I promised I would put up a few afterthoughts on the Political Correctness debate I particpated in last month. Its hardly a live story now, but I do think it is important to write follow-ups to such happenings. I should say at the outset that our side eventually prevailed, 221-177.
One of the more forceful dissents from the floor, which addressed my speech in particular, asked why we needed to change our language when it gets misused. Surely that is giving into the racists if we allow them to ruin our language for us?
Mehdi Hassan responded to that immediately by saying that he really didn’t want to be called a ‘Paki’, thankyouverymuch. However, later, during David Aaronovich’s speech, the conundrum resurfaced when a person who was disabled said he didn’t find the term ‘spastic’ offensive, and that he would like to reclaim the name for his condition as a normal word, not an insult.
This was, I think, a reasonable dissent to my argument about respecting the names people chose for themselves, but there are a few retorts. The first is that his own preference may not be shared by others. The second, which answers the wider point, is that languages have evolved and changed according to the needs of the time. They are not immutable. There is nothing necessarily precious about certain names, that mean we can’t abandon them if they come to have offensive overtones (or histories, to carry forward my argument from the debate). In other circumstances, it is possible to reclaim words and shave off the offensive meaning. Think of ‘Nigga’ versus ‘Nigger’ (though many would argue that the former has unpleasant overtones of it’s own).
Involving the Police, and the ‘chilling’ effect
Both Medhi Hassan and myself were keen to point out at the start that we did not want to defend any police interference in matters of speech, except when it relates to incitement. This is not the sort of ‘political correctness’ we want to have anything to do with. I made an off the cuff remark that the police visit to Lynette Burrows, after she made some homophobic remarks on the radio, was a “one off” – Ann Widdecombe pointed out in a highly inconvenient ‘point of information’ that this was not the case. Later, in her speech, Widdecombe derided the tendency for one state agency (e.g. Local councils) to call another (the police) to investigate citizens on matters of speech. I’m still not sure how prevelant it is, but that is neither here not there. There exists, as Alex Deane pointed out in his summing up, a “chilling effect” of Lynette Burrows being visited by the police, regardless of whether or not she was charged with anything. This is a staple argument for the free speech campaigning we do at English PEN, so I had forseen the argument, and had been hoping (for the purposes of winning he debate) that no-one would bring it up. Alex Deane did just that, and in doing so made one of the most powerful arguments for his side, opposing the motion.
However, while the “chilling effect” is an issue, I don’t think it fatally undermines the political correctness argument. When Deane challenged me to account for what might have inspired the police to visit Burrows and others, I replied that I thought leadership was the problem. I think the principles of political correctness are pretty clear, but public sector employees are not given clear guidance and proper moral support, then you get cowardice on the one hand, confusion on the other, and ill-advised busy-bodies making decisions they shouldn’t. Thus we have the fiasco of Lynette Burrows encounter with the police, and the pathetic dictats like “Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep”, a litany of which made up the entirety of Ann Widdecombe’s speech. What I believed before the debate, and still believe, is that these nonsenses, the real political-correctness-gone-mad-stories, are outliers and anomalies, elevated by tabloid sensationalism. They are not, as Will Burrows claimed in his speech, genuinely part of the fabric of the nation. I think the audience realised this, which is why they ultimately voted in our favour.
David Aaronovich said he wished that someone would Google all Ann Widdecome’s PC-gone-mad examples after the event. I thought this rather stepped outside the boundaries of the debate, which depends on the rhetoric and facts you can bring into the chamber. Nevertheless, I would love to see a site like Fight The Smears which collected all Widdecombe’s examples in one place. Those that are false could be exposed in he manner of Oliver Burkeman’s fine debunking of the so-called ‘War on Christmas’. Those that are true would present a robust challenge to those of us who defend political correctness, because instances of stupidity really do undermine the cause. It might even discourage a repetition in the future. And of course debunking tabloid myths is always to the good…
Deane also derided Medhi, Aaronovich and yrstruly for uttering all the un-PC words in the manner of giggling schoolboys. I stood up to sincerely point out that I took no pleasure in saying those words. Widdecombe’s retort was “well, why say them, then?”
Quite. Having spent quite a bit of time recently working on a libel campaign, I guess I had it in my head that I should repeat the words as part of some sort of “qualified privilege“, to show that the offence of the words lies in the context. But on reflection, I think this was unnecessary.