Opinion: The Politeness of Freedom (A short essay on Political Correctness)

Political correctness is an odd matter for we Liberal Democrats. The inherent contradictions contained within it seems to symbolize the strains between the right and the left of our party.

However, we cannot simply continue to ignore the issue, for doing so is allowing the debate to be taken over by a reactionary right-wing press incapable of fully understanding the complex implications of this issue upon society. To allow these people to go unchallenged would be a crime in itself and so we must work out a truly liberal response to the modern threats to political correctness – and not just tackle it in policy but take the debate to the public.

We are confused as a nation about political correctness. On the one hand we don’t want discrimination or identity based divisions between ourselves; and on the other we care deeply about freedom of speech. Add to that the desire for relative equality between the people of all identities and you have a web of confusing philosophical contradictions.

This gap has been exploited by those on the right, by those who think all this ‘pandering’ to minorities comes at the expense of the freedom of the ‘majority’. Even that ‘liberal Conservative’ David Cameron (before he was leader) made a speech about gay rights getting in the way of the majority’s needs. How should we left-leaning liberals respond?

Well, at the moment, we simply don’t. There is a void, a silence, emanating from Britain’s liberal majority when it comes to political correctness. It is the elephant in the room, a mildly embarrassing necessity which, much like the question of the EU, is often shunted to the back of our priorities while others of a less reasoned persuasion are allowed to dominate the debate.

The cries heard again and again from the right-wing camp proclaim a false world in which their freedom is being destroyed by either ‘thought Marxists’ or ‘liberal fascists’. “Political correctness has gone mad” is the rallying cry and the vast majority of the population, to some extent or another, agrees with them. There is not just a deception going on here, but also a gross misunderstanding about the nature of liberty, and this must be exposed in order for political correctness to be defended.

Firstly it must be understood that the slogan ‘political correctness gone mad’ is being used as a front for those who think ‘political correctness is bad’. The difference between those two statements is the difference between reform and revolution, and we must be both wary and challenging in our response to people who put forward the former proposition. What do they mean by ‘political correctness has gone mad’? and more importantly how do they wish to change the way language is looked at in the workplace and public forum while still accepting the responsibility of the challenges of social integration?

Much has been made of the story that in one school the song ‘baa baa black sheep’ was changed to ‘baa baa rainbow sheep’ – but, surely, if some poor child is suffering racist abuse because of the song then it is not wrong for the teachers and parents to take action? Are they inferring that people should not take action against discriminatory abuse or are they just annoyed about the contradictions webbed within political correctness itself? The two can get confused and at worst completely mixed up. Most people would agree with the latter, that they are mildly annoyed at the contradictions embedded in political correctness. Many making the argument against political correctness itself, however, buy into the former, whether knowingly or not. These people must be challenged; surely it is not absurd or mad to do what political correctness generally implies?

But then what does political correctness imply? According to those incredibly sane and thoughtful persons at the ‘Campaign Against Political Correctness’ it is an intolerant and divisive form of censorship designed to destroy our country as we know it. I don’t quite know how the country as I know it actually is being destroyed, or how many riots and strikes have been started in opposition against political correctness but I am happy to take their word for it.

There is now something that can be described as close to an industry in political writing going, along the same lines as the Campaign against Political Correctness. The vast majority of it seems less about a concise or serious political problem, and more about middle-aged middle-class right-wing grumpiness. One only has to take a brief look at the politics section in your local Waterstones to find these little books of whingeing. One can almost hear the self indignation of their conservative readers as one leafs through the pages. Take this extract from ‘How to be right’ the latest example of grumpy right winged whingefests –

Celebrating Diversity – as our local Councils so often claim to be doing on our behalf – may sound jolly but in fact it’s just a grindingly politically correct euphemism for ‘state enforced multiculturalism’. Like multiculturalism, diversity has nothing to do with getting us to mix it up in one big happy melting pot. Quite the opposite. For ‘diversity’ read ‘division’.”

The nasty right or ‘sour Tories’ as I would put it seem to be under the impression that political correctness achieves nothing, and its implications are as great a challenge to freedom of speech as were the policies of Stalin and Hitler (although Hitler sure knew how to shut those bloody lefty liberals up! Grumble, grumble). The reality of what enforcers of political correctness actually believe is totally at odds with this view.

Firstly, political correctness is founded upon the assumption that discrimination and prejudice exists within society. On this matter there is little doubt. Boris Johnson, our glorious new Mayor of London (and future Prime Minister?) has talked in his book ‘Have I got views for you’ about his personal racism, and how he believes all people are in one way or another sexist, racist, homophobic or just plain prejudiced. He then goes on to say that we must acknowledge this but overcome it through the strengths of our own will, and get on with our lives. The aim of political correctness is thus to eliminate outward prejudice and discrimination. This is a view not just accepted by the left, but by the right also – with the only difference being that one believes the state should take a role and the other does not.

In a sense political correctness can be equivocated to enforced politeness. It is there to make the outbursts of Boris Johnson’s racism unacceptable and although Boris may disagree with its often crude implementation, as so many people obviously do, he would most likely agree with its attempted goal.

There are those who just don’t care about getting rid of discrimination, who don’t see it as an issue, or at least not a serious one. We as liberals, from both the right and left, however must understand it to be one of the greatest evils within society. It doesn’t matter whether you want to nationalize pet shops or marketize the NHS: prejudice hurts you. It is a distorter of free markets, a roadblock to equality, it creates divisions within society, and harms the aspirations and hopes of so many millions of people. The challenge of taking on prejudice is surely a liberal cause.

Freedom isn’t petty. Not being allowed to call someone ‘black’ in a derogatory way in the work place is not an infringement of your freedom, because, firstly, it does not infringe upon your private life, and, secondly, it is merely preventing you from doing something that is quite simply impolite and hurtful. This draws on to my final point.

Freedom and politeness are not enemies, they are companions. They both preach the idea of tolerance and understanding for one another, that human beings must be respected. If we are to preach Liberalism in this country then political correctness must be encouraged, for its aims are fundamentally similar to what we are trying to achieve.

What we are not trying to achieve is some sort of polite utopia – it would be a dull and dreary place to live – and the crudeness of much of today’s political correctness can give the impression that this is in fact what we are aiming for. ‘Reform, reform, reform’ must be our plan of action. We have to explain to people what political correctness means and make it smarter and adapt it to the more tolerant society we have today. There are great challenges facing our country in this area, we cannot fail.

John Dixon is Chairman of UEA Liberal Democrats and blogs at A Radical Writes.

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33 Comments

  • I think that promoting politeness and good manners would be far better than trying to support the fatally flawed political correctness.

    There isn’t much of a political correctness police, ironically what there is tends to be on the whinging right who use political correctness not in a polite way but as a form of sarcasm and as an excuse for inaction.

    Baa, baa Black sheep isn’t racist, and to pretend it is trivialises racism.

    Tackling real prejudice and discrimination is surely more important to Liberals than tilting at wind mills?

  • Painfully Liberal 4th Jun '08 - 9:46am

    Political Correctness is a pretty meaningless term these days I think. It’s only used by those who oppose it and is used to describe a bizarre mish mosh of racial, social, religious and even health and safety issues. Essentially ‘political correctnees’ is used like ‘liberal’ is in the US – as a catch all term to describe trait that people don’t like, but woth the advantage of allowing it’s critics to paint themselves as victims of the establishment or plucky underdogs fighting the Man.

    That’s not to say that some things derided under its banner aren’t cause for concern, but bear in mind that originally the idea of political correctness was a properly liberal notion, not of enforcing new language but rather of challenging old linguistic conventions – “why do you say that?” or “I don’t think you should say that” rather than you shouldn’t be allowed to say that”.

    Some people didn’t get this and tried to use it in a restrictive, controlling way but then you’ll always find people on the periphery of any movement who claim to be adherants while not understanding the basic idea. Unfortunately reactionaries who didn’t like to be questioned took to bringing up the worst excesses committed under the ‘political correctness’ banner and portraying them as indicative of the entire movement to discredit it.

    It would be nice to be able to properly define and reclaim political correctness, to decontaminate the brand as it were but to be honest, I’m not sure if it’s possible at this stage. Better perhaps to challenge those who decry political correctness to define their terms so they can at least be debated on some sort of solid ground.

  • I’m not politically correct. Yes, many of those complaining about “PC gone mad”, “the nanny state” etc. are Mail-reading knuckledraggers, but then I do think many right-on people are tying themselves up in knots, and shouldn’t be doing so.

    While we’re on the subject, I disagree intensely with “positive” discrimination. If there is underachievement among blacks, women, state school pupils and what have you, we should challenge and eradicate it. Establishing “positive” discrimination seems to accept some “groups'” second-class status and try to deal with it, rather than removing the barriers that stop them becoming first class.

    I also hold the view that “No Platform” is utter bilge. I for one would argue against the far right, in an open debate, where they would conclusively lose. Making martyrs of them doesn’t help, it just lets them bleat about how hard done to they are. One thinks of the arrest of Nick Griffin, which not only set a dangerous precedent, it didn’t even achieve its own objectives.

    We should regard people as individuals. Where have I heard that one before?

  • Jennie,

    That’s probably because all liberals really do feel this way, & the Hate Mail’s strawman of a “loony liberal” being PC is just that. A strawman with no basis in reality.

    If it’s arguments you want, perhaps someone would care to disagree with my views on positive discrimination & no platform. 🙂

  • Painfully Liberal 4th Jun '08 - 11:06am

    Well OK, in the name of spreading a little rancour and division as i go about my way…

    In terms of positive discrimination: It’s a crude tool and it certainly isn’t a long term solution but sometimes one needs a long and short term solution. I’m a great believer in a level playing field and there simply isn’t one at the moment – you can have two people of equal talent and potential and their background will lead to wildly different levels of orpportunity.

    So what does one do about (for instance) a child who’s bright and determined and has done everything one can expect of them but has been damned by his family’s deprivation not to achieve his potential in advancement through life? Simply tell them “sorry about that, we’ll try really hard to fix things so that your children get the opportunities you didn’t”? Bear in mind that someone may well have told his parents the same thing.

    We don’t seem close to resolving the problems of the cycles of deprivation that many are mired in, even if we knew absolutely that we had the policies and programmes to combat this there’ll be no quick fix. In the mean time, how else do we level the playing field?

  • Simon Titley 4th Jun '08 - 11:10am

    The philosopher A C Grayling got it right in last December’s edition of Prospect magazine:

    http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=9904

  • One problem with the article is that it assumes that there is a universal standard of politeness. If I eat a bacon sandwich opposite a Muslim co-worker, am I being polite, or impolite? Should I alter my dietary patterns to indulge other people’s superstitions?

  • David Heigham 4th Jun '08 - 5:48pm

    “Political correctness” raises my hackles.I find it generally calls for clumsy, inaccurate, disrespectful use of language. It is inaccurate because its rules are of the sort that calls a spade a manual digging implement. It is disrespectful because it puts people into unreal, awkward categories (e.g “black” and “white” when those two are not anywhere in the wide range of human skin tones).

    Be courteous. Respect people for what they are. Expect others to show the same courtesy and respect, and call them to order if they don’t. But cut out distortion and censorship in your thoughts, in your writing and in your speech.

  • The references to ‘communities’ is more down to multiculturalism than political correctness. They’re allied, but not the same…

  • ‘Politically correct’ – feeling justified in speaking out or telling someone to shut up.

    ‘Good ettiquette’ – knowing when and how to best speak out and knowing when to keep your own mouth shut.

  • The issue is a thorny one, however those on the right and they usually are on the right who use the phrases “political correctness gone mad.” or “liberal elite” are being less than honest about their intentions. I have heard these phrases bandied about in the certain sections of the media and then repeated in pubs by the readers of certain papers. When challenged what they mean they usaully resort to the same reactionary arguments on race, immigration, crime, children and young people. In short “Political correctness gone mad” is reactionary right wing short hand for damm those pesky liberals they won’t let me smack my kids, discriminate against people because of thier race, gender, sexuality etc, See Richard Littejohn or drive my gas guzzling car at obscenely fast speeds, see Jeremy Calarkson. It really is a way of trying to turn back the clock to a time when it was acceptable for people to put up signs saying no blacks or irish need apply and when the police go results by giving someone a good kicking in the cells. The phrase is used by those with a deeply unpleasent and authoritarian agenda and for them to pretend in any way it is about freedom of specch is a lie.

  • Political correctness is simply a tool to make oneself look good in one’s own and other’s eyes. It is also a tool of untruths to use against those that one doesn’t agree with. It’s stupid and false and very apparent.

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