Regular readers of this column will know that I’m not a fan of political correctness, by which I mean the way in which traditional language has been replaced by supposedly less-offensive euphemisms. So – ‘handicapped’ has become ‘disabled’ which in turn has become ‘differently abled’ (I use this example because I am a handicapped man; I have a stake in that particular debate). I have two principal reasons for my distaste, one is a classic ‘enlightenment’ argument, the other is specifically Christian.
The classic objection to political correctness is that it is a constraint upon freedom of speech. Words matter, they are tremendously powerful, and when particular forms of speech are ruled impermissible it means that the natural distribution of power within a society is constrained. Those who have power, especially those who can enforce that power, can gather yet more power to themselves. To make freedom of speech into a basic value within a society – and that includes things like freedom of assembly, freedom to disseminate and publish ideas and so on – is to leave room for the small children to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. It is to ensure that there are elements of power that remain outside the control of central authorities. This is the case no matter how worthy the cause that is being advanced to justify the restrictions upon speech.
The more Christian objection to political correctness is simply to point out that it is a sin to be offended – and it is the taking of offence which is the principal fuel that drives the desire for politically correct speech, principally by cultivating a fear in those who would like to speak that they might unwittingly cause offence. To be offended is to assert a position of privilege, to occupy a position of pride, to say ‘my status demands more respect than you are offering to me’. Whereas Christians are taught to take the lowliest position, and those who are first shall be last. There is a wonderful passage in St Paul’s letters where he describes all the ways in which he might claim a justifiable pride as a son of Abraham and a zealous Pharisee but that he now considers them all as dross. To allow oneself to be offended is to step away from the healthy spiritual heart of Christian life.
What we have with political correctness is a campaign to police cultural boundaries, to mark out what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. This is a campaign with particular ideological heft, rooted in the idea that inequality has to be abolished: not, it must be emphasised, inequality of opportunity so much as inequality of outcome. All must have prizes! The sense that there are innate differences between people – that these differences may be immune to our political blandishments and that, even more important, those differences may be creative and forces for profound good in the world – this is the ultimate heresy for the politically correct. All must be smoothly functioning cogs within the imperial bureaucratic and industrial machines. Difference is inefficiency!
This is an example of magical thinking. I do not wish to denigrate magical thinking, which is the practice of changing consciousness in accordance with will, and tremendously powerful (it’s what the advertising industry does, for example). What I object to is that political correctness is an extremely bad example of magical thinking, in that it takes no account of physical realities. To pretend that there are no differences is not to engage with reality; it is, in fact, a flight from that reality into a utopian vision of perfect conformity. All of my instincts are to take one look at the smoothly whirling wheels and want to shove a stick into it. Difference is human.
Which brings me to the fundamental point that I wish to make this week, which is that whenever there is a dominant political consciousness, that rules some forms of speech legitimate, and others illegitimate, it is very instructive to look for the blind spot and to ask, as Rowan Williams was prone to on a frequent basis, “Who pays the price?” In other words, which group of people do not enjoy protection from a politically correct environment? There are always prejudices, so where do the prejudices lie today?
I would argue that the last permissible prejudice in contemporary polite society is a prejudice against the working class British man. Those who fall into that category are denied any form of cultural acceptance. They are scorned as ignorant, racist, bigoted, redundant (in both senses), patriarchal, chauvinist, fat, lazy – generally as a waste of space that it would be best not to pay much attention to. Their cultural expressions are ridiculed, their political views vilified. There are two areas in particular that show this prejudice most clearly to me.
The first is in family law. Historically the typical man was able to perform the classic roles of protector and provider for their family, and in return they had certain legal assurances about the safety and integrity of that family – that it could not, for example, be destroyed upon a whim, that the legal contract of matrimony would be protected and enforced by the court system. That has entirely broken down and so one of the greatest social goods that a typical man was able to nurture and enjoy is now removed. This has been made possible for the simple reason that the state has taken over the roles of protector and provider; a real man of flesh and blood is no longer necessary.
The second is that the typical working class British man is at the very sharp end of the immigration debate. It is not those who are well established in their professions who are most at risk from the surge in immigration, rather it is those whose most marketable asset is their low wage cost who find their livelihoods being taken away by those who can provide labour at an even lower price. This is a development that is perfectly fine and justifiable for those who own industries, or those who wish to take advantage of much cheaper labour in the domestic sphere, but it has completely hammered the average man.
So is this a moan? No – that would simply be to ‘take offence’ in turn. It has been said that ‘to those who have will more be given, from those who have little, even that little shall be taken away’. Life is hard, ‘life is suffering’ as the Buddhists teach. What I would say is simply this: political correctness is a luxury, a product of an absurdly affluent society that has lost sight of the fundamental economic and practical truths of human life, the nature of genuine human differences that can be celebrated profitably rather than denied to everyone’s detriment. There are truths which will not go away, and which promise a much more fruitful future for the working class British man than our present delusional patterns of life can offer. We are rapidly entering into a time when the classic old-fashioned virtues of the working class man will once more be seen as valuable and honourable. Political correctness is simply a bubble on the crest of a wave that is now crashing against a very rocky shore. The meek shall inherit the earth.
Vive la difference. As I’ve been known to day 😉
You’re right to say that words have power, that those who control which words are allowed to be used have power to control cultural norms.
Where I disagree with you (most fervently) is your assertion that this necessarily means that “Those who have power, especially those who can enforce that power, can gather yet more power to themselves.”
There is also the alternate perspective, that political correctness is often a means of taking power back from those who have historically controlled and hoarded privilege, typically rich, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men. When such people yell ‘tranny’ at me in the street, or refer to me dismissively as ‘a transsexual’, is it sinful for me to take offence and ask that I be respected as a ‘transwoman’ – my own choice of self-identification? Yes I want to control the language being used, yes I want to take away power from the privileged who think they can abuse me in the street or online, but am I really the one who “has power”, wanting to “enforce that power”, wanting to “gather yet more power”, or am I rather the outcast fighting against the privileged power that has been used so offhandedly against me?
Am I really the sinner in this, because I am offended at such abusive power and seek to take it from them by changing permissible language? You have a sense of being excluded from cultural power by the politically correct, but you defend the right of my abusers to use whatever language they see fit, and name me as the sinner!
Yes, I realise you’re primarily arguing for the right to be able to express a view on immigration without being shut down or attacked as a racist, but your argument is much wider and attacks the victims of abuse both privileged and underprivileged for trying to assert control over the language used to describe themselves.
Even around the subject of immigration, many people still feel free to denigrate immigrants as a group in ways that would be completely unacceptable if making reference to black people, or gay people, or women, or transgendered people.
Some of us depend on political correctness to even be able to get through the day without being abused. I’d be grateful if you didn’t use your privilege as a priest, a newspaper columnist and a white man to strip that protection away from me and from those much less privileged than I.
(comment sent by email)