights in favour of Winter Lights, deafened by the silence of the minority communities’ collective indifference.

To repeat: The purpose of Political Correctness is a noble one. It seeks to refine our political debate. It identifies and eliminates discrimination in our everyday language. Inconveniently for Civitas and Anthony Browne, some of this prejudice exists within the traditions and social mores of British Civil Society, the homogenising behemoth that they exist to defend. They therefore see Political Correctness as a threat, and they go on the offensive. This is truly a tragic irony, as they succeed only in holding back a force of progress, one which seeks to weed out Britain’s prejudices, and recognise its historical mistakes. Only when that process is complete may we call ourselves ‘Great’ once more.

A long and pertinent response to this article has been posted over at Talk Politics. The central issue is that the alteration of language through Political Correctness has distinct Orwellian overtones, and the censorship of thought is something that the commenters here have touched upon too. I do not beleive that that the alteration and modification of our oral habits amounts to Newspeak – there is no reduction of ideas or concepts here. Also, there is very much difference between what I am suggesting Political Correctness should be, and what it has become. Clearly this requires a further response, so I will post in the comment box at Talk Politics, and on these pages, as soon as possible.

14 thoughts on “In defence of political correctness”

  1. To repeat: The purpose of Political Correctness is a noble one. It seeks to refine our political debate. It identifies and eliminates discrimination in our everyday language.

    Mmm, sure; but stopping people from saying words like “nigger” out loud does not stop them thinking that in their head. Political correctness in speech does not lead to politically correct thought.

    I am going to write about this at more length. I fear, as you’ve pointed out, that we will not be soul-mates! Still, a nice piece, as usual…

    DK

  2. A particularly good piece.

    Language and attitudes have always been loaded, if not necessarily aimed. Linton Kwesi Johnson made a rather good poem out of words that begin with “black” and have a negative connotation. There are rather a lot of them. PC does no more than what Mr Johnson does here. Being aware on how your actions effect others use to be called politeness but I gather that has gone out of fashion.

    DKs point is accurate – as Mr Ron Atkinson has unwittingly proved in his recorded “nigger” reference. However, I think it is the recognition we now have that such things are wrong that stopped everyone mulling over it for too long.

  3. How often is the term political correctness invoked when it needn’t be. In yesterdays article in the Times, Anthony Browne uses the poor response to the genocide in Darfur as an example of political correctness:failure to act for fear of offending Muslims. Of the many resons why we didn’t do anything significant, (current engagement in Iraq, no interest in military intervention in Africa etc) opinions surrounding the conflict were based on political positions, not constrained by p.c. Interesting piece by the way.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    You’re right about Big Ron, but one would hope that people of a younger generation would not even think it, never having heard the word in common usage.

  5. I look forward to response Robert, although i would stress that in my own piece, that you cite, I’m not really suggesting that your suggesting that political correctness should be used in its full ‘newspeak’ context rather that by attributing ‘noble purpose’ to it you’re inadvertantly flirting with a rather dangerous idea that you almost certainly wouldn’t support in actuality.

    It’s sometimes rather my style to extrapolate from the work of other bloggers which sometimes ends up with me being accused of launching and ad hominem attack on the author when all I’m doing is referring to their work to illustrate a particular point.

    As for Browne’s ‘book’, I must get round to commenting on it properly but the central problem I see in it is that it’s not, at heart, an attack on policitical correctness – nor is it particularly reasoned either – but an attempt to validate a reactionary agenda by tapping into the current anti-PC zeitgeist. Some of his contentions such as the suggestion that political correctness in preventing the privatisation of the NHS are plain laughable.

  6. Greetings,
    I was on an airplane the other day, and I ordered my coffee black — then I felt bad about. What the hell? My entire thought process has been warped. I am not a racist, but I commit thought crime. Newspeak is not ONLY about reduction, it is first and foremost about changing the way people think. Your response to the Browne article cracked me up. Though you are not defending what PC “has become:” you are still defending it. My question is why? It is time for the next movement in human thought, and PC is not it. Browne’s article was so brilliant simply because it was so devastating to the left. GO BROWNE!

  7. True, I am still defending it, for the reasons mentioned above and in a follow up. My concern is one of throwing the ‘baby out with the bathwater.’

    I also use words like ‘ideology’ but I definitely do not believe PC is next movement in human thought. ‘Multiculturalism’, another ill-defined and misused phrase, is a much better candidate.

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  9. My proposed Rules of political correctness are thus. These rules are “open source”, i.e. anyone can make alterations to them.
    ______________

    1. It is forbidden to use one syllable where ten will do. Moreover, additional syllables shall under no circumstances lead to increased clarity.

    2. Jokes about God running out of virgins for suicide bombers to shag, or other jokes at the expense of Islam are “offensive”. In contrast, jokes about Catholic priests shagging choirboys, or any other joke about Christianity constitute “humour”. And the fact that Catholic priests sometimes really do shag choirboys is irrelevant: as it rightly points out in the British race hatred law, and the proposed religious hatred law, the truth is no defence.

    3. Adjectives with any sort of negative resonance are forbidden. Instead, the equivalent positive sounding adverb shall be used followed by the word “challenged”.

    4. The validity of a statement depends not on the statement itself, but on who said it. A shining example was the British Home Office (aka Ministry of Thought Control) which in 2005 said that a statement critical of Islam by a respectable newspaper would probably be acceptable, whereas the same statement by an anti immigration organisation might result in prosecution.

    5. No culture is inferior to any other: for example Saddam Hussein’s “I kill anyone who disagrees with me” culture is in no way inferior to the glories of Ancient Greece or Islam at its zenith.

    6. Those without the talent to make their mark by doing something worthwhile shall be encouraged to draw attention to themselves by advocating the patently absurd. I.e. political correctness more or less equals vandalism. But this is nothing to worry about.

    7. Where a high priest of political correctness contradicts him or herself, it shall be deemed that no self-contradiction took place. For example Trevor Phillips, head of the UK’s commission on racial equality claimed in 2004 that those with doubts about multiculturalism were “xenophobes” and “racists”. Six weeks later he had a change of heart and decided there were a few question marks to be put over multiculturalism. Looking up the documentary source of Trevor Phillips’ self contradiction is forbidden, but for the really curious see The Guardian 16.2.04 and The Times 3.4.04.

    8. Incitement to murder is an offence, except when perpetrated by ethnic minorities, e.g. Muslims carrying large banners urging the murder of those publishing the “Danish cartoons” The Police shall assist this incitement to murder, e.g. by preventing anyone interfering with the incitement, as they did in heroic fashion in London on 3rd Feb 2006 in connection with the “Muslims versus Danish cartoonists contest”. (Pictures of the banners were available at the time of writing at http://www.tfa.net/pho10.html )

    In contrast to incitement to murder that takes the form of words and letters a foot high and displayed in broad daylight, there is incitement to murder or bomb scribbled in notebooks found in dingy flats. The latter shall constitute a crime as this sort of stuff keeps those derring-do secret services chaps employed, plus it makes it look as though the “war on terror” actually exists, as opposed to being a figment of Bush and Blair’s imagination.

    9. Where the laws of Physics conflict with political correctness, the laws of Physics are at fault.

    10. All literature, however unreadable, boring and irrelevant shall be trawled through with a view to finding something offensive to Islam, which in turn will give Muslims another grievance to nurse. You are strenuously urged not to read the Satanic Verses as you are likely to die of boredom. But if you do meet your demise this way, and since as yet undiscovered insults to Islam may lie in this book, you will be rewarded with the regulation seventy virgins as an when stocks can be replenished.

    11. All races are equal in all respects. The fact that negroes win all the medals in sprint events at the Olympics proves all races can sprint equally fast. And the fact that Blacks and Whites get fifty times as many songs in the top ten as Orientals and Arabs proves all races have the same musical ability.

    12. Statements on any social issue which make sense are forbidden. In contrast, theses or papers of two thousand words or more on any social issue which are totally meaningless shall result in academic preferment. A laudable example here was the New York physicist who wrote a deliberately and completely meaningless paper and had it accepted and published in a reputable social science journal (see http://www.drizzle.com/~jwalsh/sokal/articles/erich.html ).

    For those worried that they may have written something that makes sense, there are web-sites which for a small fee, will produce totally meaningless computer generated papers, complete with references to real books, papers, etc.

    13. Every effort shall be made to denigrate one’s own culture and laud other cultures regardless of their relative worth. The differential treatment of cartoons mocking Islam and Christianity in No 2 above are a shining example. Other laudable examples occur in the BBC web-sites on Islam and Christianity. The one on Islam says that words imparted to Muhammad “were the words of God”, whereas the one on Christianity says that Jesus “claimed he spoke with the authority of God” and that accounts of his resurrection were “put about by his believers”.

    14. The possession of unregistered firearms shall be illegal. However where ethnic minority leaders are in possession of unregistered firearms, this shall be overlooked for as long as possible. The arrest of Abu-Hamza a mere seven years after the police knew there were firearms in his mosque is deplorable. A period of more like seventeen years is recommended, during which time ethnic minority leaders can hopefully do some real damage.

    15. Diversity is one of the supreme virtues. For example, a population half of whom had a limb missing would be more diverse than a more normal population, which proves it’s a good idea to cut off one of your limbs.

    The use of the word diverse as a synonym for multicultural is to be applauded because the word diverse used to have just one meaning, whereas it is now ambiguous; and the more ambiguous words we have, the more the English language is degraded.

    The fact that diversity is desirable where it consists of desiderata, and the fact that the opposite of diversity, namely uniformity, could be advocated on the same grounds shall be ignored. That is, the fact that advocating diversity amounts to nothing more than the inane proposition that “we desire the desirable” shall not be mentioned.

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