Has political correctness gone mad?
That was the title of Trevor Phillip’s latest Channel 4 documentary which aired a few days ago. The docco contends that Brexit and Trump happened as a result of the ‘hard left’ refusing to engage in debate and using political correctness to silence opponents. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s topical. That there’s suddenly a Liberal-versus-Conservative divide imported from across the Atlantic threatening to disenchant the ‘ordinary people’ who will rebel against their feminist, LGBTQ and POC oppressors by voting in a British version of Trump.
But that’s just not true.
This PC Gone Mad/Liberal Elites Oppressing The Masses trope is a myth created and endlessly cycled by the media. Just days after Has PC Gone Mad? aired, another version of this self-created debate- though at least this segment was an actual debate- was shown on BBC Newsnight. With each iteration of this myth, no new information or current event is added. Instead, the same incidents are recycled over and over- mostly Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel being no-platformed (refusal to be invited as a guest speaker to student societies or clubs) by certain student unions.
Now, student unions are not all-powerful holdfasts of the “liberal elite” (or the Establishment, for that matter). They’re, well, groups of young people elected by other young people at the same university who could be bothered to vote. They do not have “agendas” which are meaningful forces at the national level (in the case of no-platforming someone). Their compositions change with each new influx of students, making it very difficult to deploy a consistent political agenda across decades to change an entire country. The ‘PC Gone Mad’ myth has simply borrowed from America’s over-hyping of a few incidents of students asking for trigger warnings* on course material (which have existed for decades at US and UK universities; even TV has trigger warnings before certain programmes). In any case, a union or two no-platforming a speaker does not equate to a liberal elite oppressing the masses. Governments owe their citizens and residents free speech. Universities are not governments and neither are student unions. Student unions are groups of people who can no-platform if they feel like it. no-one has an inalienable right to speak to any group of people, any more than I have the right to demand that you continue to read this.
The myth of political correctness gone mad also assumes that ‘ordinary people’ desperately crave the freedom to say sexist, racist and homophobic statements. Most of us would disagree with that assessment of ourselves and our loved ones.
And while proponents of the myth claim that we suddenly aren’t allowed to say racist, sexist or homophobic things any more, in reality these laws have been in effect for decades. The Race Relations Act came into effect in the 1970s. It wasn’t invented by the liberal elite a couple of months ago. The Channel 4 documentary used the punishments dished out to online trolls who targeted the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez as an example of political correctness gone mad. Prosecutions for online trolling may seem new to those who’ve barely heard of the internet, but harassment has always been a crime whether it’s committed to your face, in a letter, through a third party, over the phone or indeed online. This is similar to how conspiracy, slander or extortion are actionable whether they’re committed face to face or not. Or how murder is still a crime even if you don’t kill the person face to face.
Prosecutions for online harassment did happen before Caroline Criado-Perez. They just didn’t make the national news because the victims were not famous enough (Criado-Perez was fronting a national campaign at the time). It’s not uncommon for those who profess their activism online to be the targets of abuse. It’s just that people who aren’t middle-class, who aren’t deemed respectable, who are seen as deserving of their abuse because they’re sex worker activists or queer activists or kinksters, won’t be newsworthy. Just because something isn’t on the news doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Kind of like how people are dying of cancer every day but their families’ grief won’t make the headlines, while celebrities who survive cancer do.
Trevor Phillips did raise important points: virtue-signalling can and does lead to harmful overreactions against powerless individuals, leaving systemic oppression intact. And shutting down debate is not a solution. But overall, the message of Has PC Gone Mad is not simply wrong, it’s mostly irrelevant.
The fact is, “liberal elites” and “ordinary people” are not in conflict. Brexit was not caused by harassment prosecutions or students no-platforming. It was caused by widespread ignorance of what the EU is and the benefits it offers as well as UKIP’s conflation of the unrelated issues of EU immigration, non-EU immigration, benefits ‘scrounging’, and illegal immigration. The only recent UK political clashes have been about Brexit, austerity, and so on- mostly against the Conservative government and certainly not against liberal elites. While these very real protests are sometimes played down in the news, these same news agencies are only too happy to regurgitate years-old incidents and inflate incidents which appeared in student newspapers into a fake national debate on political correctness. If a liberal versus conservative divide does ever happen, it was manufactured by the media.
*’The Coddling of the American Mind‘, which very eloquently criticises these students, is actually one of my favourite online articles due to the structure of its arguments and the important points it touches on. However, even this gem cites just a handful of very low-key, non-newsworthy incidents across the entire US. This proves that the ‘PC debate’ is an overhyping of unrelated trivial events. It’s a very well-written piece though and I’d recommend reading it.
4 thoughts on “How the political correctness debate is being manufactured”
Political Correctness has obviously overstepped the mark when a scientist who lands a spacecraft on a comet is pilloried by feminists for wearing a shirt his girlfriend bought for him. I don’t agree with Brexit, but this level of hysterical controlling behaviour needs to be resisted at every turn, and thankfully it increasingly is.
Oh yeah.. I said the economic collapse was a point worth coming back to and forgot to come back to it. I think the debate is manufactured to a certain degree; there’s a lot of stirring up of feelings regarding trivial details such as the prominence of Spiderwoman’s backside or a hawaiian shirt on a space engineer whilst there is actually more pertinent issues like the stagnation of wages, the shortage of social housing and inflation of costs of privatised monopolies that the energy of dissatisfaction of the public could be directed against if they weren’t diverting their energies elsewhere. It could be that the outrage itself is diverted. Keeps the rebels without a cause busy, whilst making rebellion look less attractive to the rest of the populace.
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I would disagree, because whilst the debate about “political correctness has gone mad” debate as gone on for a long time it has also been predicated on a slippery slope premise – not merely that it has gone mad but that it has the potential to go mad and is getting madder. What one defines as intolerant language has changed over time, and does have cultural effects. I’ve always been on the liberal side of things, but even when I was a kid I suspected that some of the things being labelled as racist really weren’t, such as the inclusion of the character of Huggy Bear in Starsky and Hutch was considered racist by some who saw him as a derrogatory stereotype of black americans as pimps and drug dealers. As a regular viewer of Starsky and Hutch I thought this was odd since this was a likable character (and not actually ever shown to be a pimp or a drug dealer), no different from a Del Boy or Arthur Daley really except he was black. Even then it began to occur to me if you could not create a character that was black and had any negative qualities at all that would actually mean less interesting characters for black actors to play. It was an early example of the politically correct crowd making a decision that I personally thought was a wrong decision. I saw similar decisions as I grew up. Feminists deciding that “Don’t go changing” by Billy Joel was sexist. “Rabbit” by Chas and Dave. The Carry On film canon was sexist. Benny Hill, Frankie Howard and Les Dawson all had their careers brought low by the expressed opinions of the easily outraged.
Into the nineties and two disturbing things happened. One is the definition of tolerance expanded to religion. Not our own homegrown religions but specifically Islam. We genuinely had a problem of Islamophobia on the rise in response partly to Islamic terrorism and the West’s response of a war on terror, and partly because second wave feminism had been deeply critical of Islam’s restrictions on the freedoms of women. As a generation had been told that Islam was the most extremely misogynistic religion, it was already considered to be the religion least deserving of tolerance. But even though Islamophobia was a problem not being able to criticize a religion is tantamount to blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws that we hadn’t long reprealed in the West. Also, by the early twenty-first century (to reference your mention of Bindel and Greer) rules regarding political correctness had expanded beyond racism, homophobia and sexism to not only religious intolerance (which is almost inevitable amongst religious people. Bigotry, in it’s original sense, is almost the essence of religion, because it involes blind faith that your truth without proof is better than anyone elses truth without proof) but also transphobia, which was not content to limit itself to tolerance of those with gender dysphoria but insistent on the interpretation of gender dysphoria. If Milo referring to a transwoman as “a man in a dress confused about his identity” is hate speech then to avoid hate speech one must take sides in an as yet unresolved debate in psychology and medicine. IT would only actually constitute hatred if it was okay to be intolerant of the mentally ill, intolerant of men who choose to wear dresses or intolerant of men. If you are tolerant of mental illness, men and men who make choices that are not stereotypical (like wearing a dress or wearing make up) then there is no reason why not believing that a transwoman is a transwoman need be hateful. In fact the basis upon which transwomen self-identify as women is so essentialist and rooted in gender norms that it is actually anathemic to classical feminism, so the fact that mainstream intersectional feminists immediately absorbed their cause along with every other social justice pressure group requires its adherents to exact a gaslighting level of doublethink.
In brief, whilst cries of “political correctness gone mad” has gone on for a long time, if for all of that time it has been getting madder and it has become more damaging to challenge it’s viewpoint (this hasn’t been a relentless shift. Throughout the mid nineties there was a decided thaw in the march of political correctness; it had a resurgance around the time of the economic collapse, which is a point worth coming back to) then it may be the tolerance point of different people have been met at different times. Maybe a few of us seeing some of the mistakes in the early stages may have dismissed them with “well it still does more good than harm” and let these aberrations slide.
Remember the only thing that make a slippery slope fallacy a fallacy is that in the long run cooler heads will prevail. It may be that cooler heads are speaking up now. It might be the lack of resistance to political correctness that is actually where the madness lies.