What’s wrong with political correctness?
Drysdale Building, Northampton Square
Tuesday 8 October 2019
Chair: Mark Honigsbaum
Ten years ago political correctness did not seem like a big issue. There was a general consensus that certain words were best avoided in the name of politeness, such as ‘coloured’ in the context of race. Also, in the spirit of inclusiveness it seemed as though ‘headteacher’ instead of ‘headmaster’ might remind us all that women are also running schools. Did something change though? For instance, the expression ‘people of colour’ is now considered politically correct, but ‘coloured people’ is not. And what are the consequences of straying from politically correct language? The scientist, Professor Tim Hunt lost his position at University College London after a speech in which he joked about the traits of women in scientific research. His subsequent assertion that it was positive to see so many more women working in science research did nothing to redeem him.
Fifteen years ago I remember laughing as the comedian, Stewart Lee, mocked Richard Littlejohn for the latter’s belief that political correctness had gone mad. Now the politically correct themselves invite as much ridicule, because they are perceived to have a sense of authority. Something seems to have changed. At University of London Drysdale Building, Tuesday night, I listened to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Peter Hitchens and Andrew Doyle debate the question of what is wrong with political correctness. As far as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is concerned there is very little wrong. Her attitudes towards political correctness have been shaped by experiences as a woman of Ugandan ancestry. Subjected to frequent and persistent racist abuse (online in particular) Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has a line. In fact, she claimed, we all have a line, and therefore absolute freedom of speech is itself a myth. At some point people have to take responsibility for what they say. What they say, moreover, is itself an act.
If you did not know differently you would think that Yasmin and Peter Hitchens have been married for thirty years. The naughty bickering between them is actually quite endearing. Peter Hitchens sees political correctness, at one level, as being a form of politeness. The problem is when politically correct ideas become bundled together and are imposed upon people: that is the basis of something authoritarian. Having a few crazy ideas when young is nothing new and, he says, he once tried to no platform Hans Eysenck, much to the disgust of his college tutors. The difference now is that adults support the no platforming on behalf of their students. Somehow, political correctness has changed. Hitchens struck a chord when he said that public servants have become politically correct through fear of losing their job. It is not the gulag one faces for not conforming, but unemployment, which in many ways is as punitive. So there are consequences, but are they reasonable?
Andrew Doyle recognises that the political correctness of fifteen years ago had a function and a logic that made it work. Partly, this is because it came about organically, through consensus, and therefore had a general acceptance. ‘Wokeness’, the movement championed by his satirical character, Titania McGrath, is the new political correctness. It seeks to control not just what people say, but what they think. The result of that is something authoritarian. At the moment there are warning signs, but Andrew Doyle fears that woke culture could get out of control. Still, as he pointed out, there have been thousands of arrests for jokes and opinions that people have said online. The police routinely investigate ‘non crimes’ and include such investigations in their statistics. An offensive joke could, quite conceivably, land you in prison in the U.K. as it did in the case of Count Dankula, a Scottish vlogger who uploaded footage of his pug dog giving Nazi salutes as part of a prank.
Having walked into the Drysdale Building, passed banners advertising diversity, I had expected the prevailing view in the room to be with Yasmin. It certainly was not. Many of the audience speakers suggested that they felt increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of political correctness. Not least in their concerns was a question that proved difficult to answer: if there is to be any censorship, who is appointed to do it? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown feels that society should adopt a collective responsibility for making sure that discourse is polite. Take the House of Commons. Boris Johnson’s use of the word ‘surrender’ is frowned upon because of a belief that such war analogy will inspire violent attacks. Irresponsible language will, she argued, encourage irresponsible behaviour.
Peter Hitchens’ point about public sector workers, like teachers, feeling cowed by speech regulations struck a chord. No one wants to lose their job over something that they say, and it is understandable that teachers are especially careful. Teachers are therefore more likely to conform to conventional ideas about cultural issues, climate change, elections and so on. The problem, of course, is that an entire generation of students across the U.K. might think that all of their teachers share the same views. This could have two possible effects. The young generation could become like the adults who taught them, or there could be a backlash against political correctness. Arguably parents have a much greater impact on their children’s views than teachers, but the point remains that conformism around the political correctness question might be limiting the educational experience of young people.
Stifling opinion is unlikely to be a good thing. In the case of social change it is problematic to say the least when dissenting views are not expressed at a time when change is needed. All of the best policies and ideas started off as an unpopular idea. Many of them were downright offensive to someone. The price paid for discovering these great innovations is that we have to sit through all of the bad ideas, not to say the offensive ones. Not everything should be up for debate, argued Yasmin, who refused to listen to an audience member who felt that Tommy Robinson had been misrepresented.
Offence-taking has changed, argued Peter Hitchens. Real offence is rare, and so the argument that ‘I find that offensive’ tends to get used to shut people up. If audiences misunderstand a joke, argued Andrew Doyle, it is not the comedian’s problem. What emerged in the debate was the disagreement over the idea of ‘speech acts’, that words are an act in themselves. Language can be weaponised, but Andrew Doyle made the point that public figures can only be held accountable for their own actions: anyone who commits a violent act because of something a politician says is responsible for their act. In any case, there is no conclusive data that the language of the media has any impact on what people do as a result.
What is not helpful is the way that politicians on different sides of the political spectrum only decide that political correctness matters when an opponent says something that they find objectionable. Boris Johnson’s ‘Humbug’ comment caused outcry from Labour, but when Labour politicians use similar ‘violent’ metaphors it is considered reasonable. The language used against Margaret Thatcher (in life and after death) was amongst the most offensive ever; at the same time, Diane Abbot seems to receive as much invective as any politician today. Condemnation depends on which side of the house one sits. If there was any agreement in the room it was that standards of discourse would improve without hypocrisy. For all the angst it causes, another interesting suggestion is this: for those people who don’t use Twitter nor work in the public sector, they barely even care about political correctness.