Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Political Correctness: The New 'Loony Left'

(First published in Christchurch Press)

In the mid-1980s I read in this newspaper that the borough where I lived in London had banned the use of black bin bags because they were racially insulting. That untrue story was one of many about Labour-led boroughs which appeared in the British tabloid press. As smear campaigns go, it was pretty effective - until it died from a combination of the weight of its own lies and overwork.

I have been watching the development of a new version of the 'loony-Left' campaign here in New Zealand. Some old-style stories have even reappeared. For example, last year Michael Bassett claimed the London Borough of Wandsworth's Labour Council had removed Charles' and Diana's portraits because they 'celebrated heterosexuality'. Wandsworth has always been a Tory Borough and if this story is anything like the saga of Baa Baa Green Sheep, it should be consigned to the Bad Black Bin Bag.

The Right's current scare and smear tactic is the spectre of 'PC madness', which is being blamed for everything from rising crime to falling academic standards. The notion of a coterie of leftist 'elites' which attack traditional values, using the 'weapons' of political correctness, cultural relativism and multiculturalism, is an American, neo-conservative creation.

The idea is that leftist minority interest groups have engineered a social agenda which has undermined the 'traditional' family and marriage through such things as the legalisation and/or promotion of abortion, prostitution, homosexuality and feminism.

They are also accused of having created a claustrophobic intellectual environment, a crime wave, reverse discrimination and, by pursuing multiculturalism, of having eroded Kiwi values.

It's no wonder some New Zealanders feel out of their depth. But that's the intention, so they'll be relieved when the anti-PC life guards arrive to pull them back onto terra firma, 'the way things used to be'.

Quite how a loose, and often competing, coalition of minority interest groups has managed to acquire weapons of mass indoctrination and use them to such shocking and awesome effect mystifies me -- in my experience of interest group politics, they'd be more likely to use them on each other.

The term 'politically correct' came into popular usage in the USA in the early 1970s to describe social and political initiatives which challenged discriminatory attitudes and practices. A particular focus of this was on language and imagery which perpetuated negative racial and gender stereotypes.

Some people claim that it has gone too far and has given minorities an unfair advantage over the mainstream. Claims of unfair advantage are usually ideologically motivated, as is the contraposition of minorities against mainstream. After all, everyone is in some sort of minority, especially the very rich.

No doubt political correctness has been used to intimidate and to exclude, and overly enthusiastic, opportunistic or just plain angry people sometimes use it as a stick to beat their opponents. However, the bigotry and discrimination which gave rise to it were, and remain, vastly more hurtful and harmful.

Some argue that PCness prevents people from speaking their minds, but there are always limits to what may be said in a public arena. These shift, either reflecting broader socio-political changes or as a deliberate tactic to stretch or narrow the boundaries of acceptability.

Some commentators these days use un-PC language to make a political point. In so doing, they risk legitimating the words and actions of people who take their bigotry a great deal more seriously.

A reporter asked Peter Jackson how he'd deal with the name of Guy Gibson's dog in The Dambusters. Jackson didn't comment but the non-story provoked debate about whether people who object to the 'N word' are being PC or oversensitive. Those who mourn the loss of Golliwogs and the freedom to call their dogs 'Nigger', need to remember their history.

Industrialised slavery reduced black people to the legal status of animals. Slavery was abolished in 1865 in the USA but, by the early 1900s, all the Southern states had disenfranchised and segregated former slaves. Vicious caricatures and moral panics fuelled and legitimated the beatings, rapes, castrations and lynchings of black people that were commonplace throughout the South until the1960s.

That word in the mouths of white supremacists, became the most potent symbol of those dreadful times.

When earlier generations used the word to name a pet they didn't question whether it was offensive. They had the excuse of ignorance, given any voices speaking for women's and minority rights and interests were drowned out by the clamour of the largely white, male status quo staking its claim to the economic, political and moral high ground.

It's hard to use that excuse now that women and minorities have a political voice. If what they demand seems to be extreme, it needs a reasoned debate, not the hysteria of moral panics.

Political correctness cannot force people to abandon their values. A law which allows people to formalise same-sex relationships won't destroy the nuclear family - but the financial and emotional pressures of over-consuming, isolated family units might.

Harsher sentencing won't stop property crime while the poor have their noses rubbed in images of wealth and privilege, and where many means of achieving wealth may be legal but are unethical.

Deploring sexual violence against women and children without considering the effects of commercially generated words and images that objectify and sexualise them is hypocrisy.

The anti-PC campaign creates moral panics by presenting extreme examples of 'PC-ness' as typical. It links PC to emotive words like 'madness' to scare people who see themselves as middle-of-the-road. It doesn't specify what 'traditional values' are so it won't alienate people who have conflicting definitions and expectations.

Its appeal lies in going back, to an idealised time when there was moral certainty and social order.

In reality, it's about going back to a time when women's place was in the home and people of colour were acceptable as long as they stayed apart or behaved like white people; when homosexuals stayed in the closet, criminals were hanged, disabled people were pitied, and government's primary function was to facilitate business and maintain the armed wing of the state.

It was once a sin and treason to challenge the divine right of a king. Not so long ago only white, property owning men over 30 could vote and it was inconceivable for a black woman to be a Republican US Secretary of State.

The social changes which allowed Condoleeza Rice to rise to the top of world politics were fought for by people who would be dismissed by the anti-PC brigade as left-liberal, crusading, do-gooders out to destroy the natural order of things. Go figure.

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