Does political correctness really exist?

by Jenny Nicholls / 23 September, 2017

"Great American Nude” by pop-art painter Tom Wesselmann. Photo/Radu Bercan/Alamy

Since the early 90s, some say, a creeping fog of censoriousness has spread through Western culture –deadening minds, empowering bores and complicating the naming of roads.

From its birthplace in some marijuana-soaked Berkeley dorm, the movement described by New York Times writer Richard Bernstein in October 1990 as “a growing intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform” swarmed like measles through the cultural body.

Before long, swarms of know-it-alls spread “political correctness” beyond the mossy walls of their eye-wateringly expensive universities. Impressionable minds soaked up this PC creed of “treating people with respect”, even if they were fat, ate funny food or only had one leg.

In New Zealand, the contagion spread to our innermost sanctums: the smoko rooms where Doris made the tea and Mervyn went on about homosexuals and his daughter’s Maori boyfriend. Then political correctness hit the nation like a bloody thunderbolt, as Mervyn might say, and those sunlit days went the way of Hori and “the half-gallon jar”. Now, the bloody Maori are running everything and the highway outside has a bloody taniwha under it, with a bloody new name that bears no resemblance to the King’s bloody English. Or the Queen’s, either.

Elderly vocabularies, which welcome change as much as middle-aged guts embrace kale smoothies, came under pressure from an indigestible torrent of “isms”. “Ableism”, for instance. And there were taxing new vowel-less acronyms such as LBGTQ, which required enormous mental effort to get in the right order.

Someone like Mervyn might see politically correct language as a conspiracy designed to make his life more complicated, expensive and dull.

But isn’t it simply “old-fashioned” courtesy to want to avoid causing offence? Does the accusation “PC” really just reflect a fear of cultural change? We have never been more connected, our societies more diverse – and our language has changed to reflect this, as it always has.

In fact, “political correctness” – like “virtue signaling” – repackages decency to make it sound sinister and coercive, with the brutal impact of an advertising slogan. The only difference between lines like “Don’t dream it. Drive it” and “politically correct” is that PC is a car no one wants to drive, a club no one wants to join. The words are a jibe, a catcall, a whinge, and something that is only said about someone else.

A term of abuse with a usefully academic veneer, it closes down debate while appearing to do just the opposite. If going into details will make you sound like an ignorant bigot, just throw the “PC” word grenade, and leg it. 

The phrase implies a secret dominion of prying academic eggheads, lefties of course, paid to study things no one really needs, like snails or theoretical physics. Their “rules” are said to have seeped everywhere and ruined everything, like a sort of dismal intellectual fog. Fatally, however, this all-powerful “PC brigade” has no riposte of equal simplicity and impact.

The lack of an equivalent taunt robs PC lefties of an attack strategy, which worked so well for Donald Trump. As Guardian pundit Moira Weigel commented: “Every demagogue needs an enemy.”

“I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” Trump told Fox News host Megyn Kelly and an appreciative audience who seemed to agree: political correctness was a bigger issue for the US than the economy, infrastructure, or a byzantine health insurance system impoverishing millions.

Trump never defined this foe, but gave the impression that things ordinary people enjoy – from fried chicken to Miss Universe contests – were in mortal danger from massive, secret kill-joy PC forces.

As well as somehow closing down calorific sexy man-fun, the PCers, Trump claimed, kill debate by suppressing the truth, a claim broadcast enthusiastically across the world on myriad platforms.

Trump won the world’s most powerful job despite calling women “fat pigs”, “dogs”, ‘slobs” and “disgusting animals”, and Mexicans “rapists”. His victory begs the question: does political correctness truly exist in any politically influential form? Or is it, as Weigel maintains, a phrase too elastic to mean anything, a “phantom nemesis” invented by the right?

Treating others with courtesy whatever their colour, creed, gender or skill set, is hardly new. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is the best working definition of “PC” I know. How can this be shameful? It seems such basic moral hygiene that opposing it should no longer be allowed to hide behind a phrase as tired as Mervyn’s walk-shorts.              

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.



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