Political correctness hasn’t gone mad. It has made us nicer

It’s time to reclaim the phrase that bigots use to criticise tolerant, open-minded discourse

Alf Garnett and his son-in-law Mike arguing over the Christmas dinner table in a 1966 scene from “Till Death Do Us Part”. From left:  actors Anthony Booth, Una Stubbs, Dandy Nichols and Warren Mitchell. Photograph:  Keystone/Getty Images

Alf Garnett and his son-in-law Mike arguing over the Christmas dinner table in a 1966 scene from “Till Death Do Us Part”. From left: actors Anthony Booth, Una Stubbs, Dandy Nichols and Warren Mitchell. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

 

Let me say this again. The words “politically correct” are the near-exclusive preserve of reactionary snowflakes. This would surprise any visiting alien exposed to columns about left-wing despots shutting down dissent such as that in all those columns about left-wing despots shutting down dissent. (The noise from the silenced is often deafening.)

The common opening line “I suppose this is not ‘politically correct’, but…” suggests that those who disapprove of what’s being said – often something racist, homophobic or sectarian – are likely to use those words when making their case.

“PC gone mad” is equally loaded. The implication here is that there was a reasonable movement called “PC” that went on to lose the run of itself. We didn’t mind “PC” when it dissuaded youngsters from beating up foreigners in public lavatories. But now that it’s illegal to sing the national anthem and all TDs must be disabled women the time has come to call a halt. It’s PC gone mad.

After ploughing through a few acres of this stuff, our alien would be convinced that, used approvingly, the term was rarely far from liberal human lips.

Let me say it again in a different way. Almost nobody arguing for respectful language has used those words in a quarter of a century. Before then it was occasionally uttered in Marxist circles. Michel Foucault used it to describe those who professed to communism without doing (as he saw it) sufficient intellectual heavy lifting.

It’s hard to think of a comparably peculiar linguistic shift.

In the early 1990s, a number of conservative commentators, reacting against supposed leftist tyranny on US campuses, began flinging it about in articles, books and scholarly papers.

It’s hard to think of a comparably peculiar linguistic shift. An obscure phrase uttered around the mimeograph machine in a few Trotskyite squats had been reinvented as the slogan beneath which a wholly imaginary movement was alleged to march. You know who I mean: “the PC Mob.”

The words have now been appropriated to describe any resistance to insensitive or discriminatory language.

Kevin Myers

You found a great deal of this in defences of Kevin Myers’s recent, controversial column. One writer to this newspaper approved of him for not toeing “the politically correct line”. Ruth Dudley Edwards admired him for calling out “the nonsense that characterises … the politically correct”.

The notion that some recent puritanical upsurge – this thing called “PC” – was responsible for objections to Myers’s comments about Jews is absurd.

There was much, much more. (We should clarify that both were speaking of his work generally, not specifically of the column that led to the furore.)

The notion that some recent puritanical upsurge – this thing called “PC” – was responsible for objections to Myers’s comments about Jews is absurd.

Such dangerous stereotypes have been frowned upon in most newspapers for the last century. The phantom menace of PC has, if anything, allowed right-wing commentators to open their bile ducts wider. Rude comments about vulnerable groups in society are now framed as brave resistance to the leftist bullies.

You know who I mean… it’s the PC Mob again.

An unlucky half-dozen endured the retired major venting spleen about immigrants at the golf club bar. Hundreds of thousands gather to hear Sword of Albion’s racist YouTube rants about how the Mob has silenced him. PC so oppressed Donald Trump that he barely managed to become president of the United States.

It is a good thing that the media, academia and public institutions are now more sensitive about language and minority rights. The racism and sexism on television visible until as late as the 1980s now seems shocking.

The N-word

A common trope in sitcoms – notably in Love Thy Neighbour and the more respectable Till Death Us Do Part – allowed any degree of racist abuse if the character speaking was revealed as a fool. A realistic John Cleese allowed the N-word to be cut from a recent repeat of Fawlty Towers.

Attitudes really began to change in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that the myth of “political correctness” emerged simultaneously. Here was a weapon to assist the restoration of the old bigotries. It hasn’t quite worked.

The generation that grew up in those years – the “Millennials” so despised by old, thick windbags – has proved more tolerant, more open-minded and more watchful for discrimination.

on balance, this thing that only reactionary snowflakes call “political correctness” has been beneficial to western society.

Of course there have been downsides to these shifts in perspective. It takes no great research to find some low-hanging fruitcake offering an idiotic opinion on Twitter that plays into paranoia about the PC Mob. One or two celebrities in particular deliver on a daily basis (you know who you are).

We could do without campaigns against potentially “problematic” films or TV series before those projects have reached the public. But, on balance, this thing that only reactionary snowflakes call “political correctness” has been beneficial to western society. We’re just a little nicer. We’re just a little kinder. Maybe it’s time to reclaim the phrase.

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