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.