A defence of “political correctness”

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The left believe that in order to address prejudice and discrimination, it’s important to address the language we use as a society, changing it to reflect an increasingly diverse society, where everyone feels at safe, included and one in which citizens attempt to avoid giving needless offence to one another.

By ensuring terms that reflect prejudice are not part of our everyday language habits, it is hoped that as a society, we can cultivate and extend tolerance and basic principles of courtesy, equality and decency to our fellow human beings, reflecting a healthy pluralism. 

However, the right see a conspiracy in “political correctness”. The phrase is used by Conservatives and the far right in a derogatory way that implies hidden and powerful forces determined to suppress inconvenient truths by the policing of language and thought. For the right, political correctness is an hegemonic, stifling and Stalinist-styled orthodoxy, that pressures us into a fashionable conformity. The right see political correctness as a means of closing down debate, not that they particularly favour candour more generally. Just the sort of “speaking one’s mind” that involves directing stigma at historically marginalised groups.

Apparently, open, civil discourse need not be civil, prefigurative and inclusive. Or open, for that matter. 

The fact that Western civilization has been inherently unfair to ethnic minorities, women, disabled people, poor people and homosexuals has always been at the centre of politically correct thinking. Historically and internationally, support for affirmative action grew to achieve goals such as bridging inequalities in employment and pay, increasing access to education, promoting diversity, and redressing historical wrongs, harms, or hindrances. Affirmative action is intended to promote the opportunities of defined minority groups within a society to give them equal access to that of the majority population, and to address disadvantage.

In the UK, affirmative action is illegal, we have a history of “positive action”, which is more about focusing on ensuring equal opportunity and, for example, targeted advertising campaigns to encourage ethnic minority candidates to join the police force.

Any discrimination, quotas or favouritism due to sex, race and ethnicity among other “protected characteristics” is generally illegal for any reason in education, employment, during commercial transactions, in a private club or association, and while using public services.

The Equality Act 2010 (established by the Labour government, amended, reduced and implemented by the Conservative-led coalition) established the principles of equality and their implementation in the UK.

Specific exemptions include:

Part of the Northern Ireland Peace Process, the Good Friday Agreement and the resulting Patten report required the Police Service of Northern Ireland to recruit 50% of numbers from the Catholic community and 50% from the Protestant and other communities, in order to reduce any possible bias towards Protestants. This was later referred to as the “50:50” measure. (See also Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland.)

It’s fair that all social groups are able to participate in all provided opportunities including educational, employment, promotional and training opportunities, surely. The right claim to cherish the notion of a meritocracy, after all. A genuine meritocracy would alienate no-one.

Political correctness arose to help compensate for past discrimination, persecution or exploitation by the ruling class of a culture, and to address existing discrimination, which ultimately strengthens social cohesion – something else that traditional Conservatives claimed to cherish. Political correctness is about universal human rights. It’s about inclusion and democracy. 

Instead, however, political correctness is seen by many on the right as a some kind of dictatorship of virtue. The left are often ridiculously accused of “virtue signalling” and being “do-gooders” by the right. I’ve often wondered what the ideal alternative to a “do-gooder” would be, for those making this simultaneously slapstick and surreal accusation.

The right abandon the principles of political science, democracy, civil debate, diplomacy and inclusion and simply assail the characters of their critics. They get personal. They can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable. They prefer to simply “crush the saboteurs”, rather than engage in rational dialogue. But without dialogue and the basic principles and mechanisms of exchange, we don’t have a healthy, pluralist democracy. Instead, we have a group of people imposing their narrow worldview, language, thoughts and personal prejudices upon a population. Using political narratives that focus on outgrouping already marginalised citizens according to their economic status – which is in turn created by a process of outgrouping – is not “telling it like it is”. It’s telling us how it is going to be.

It’s not just that the right resent political correctness for what they see as a mechanism for suppressing their own traditional prejudices. They use carefully calibrated undemocratic language to argue against the very idea of a carefully calibrated language that came about to simply extend principles of fairness, equality and democratic inclusion. Ultimately, political correctness is about democracy and a fair model of socioeconomic organisation.

The right don’t like political correctness because they don’t like the very idea that all human lives have equal worth. They prefer hierarchical ranking and hierarchical socioeconomic organisation. That’s what the Conservative notion of “competition” means. It’s not real competition of course, because without a degree of “political correctness”, there is no level playing field to compete from.

Some social groups simply don’t have access to opportunities to “compete” fairly for even a basic share of wealth and power. “Telling it like it is”, and “speaking your mind” is actually rather more about stating which social groups are allowed to participate as citizens in a society, and which groups aren’t. 

A homo… what?

Politics reduced to homophily is also a politics without a shred of democracy. By interacting only with others who are like themselves, anything that government ministers experience as a result of their position, influence and power simply gets reinforced. It comes to typify “people like us” and demarcates “people like them”. It’s the basis of a political othering process.

Homophily – which is basically a tendency to associate only with those like yourself –  also shapes the “old-boys network” and the revolving door of power between politicians and corporate entities: a politics in which a handful of people who went to the same public school or university use their positions of  power and influence to mutually benefit each other. It’s a movement of personnel between roles as legislators and the industries potentially affected by legislation and regulation. The result is that legislation and deregulation happens which benefits only those included in the revolving door interaction. That’s not a large proportion of the population at all. 

I think this is what Conservatives mean when they say we live in a “meritocracy”. This is clearly not compatible with democracy.

Nudging privilege and kicking the poor

Then of course there are the academics who support Conservative neoliberalism, such as the “libertarian paternalists”, for example, who have found their way into the very heart of the Conservatives’ political decision-making process regarding policy. Nudge is comprised of a very lucrative set of theories that have the added value of simply propping up the status quo. Nudge is mostly aimed at “improving the decisions” of poor people, who, it is claimed, are poor because of their “faulty” cognitive processes and behaviours.

The behavioural economists at the heart of the technocratic Nudge Unit, which is at the very heart of the cabinet office, claim they are “scientific”, as they use a scientific methodology – randomised control trials – to “verify” their various hypotheses. However, by isolating and exploring what they perceive as basic causal relationships in experimental circumstances, they effectively screen out context and other potential variables – such as the structural and historical causes of poverty, brought about by political decision-making, for example – and so such “experiments” effectively screen their own ideological commitments from view. The hypotheses being tested are without context and history, they are superficial and highlight all of the flaws of old school positivism very well.

Furthermore, libertarian paternalism reduces society in all of its complexity to a basic system of “incentives” and responses. The government frequently dismiss citizens’ accounts and qualitative experiences as “anecdotal”, and claim that any criticism of Conservative policies isn’t valid because individual cases don’t establish a “causal link” between policies and the citizens’ stated consequences of policies.

An example of this is the many cases of harm and high number of deaths that have been raised which correlate with the Conservative welfare “reforms” and austerity. However, policies are designed to have consequences. The government simply isn’t interested in monitoring those, evidently.

Nor is it interested in the empirical evidence that citizens have provided. The representation of social reality produced by positivism was always inherently and artificially Conservative, maintaining the status quo. At the very least, Conservatives would do well to consider that correlation often implies causality, even though it isn’t quite the same thing. As such, established correlation invites further inquiry, not point-blank political denials.

The welfare “reforms” are strongly correlated with an increase in premature deaths and suicides. A democratic government would be concerned with those consequences and would be open to at least exploring the possibility that those consequences are causally linked with their draconian policies. 

If you are one of those people who think political correctness is a detriment to politically vibrant debates, you have it all back to front: People who use politically correct language aren’t trying to stifle insensitive speech, or moify freedom of expression. They’re simply trying to out-compete that speech in a free and open exchange. Those who oppose political correctness – with its very emphasis being on the ability to include and articulate varied and opposing viewpoints – are the ones who are trying to close debate down.

It’s not a coincidence that many people who despise political correctness are also strongly anti-intellectual, too.

When “freedom of speech” is just an excuse for narratives of hate

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The right quite often seem to use the freedom of speech plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. But speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Prejudice is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Instead they have prejudice and groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty or prejudiced isn’t “telling it like it is” – a claim which has become a common tactic for the right, and particularly UKIP – it’s just being inequitable, petty or prejudiced. Some things are not worth saying. Really. We may well have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth. And UKIP do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their characteristics, for example, because of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. 

In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct. 

However, the term “political correctness” was adopted by US Conservatives as a pejorative for all manner of attempts to promote multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that “political correctness” arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of Conservative correctness. Most often, the case is entirely ignored or censorship of the left is justified as a positive virtue. Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We live in a country ruled by a right-wing logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial narratives and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in justifications for such oppressive policies.

The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice. It extends a “permission” for social prejudice, discrimination and hatred.

The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite social prejudice, discrimination, hatred and then to incite and justify genocide.)

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As Gordon Allport’s scale of social prejudice indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice. The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings.

Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ICCPR) requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.

The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.

Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or even offence. Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learned this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence. The far right in particular would have us unlearn the lessons of the Holocaust so that people can say “I’m not being  racist, but…” or “It’s not wrong to say immigrants should be sent home…” and so on.

The UK was once proudly multicultural, pluralist, democratic, rich and diverse, it was one that had learned from history and evolved. It was founded on genuine progress and civil rights movements, reflecting the past battles of historically oppressed groups fought and won – which gave us hard-earned freedoms to be who we are without fear. 

Now, we have a government that has ushered in a post-civil-rights era. One that is fine with radically reducing our social security so that it no longer provides support that is sufficient to meet basic survival needs, just so that exploited and poorly paid workers can feel a little better about being so poorly paid and exploited. It’s a government that is comfortable with displacing responsibility for the hardships that many are suffering because of the failure of neoliberal policy, by blaming multiculturalism and political correctness.

Of course it’s not the intentional slashing of public services, welfare, healthcare, legal aid, accessible social housing, lowered taxes for the wealthy, union busting, privatisation and outsourcing that are the causes of our problems. It is those foreign “others”. Nothing to do with political priorities, decision-making and ideology. Of course not. 

Recently, in response to anger regarding the recent Paradise Papers leak, Tory MP Justine Greening said on BBC’s Question Time that tax avoidance isn’t “illegal”. She also claimed we have a “culture” of tax avoidance, and said “it isn’t just wealthy people who don’t pay their taxes.”  

However, it’s not illegal to claim social security, either, but ordinary people going through difficult circumstances have been vilified and politically persecuted whilst very wealthy tax avoiders are free to enjoy their culture of entitlement. The government have themselves loudly promoted the ideal of a “low tax, low welfare society”, to fit in with their rigid neoliberal ideological framework.

It’s worth watching this particular Question Time (below), because it highlights the huge discrepancies between Conservative rhetoric (and their use of statistics) and the reality that ordinary citizens actually experience. Aditya Chakrabortty raised the issue of Conservatives’ policies sending disabled people to their deaths, and a Conservative representative shouted out from the audience that this is “rubbish” and “disgusting”, closing down the debate before it had even started. As someone who researches and writes extensively about the impact of public policies, I can say categorically that Chakrabortty is right. I write about those people who have been sent to their deaths because of Conservative policies. There are many such catastrophic cases discussed on this site alone.

BBC Question Time from Croydon – 9th of November 2017

“Paying down the deficit” is the sole responsibility of the poorest, evidently. Those of us who need the public services and protections that we have already paid into have seen our standard of living plummet into conditions of absolute poverty over the past 7 years, while the minority of wealthy people enjoy a politically endorsed accumulation of even more wealth and hoard it offshore, leaving a black hole in the economy, and at our substantial expense. No amount of political narrating can render this “fair” or even remotely democratic. 

With its overseas territories, the UK dominates the map of tax havens. Britain is one of the world’s largest tax havens. Within the European Union (EU), the British government has  been slowing down the EU’s fight against tax avoidance and money laundering for the last few years. 

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It’s a government that is all about lowering living standards, and crucially, our expectations, and our regard of each other. So much mean-spirited resentment has been kindled and perpetuated by the Conservatives, amongst the oppressed, aimed at the oppressed. It’s nothing more than diversion tactic to maintain the status quo. It’s an old trick: the powerful encourage the much less powerful to vent their rage and fear against those who may have been their allies, and to delude themselves into thinking that they have been liberated. It costs the powerful nothing; but it pays frightful dividends. 

All forms of prejudice – racism, sexism, ablism, ageism and so on – are both fundamental expressions and the cause of an unequal distribution of power and  wealth. The UK has regressed this past 7 years, with discrimination becoming normalised again via Conservative policies. 

The prejudice comes from the top down. It’s institutionalised via policies, political rhetoric, behaviours and is amplified by the media. And negative role modelling from those in positions of power. Just take a look at the collective behaviours of the current government. It speaks volumes about their traditional prejudices and attitudes, and it also imposes a narrow frame of reference for attitudes and behaviours towards others on the nation.

Furthermore, the tactic of scapegoating is used to justify discrimination, responsibility and political accountability. Scapegoating a process where a group is made to bear the blame for the actions of others and to suffer in their place. Scapegoats become the objects of irrational hostility, and the process of scapegoating fosters deep divisions within a society. 

The real tyranny was never political correctness. We are not “taking” anything back, we are witnessing the shaping a frightening future. Such divide and rule politicking is a deadly strategy calculated to circumvent political correctness, and reflects the Conservatives’ strongly authoritarian impulses. It sets in place a social race to the bottom, and ultimately, leaves us with only the rungs of Allport’s ladder of social prejudice within our reach to climb.  


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14 thoughts on “A defence of “political correctness”

  1. I find the far right’s claim to be nobly defending free speech completely detached from reality. I remember watching some YouTube commentators making out that there was a serious problem coming from the left. They dedicated whole channels to it. Watching them get so worked up, anyone would’ve thought that Stalin himself had come back to haunt us.

    As someone who places a high value on free expression for all people, I remember feeling concerned. Perhaps the left had lost all sense of direction. So I looked into this sinister force trying to shut us all down and found it to be some college kids, still in their early stages of intellectual development, holding avant garde protests at their campuses. That was it. That’s what all the fuss was about. But these commentators were cocksure we were having our free speech stripped from them, one sentence at a time.

    It’s like taking Mary Whitehouse seriously. Be an adult and just ignore it. We have bigger problems in this world and browbeating college kids isn’t going to solve them.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I have always looked upon political correctness as treating people decently and with good manners. Right-wing reactionaries are very good at hurling abuse in the form of nasty sneering insults at people, they don’t like it, however, when people in any way make fun of, or say anything which they deem to be insulting, at them.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Reblogged this on The Night Owl and commented:
    A great piece, Kitty, and I must thank you for clearing up my confusion over the gradual change in the meaning of Political Correctness, and who is using that change for their own ends – I’m just so glad that the way I’ve always viewed it, was actually the correct way 🙂
    All we have to do now, is get things back the way that they should be . . . . 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for a thorough review of the debate on ‘political correctness’. I’m sorry I can’t contribute much except to observed that Quentin Letts, Daily Mail busybody and mouthpiece of Paul Dacre resorts regularly to attacking the messenger rathy than dealing with the facts. He trecently declared on i think the Daily Politics, that an argument came from “the daughter of Britain’s last Stalinist.” And nobody laughed.

    Liked by 1 person

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