Still defending Political Correctness

Moulding your vocabulary does not mean supression of ideas

It is always slightly annoying when someone makes a pithier version of your point, although Howard Jacobson only published this in yesterday’s Independent, so I have a few days head start on him:

… however much we dispise the uses to which political correctness has declined, it originated in the sound conviction that our inherited grammar and vocabulary shape our ideas and deed, and that by drawing attention to the biases implicit in language we can eliminate them to the benefit of everybody.

Is Political Correctness a noble cause? I claimed it was, but Talk Politics disagrees:

I wonder if Robert realises or appreciates just how sinister a concept he’s putting forward when he talks of the purpose of political correctness being to identify and eliminate ‘discrimination in our everyday language’ for there is far more to this particular idea than merely the removal from common parlance of certain words

I promised a short response to this.

First, I don’t think that refinement of language is the same thing as Orwellian Newspeak. The language that Political Correctness advocates against is still understood, and the concepts they express still exist. I am thinking here of the casual language that actually demeans and therefore harms other people, who we are supposed to be co-existing with in the Polis. For example, I think magazines like Nuts and Zoo are ‘un-PC’. Why? Because I think they endorse a casual objectification of women. That they then delight in this un-PC reputation makes them even more preposterous. Another more subtle example of this is the language surrounding asylum seekers, as Katherine Houreld explained in the LIP. They are often branded as ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ in the press, despite being neither, by definition. They are not illegal immigrants.

The crucial phrase from my previous post was “everyday language”. We are not advocating the elimination of certain thoughts and phrases completely… far from it. Who does ‘Political Correctness’ apply to? The answer is surely not ‘everyone’, but those who wish to participate and be taken seriously in political debate.

Thus ministers, government bodies at all levels and their agencies are more or less obliged to toe- the-PC-line, because they are supposed to be speaking for everyone. The media keeps to the guidelines too, because journalists hope to be speaking to or for everyone. We are very particular about who should and should not be Politically Correct. Robert Kilroy-Silk the TV presenter must be PC, but Robert Kilroy-Silk the fringe-politician can say what he wants. How ironic we took him seriously when he claimed we should not, then could not take him seriously when he asked that we should.

The other group of people to whom PC should matter are those who value diversity, friendship, and the concept of human equality. Why use language that offsets this equality? Why not use the names that people have chosen for themselves? And why not be extra sensitive to how particular groups of people are portrayed in the media? It is indeed the ‘elimination’ of undesirable phrases and patterns of thought from one’s vocabulary, but I don’t see this as sinister, just something like good manners. Howard Jacobson again:

Anyone who finds fault with that must never have paused before his own selection of a word, never reordered a thought to suit the company or occasion… some call [this process] self censorship but which it would be wiser to think of as judgement.

To use Politically Correct lanaguage is to think before you speak. The triumph of reason over impulse. Clearly there is a place for the latter (the boy shouting at the naked Emperor, or heckling Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989), but political policy-making tends to require more sober debate.

However, the ‘Politically Correct’ battle I would rather fight is not over language, but over the problem Anthony Browne and others have with “self hating white liberals”, a cod-psycological slur for those who dare to criticise mainstream British culture and history. This is rich, given the frequency with which, say, the black or muslim ‘community’ are told to embark on some sort of self-criticism. Why should the majority not embark on similar introspection?

A funny take on Anthony Browne’s pamphlet at Third Avenue (via The Sharpener): And the people who don’t agree with [PC]? The Frederick Forsyths, the Melanie Phillipses, the Boris Johnsons? These poor benighted souls are reduced to publishing bestselling novels and hiding their despised views in weekly columns in mass-circulation newspapers, where no-one apart from the entire population can read them.

5 thoughts on “Still defending Political Correctness”

  1. I’ve just come across your blog. I think the problem is precisely in ‘the triumph of reason over impulse’. Is that a good thing?
    On the one hand its good that we are open and welcoming. On the other, why do we advise others to ‘express their emotions’, yet lock ours up in a box so that some Pandora person or event can come along one day and open it? Can’t we have emotions, apart from loving-kindness? An aspect of our culture is certainly tolerance, but does that mean that we dont have gut feelings? Its the complete absence of visible ‘gut feeling’ in PC talk that leads to the ‘self-hating white liberal’ tag. As often, its a pithy cliche that works because its true.
    My advice to pc adherents is to learn to assign as much interest and importance to white, straight, fully abled peoples feelings as they do to those of their beloved minorities, instead of always sidelining them into some extremist ghetto. As a balancing component, set against a cultural confidence that might veer into chauvnism or exclusion, pc is valuable. But the danger is that the core element of the people begins to feel that its interests and feelings are being routinely ignored or suppressed.
    Incidentally, its funny that you speak of the ‘frequency with which, say the black or muslim community is invited to engage in self-criticism’. The politics of multiculturalism (as you admit, ill-defined) did not lead to any such invitation. They led to unquestioning acceptance of minorities, whilst reserving open season on the establishment. If pc people are really concerned about cruel foxhunting, why no focus on halal and kosher practices? If about womens rights, why so little interest in Islamic sexism, forced marriage, and honour killing? If about racial violence, why no outcry at Asian or black killing of ‘whiteys’?

  2. There is an interesting post about perception in politics to be written here, because from where I sit our relationship to (say) Islam is anything but unquestioning – I’m surprised that you think it is. Likewise, I see white British culture celebrated in every peice of media output up and down the country. I’m a white, middle-class, heterosexual English man and my interests are definitely being looked after, I do not feel the threat of the ghetto. Indeed, its precisely the confidence in my own identity that allows me the luxury of being interested in other people’s.

    As I pointed out in the original posts, unthinking adherance to PC has given and will continue to give the whole idea a bad name to the point where it is probably mortally wounded. But on this forum, and the others I link to, you will find plenty of criticism of aspects of minority culture – both sexism in Islam and Asian cultures in particular. I will not allow jobsworths in local government to ruin a perfectly good sentiment with their unquestioning stupidity. Once again, fundamentalist adherance to a cause destroys the debate.

  3. I can’t belive that someone who professes to be intelligent is so blisfully unaware of the origins of Political Correctness. It is cultural marxism, the conversion of the failed marxist economic model into cultural terms, with the aim of overthrowing the establishment. Specifically it sets out to destroy terminology associated with white male dominance, christianity and capitalism, and replace them with terms which are “sensitive to” i.e biased towards, women, ethnic minorities and other groups who are alledged to be historically or currently oppressed and have been denied the supposed privelidges of Western Civilisation. It might surpise you to know that Political Correcness was an extremely popular term in the Stalinist Russia of the 1920s, used, irony free, to describe anyone who was on message and loyal to the totalitarian ideaology.
    Because economic marxism failed, it’s big ideas (state owned production, equiality of opportunity, state control of society, etc) are replaced by a plethora of annoying dictats designed to control behaviour at an individual level. These are manifest in a plethora of beaurocratic and quasi legal dictats about “speech codes” (i.e dictating what can and more importantly cannot be said in public) “behaviour codes” (i.e the “harassement” industry) and a myriad of other minor irritations raging from anti smoking hysteria, through speed cameras, the environmental movement, healthy eating campaigns, no competitive sport, etc etc. All are designed to overthrow anything that existed before PC, with the obvious intention of replaced “white hedgemonic” capitalist society with something different, although crucially no-one knows quite what. For a fuller explanation read any “critical” feminst psychology.
    The PC movment can pretty much count on the support of lesbian/gays, ethnic minorities and other “disadvanataged” groups for support, but that isn’t enough. To really make an impact they need the support of men, preferably those in position of influence or power, espacially in academia and the media, where they will be in a position to poison young minds with marxist dogma, so who do they recruit ? White male middle class liberals of course. University educated and fancying themselves as “radicals” (at least until they get careers, mortages and kids) they are convinced that it really is in their intersts to assist in demolishing the edifices of white male power (of course it isn’t but white liberal middle class males won’t admit this, and it helps to appear sypathetic when trying to get laid in the college bar). To give added appeal the whole thing is dressed up as “new” (it isn’t, PC can be traced back to medieval puritanism) to cash in on the young radicals need to reject their parents values (yawn).
    You will notice how the targets of PC tend to be working, rather than middle class male persuits, so smoking, McDonalds, lager, competitive sport, tourism and marriage are derided, whereas Starbucks, cocaine, imported organic tofu, travelling and co-habiting are mysteriously immune from criticsm, despite in their own way being equally exploitative. This is because white working class males have little idedological power (at least individually) and are therefore of no value to the PC cause.
    “Refinment of language” IS Orwellian newspeak by any other name. The aim of a PC “speech code” is to remove from the language anything that represents the world before PC. So we have a hypothetical “year zero”, say 1965 for Baby Boomers, or 1997 for those under 40, and anything that existed before is eventually defined as “offensive” to some cod minority group or other and this “offense” becomes a self-defined, self -serving reason to ban any language which is inconsitent with PC thinking, eventually, through underuse, such terms will die out and the ideas they represent (so the PC argument goes) will die with them. In psychology this theory is called “linguistic determinism”, and in simple terms it means that language determines though. Crucially, it is flawed and this is bad news for PC because what actually tends to happens is that the “new” language comes to be associated with the same pre-PC ideas – thus whereas in the playground of the 1970s the word “spaz” was a verbal insult with negative connotations, now the term “special needs” has become it’s contemporary equivalent, completly inverting the intentions of the language police who dreamt it up as a “sensitive term”. Human nature and with it the need to marginalise, insult and bully people belonging to other groups, never changes, although marx wouldn’t even admit it existed, which is why the PC brigade pretend it doesn’t either.
    Anyway, the use of “offensive” language maps to the Orwellian term “oldspeak” and spawns the contemporary “hate-crime” which is worse than any other equivalent crime becuse it was preceded by a politically incorrect thought, a “thought crime”. Thus if a white male is mugged, it probably won’t be investigated because hey, he deserved to have his i-pod stolen for flaunting it in public, the guilty capitalist stooge, (and social workers actually believe that conspicuous ownership is a “cause” of crime), whereas if a black man or a muslim gets mugged it is a hate crime because the victim happens to be a in a minority group.
    I agree that “nuts” is in poor taste, but that is nothing to do with the “objectification of women”. The real reason the PC brigade dislike such publications is because they pander to a working class view of women which (usually middle class and often lesbian) feminists cannot relate to. The representation of women as sex objects in “art” is not subject to censure, or even comment, precisely because it represents an acceptable middle class objectification, rather than an unsophisticated working class one. Interstingly no-one complains when women potray men as sex objects – even though they are “objectified” in the media as often as women.
    I’m tempted to ignore your argument about migrants – it has all the hallmarks of a contrived PC debate over semantics to avoid adressing a problematic issue (in PC land any debate about immigration is by definition racist) but I’ll have a go. Put simply, if someone has travelled to this country and is staying without a valid visa/work permit they are an illegal immigrant and should be removed. You say they cannot be illegal “by definition” – in which case how come the home office has a legal remit to remove them ?
    “The other group of people to whom PC should matter are those who value diversity, friendship, and the concept of human equality. Why use language that offsets this equality?”
    But what is “diversity” or “equality” and who decides ?? To the left it means quotas, positive discrimination, representative workforces, inclusive education and a whole host of social engineeering which benefits only a minority of the population. If I’m not in that minority why should I be in favour of it ?? In its true sense diversity means equally valuing all groups and cultures, but political correctness does tries to avoid even aknowledging the existing of, let alone valuing any form of white, western culture or idelogy, while persisting in the myth that the problems of all minority groups can be attributed to white males – how is that diverse ?
    I can understand why disadvantaged need a punch bag to take their frustrations out of and I have some sympathy with them, but people like youm white, middle class, males will sit sipping your latte, reading the guardian and munching on an organic salad, pontificating about equality, whislt making a very good living out of the very capiatlist (and thus unequal) ecomonic system you profess to hate ? Of course you see no problem with uncontrolled immigratrion, your pay is not being undercut by cheap foreign competition. No doubt you all sit at dinner parties waxing lyrical about how much easier it is to get a cheap plumber/nanny/taxi now that poland is in the EU ??
    As for “those who dare to criticise British culture and history” are there any left ?? I though we were all supposed to belive that British history was something to be ashamed of ? Yes the empire had problems but we aren’t the only country to have had one and I doubt we will be the last, is everyone supposed to apologise for everything that was ever done by their forefathers ? I’m not even British and I think this country has a lot to be proud of, certainly a lot more than many of the minority groups whose culture we are supposed to celebrate instead of our own.
    Your casting of PC as “The triumph of reason over impulse” is intersting in a way, but in a another way it’s just a pretentious way of saying we should all be self censorious – but what it is about being offended that is so bad ? As far as I know no one has ever died of being offended ?
    In a socially constructed reality, there is no such thing as “bias free”, everything is value laden, and if you consider that all speech acts have the potential to offend at least one other person, then logically you would eventually be unable to say anything at all ? The ultimate aim of newspeak was to reduce language to one word which could be used to express anything and everything.
    The really sinister thing about political corrctness, is that it creates a society in which what people think and what they say are 2 different things, this why politically incorrcet humour works, the reason why David Brent was funny, because he said what many thought but dare not say. Creating a society where thought and language are divorced is worse than a retreat from reason, it’s a denial of reality.

  4. Whoops, only just spotted this. Thanks for the long post. I am particularly taken by the example of “spaz” versus “special needs”, and I think your penultimate line (about “thinking” and “saying” being two different things) is pertinent.

    A few points to answer.

    Put simply, if someone has travelled to this country and is staying without a valid visa/work permit they are an illegal immigrant and should be removed. You say they cannot be illegal “by definition” – in which case how come the home office has a legal remit to remove them ?

    To clarify, all I was doing was making the distinction between asylum seekers, who enter and stay perfectly legally while their claim is processed; and “illegal immigrants”, who enter and work illegally. These two types of immigrant are often conflated (or rather, the former is equated with the latter) which is unhelpful at best. The Home Office does remove asylum seekers legally, but no-one breaks any laws during a claim for, and rejection of, asylum.

    sipping your latte, reading the guardian and munching on an organic salad, pontificating about equality

    I think your erroneous accusations of rampant latte-sipping, salad-eating, middle-class pontifications let you down, not least because it sounds, well… soooo PC. You complain about the immigration debate being censored by the PC brigade irrationally shouting ‘racism’ at every turn. You complain about the white working class being disparaged. Yet your snide extrapolations are part of that same language. They are designed to discredit the arguments by attacking the messenger. You pick-up on my phrase ‘white middle class heterosexual male,’ make assumptions, and apply just about every cliché you can think of – Except (notable by its absence) bourgeois, which is the word that would have revealed the provenance of your attack as precisely the kind of Marxism you profess to despise.

    And just as my ‘pontifications’ conjure up the image of some khaftan-garbed Guardianista, so yours paint the picture of a bitter man who sees his inequitable political power on the wane….

    … only, that’s probably not at all right, is it? I have no way of knowing how you came to the opinions you have now, and my partisan stereotypes will get me precisely nowhere, just as your cod-psychoanalysis of my white, middle-class male brain is laughably way off.

    So, stick to the argument at hand. As I say, you make some very pertinent points with which I agree. All you actually want to say is: “Political Correctness has had a negative effect on the white working class.” I am not convinced by this (and that has nothing to do with my choice of coffee). If anything I would say that the perceived ‘PC’ lenience of social workers and our criminal justice system, is designed to benefit the working class; and some of the quotas you mention are designed to help young people from poor backgrounds go to the best universities. It’s an open question though.

    Either way, if I was not been explicit enough above, then I would certainly say that I agree that ‘PC’ has been taken to the extreme by the misguided. Nevertheless, I still believe there is something of value at its core.

    It is definitely a mistake to assume my opinion is formed out of some kind of need to rebel! I don’t think my opinion is radical at all. It is barely idealistic. Sure, I have that sense of fairness and ‘do unto others’ which allows us to empathise with people who are worse off… But I am also against inequality of opportunity because it is inefficient. To choose one extreme example, if the “spaz” or “special needs” kid gets bullied, it is less likely that he will grow-up to be Stephen Hawking (yes, I’m mixing my immobilities here, but I hope you get the point). Likewise, if people are hitting glass ceilings because of race, gender or orientation, then we risk losing the best person for the job. That is a bad thing for that person – tough luck, you might say – but it is also bad whatever it is you are trying to produce. That is bad for economy. And when you begin to consider art, science and even sporting endeavour, its bad for humanity too.

    You are correct: it is in human nature to bully, marginalise, and insult other people. But the point of politics is to check and minimise these acts, on the basis that everyone will get more done that way. When we see someone who is a bully, we don’t point and say “tsk, human nature eh? What can you do?” Instead, we call them a “rude, objectionable cunt.” Why are you fighting for your right to be one?

    Political Correctness is not about denying people the right to offend. It is about empowering people with the right to say: “I have been offended – did you mean to do that?”

  5. Point taken about the stereotyping, although by admitting to drinking coffee, the drink of the bourgeoise, rather than tea, drink of the working classes you are conforming to an element of it. I just hope it’s fair trade……
    I don’t think I made my point about Marxism explicitly enough. I would have no particular issue with being labelled a marxist and would be willing to at least try living in a marxist society, if such a thing existed. My issue with PC is that it goes out of its way to avoid using the term whilst attempting to impose a quasi socialist ideology through manipulation of language and culture, but leaving the underpinning mechanic (state owned production) to wither on the vine. This is putting the cart before the horse. If you are going to have a totalitarian ideology, it needs to be imposed top down without compromise, more important than that, it needs to be explicit about its aims, criticisng westerm captitalism without saying what you would replace it with is an intellectual dead end and faffing around with language is just annoyingly and limp, creating a constant background noise of “socialism lite”. Like many who voted new lab in 1997, this is the source of disolusion and bitterness, the hijaking of what should have a new dawn into an off the shelf, cuddly, feminised, watered down designer socialism, it is politics with a small p, without ideology or even conviction, superficial froth for the capuccino and ipod genertaion. The people who take the blame for this are, rightly or wrongly, those who are perceived to have allowed it to happen. By embracing minority agendas, passively supporting feminism, nagging and hectoring the working class to be more like them, by not smoking, eating properly, refining their speech and behaviour, the liberal male middle classes have made a rod for their own back and can’t really complain that they are getting beaten with it.
    PC is a peculiar kind of self-indulgent yuppie liberalism. The middle class male, with his private education, secure job, comfortable salary, and myriad of consumer/lifestlye choices feels guilty about the global exploitation that has made his advantages possible. But rather than rail against his employers or the government (who are generally the cause of the problem, but also the guarantors of his power) he picks on easy targets, blaming the proles for their mindless consumerism, their unhealthy habits, their lack of social concience and above all their lack of gratitude for all the middle class angst about social justice.
    You make a valid point about PC and its lenincy on crime benefitting the working classes. Whilst this is true, it is also true that the majority of victims of crime are working class. The media creates this distortion that the middle classes should all be trembling behing their Ikea blinds, whereas the reality is that most criminals offend within a mile of their homes, and as they tend not to live in trendy loft blocks or leafy suburbs, it is their working class neighbours who pay the price for liberal indulgence of the criminally inclined.
    It has always been true that the younger and poorer you are, the more likely you are to be a victim of crime, particularly if you are male. PC media censorship has inverted this reality and created the paradox that older and ricer someone is, the more likely they are to fear crime, particularly if female.
    Finally I disagree that PC is about the right to say: “I have been offended –did you mean to do that?” if it was I would have no problem with it. But as I have been told ad infinitum on equality and diversity workshops, offence is in the eye of the beholder, and intent is irrelevant, indeed saying “No, I didn’t mean to offend” is not regarded as a defence but as an attempt to cast blame onto “the victim” for being over sensitive. This mentality has been expanded to the point where offence is taken by proxy, so non-muslim beaurocrats in the town hall will ban Guy Fawkes night, Christmas decorations etc on the basis that they might (not that they have) offend muslims. It is this constant consideration of everyone’s “rights” that grates. This is supposed to be a democtracy, that means the majority (as defined at the ballot box) rules for the majority’s benefit. If people don’t like it they can use the political process to change it, rather than this oblique attempt to bypass democracy and gain influence, unnoticed, by manipulating language and proscribing “culturally sensitive” behaviour. Why is it that a group which comprises only 3% of the population has to be consulted about everything ? What about consulting the other 97% ?
    Anyway it’s time to go home so I’ll end with a prediction. The PC edifice is already starting to crumble, partly becuse globalisation is finally starting to chip away at middle class politico-economic power and partly because post 9/11 no one feels quite so secure or confident about multi-culturalism. In 20 years time it, and it’s wicked step-sister cultural relativism, will be seen as passing fads, symptomatic of the final death throes of westerm capitalism.

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