Still defending Political Correctness

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.

In defence of political correctness

“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.