So, I was invited to take part in a debate at the Cambridge Union on Thursday night. We were debating the motion “This House Believes That Political Correctness is Sane and Necessary”, and naturally, I was proposing the motion.
On my side of the floor was New Statesman political editor Medhi Hasan and Times Columnist David Aaronovich. Facing us were UKIP candidate Will Burrows, Ann Widdecombe MP, and Alex Deane.
Since Political Correctness deals with how people express themselves, why they say and write, I thought it was important to have a go at reconciling it with Free Speech. What sort of political correctness could a campaigner with English PEN endorse?
Below is an approximation of my speech. I did ad lib some hilarious, off the cuff remarks during the delivery, but these were not part of my notes. So please rest assured that although the following might seem earnest and dry, when I gave the speech all the students were rolling in the aisles…1
Since the debate us now over, I will let this stand alone, but I’ll add another post later with more thoughts on the evening, and log some points (positive and negative) from the floor.
1. This may not be true.
Thankyou, Mr President, for inviting me here today.
As we have heard, political correctness seems to mean a lot of different things. The phrase ‘political correctness’ is now an insult, it is perjorative, and so its very useful for people to label things ‘political correctness’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ when in fact they are just complaining that someone is stopping them from doing something, or that things have changed since the old days.
And political correctness is not about sticking with the old ways, the old words.
Not PC (Part 1)
An example of the problem is equating political correctness, with health and safety legislation. “You can’t take scouts mountain biking anymore, its political correctness gone mad.”
No. These are laws that have been put in place to protect people. Protect them from harm. And to protect other people from litigation. They might be inconvenient and ill-conceived. But they’re not ‘political correctness’.
Not PC (Part 2)
Worse, is this tendency to equate human rights with political correctness. “Terrorists don’t respect our human rights, why should we respect theirs? Political correctness gone mad!”
No. Human rights set a benchmark. They outline the very least we should do for someone, as a fellow human being, over whom we have power. And because it is always the hated in society – terrorists, prisoners, or sometimes ethnic minorities – they are meant to be inconvenient. They are meant to frustrate our gut instinct, the popular will. And when they do that, its not political correctness.
So both of these get called political correctness, by their detractors, but actually, they’re part of a different debate.
More fruitful, really fascinating, and what political correctness is really about, is how it relates to expression: what people write and say. This is where I come in, because I work for a free speech organisation.
It seems sensible to restrict incitement to violence, egging people on. If you call for someone to be beheaded, or thrown out of the country, you’re endangering people. We have seen in Africa what damage a radio can do.
There’s no inconsistency in me, standing up here as a free speech campaigner, and saying that incitement should be stopped. And I do. There should be laws against it, and the police and the courts should stop it. That’s protecting people from physical harm.
Hate speech, which is a distinct concept, doesn’t have the clear and present danger aspect of incitement, and it shouldn’t be banned by law. Hate speech is very painful to hear, but involving the law only drives it underground, makes it worse.
Instead, we need to combat free speech with more free speech. And this is my favourite form of political correctness, the one I am arguing is necessary, and sane.
Its funny that whenever anyone gets caught in a political correctness debate, they demand their right to free speech. But they complain when other peopleuse their free speech to complain.
Political correctness is not about saying “you can’t say that!” although it might seem that way if you are lazy with words.
Instead, it is about saying “I’ve been offended – did you mean to do that?”
When we ask someone to be politically correct, we’re asking, I think, three things.
The first is to ask them to acknowledge the context of what they say.
The N— word is offensive because of its context. Its history.
Football commentator and manager Ron Atkinson should have known this history when he used it on Marcel Desailly.
The same with Paki. Anton Du Beke should have known the context of what he was saying. In fact, he did, and apologised immediately. It was Bruce Forsyth who didn’t know the history, the context, tried to brush it off as ‘political correctness’, people should get a sense of humour.
That’s the modern equivalent of ‘Let them eat cake’. Its an entire failure to understand what your talking about.
Carole Thatcher, after being caught out calling someone a Gollywog, which has a huge history of being a racial slur, refused to apologise for what she said. A complete lack of history.
Should these people be on TV. Should we buy their newspapers? Should we vote for them?
I wish Presidential candidate John McCain understood the history of the word “cunt” before he shouted it at his wife. We’re largely ignorant of that history ourselves, which is why comedians feel its appropriate to use the C-word, when they never use the N-Word.
The second thing we ask when we ask someone to be politically correct, is that they don’t present shoddy arguments.
Gay rights, climate change, immigration, Islam. These are all complex issues. There is much subtlety required to say anything sensible.
So when a taloid journalist or politician makes some bigoted remark like ‘immigrants are ruining the country’ we are right to be outraged. Because they are ignoring the subtlety, the complexity, of these political debates.
You can have a debate on immigration in this country. They do it all the time in think tanks, in Whitehall. What you can’t do is say something crass and expect the rest of us to accept you as a genuine political player.
The third thing that political correctness asks, is that you respect the name someone chooses for themselves.
We all know how bullies operate. They call you names. The act of naming is extremely powerful. This is the first tool that we have at our disposal for combating racism, homophobia, bigotry. The history of political correctness is about people choosing names for themselves. African-American. Gay. Queer. Mumbai, Istanbul. Refuse collectors. These are examples of empowerment, a statement that who you are is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.
And of course, those who want you to be ashamed, still use the old name. Don’t let them.
Now because of this renaming, political correctness gets called ‘Orwellian’
“Look, they’ve renamed something, it must be Orwellian.” No. That’s really lazy thinking.
Two reasons. First is that Orwellian newspeak is an act of the powerful, the establishment. That’s the opposite of political correctness, which is the weak and the bullied reclaiming language, reclaiming their name, from what the powerful have given to them.
Second, Orwellian language, if you read 1984, if you read ‘Politics and the English Language’, is designed to make you forget concepts, forget history. And that’s not how political correctness works at all.
PC is the opposite. It reminds us of history. It doesn’t let us forget, even hundreds of years later. Remember Blair’s apology for the slave trade.
So when someone complains about, say, Black History Month (they say “ooh, we don’t have a white history month”) and they sneer and say its political correctness. What they are trying to do is make us forget history. The history of the minorities.
Respect for context, and history, and subtlety.
Respect for names.
Political Correctness is about good manners! They’re not manners for opening the door, or at the dinner table, but they are manners for political debate. So what if you pause, and choose one word over another. That’s diplomacy!
If you refine your speech, if you acknowledge the point of view of the other person, then what you do say will be so much more persuasive, especially amongst those who might disagree with you.
You don’t have to have good manners. Poor Jeremy Clarkson, marginalised on the pages of The Sun. He’s politically incorrect, but he has never persuaded anyone of anything – they already agree with him.
So, if we want to be effective. If we want to actually make a difference. Then it’s context, subtlety, and a respect for other people – political correctness – that will see us through.