The phantom of political correctness

I thought political correctness was a term that died out some time in the late 2000s. Apparently the right-wingers who co-opted the term stubbornly refuse to let go of it - or maybe it's just twitter being stupid again. Either way, we're halfway through the 2010s and people are still proudly labelling themselves as un-PC. I use this as a dickface litmus test - if you describe yourself as un-PC on the internet, where Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory already applies, I've already written you off as an asshole.

And no, this isn't because I'm a PC Nazi, a tumblrina or a social justice warriorwankerthing. It's to do with definitions, or rather how rigid those definitions are.

So I'm going to quote the first two definitions I found by googling "political correctness". Admire my scientific rigour!

First up, we have Merriam-Webster's definitions for "politically correct" (which seems to turn up more often than "political correctness") as "agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people" or "conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated". We also have Collins's definition for "politically correct" as "demonstrating progressive ideals, esp by avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental, esp concerning race and gender".

I find little objectionable in this. I object to eliminating language that could offend sensibilities (where I take "sensibilities" as a posh word for "feelings") on the grounds that I object to eliminating language full stop, and I object to the idea that changing language use alone can change underlying attitudes, but not being a bigoted dick is...well...a lot less objectionable than being a bigoted dick.

The problem comes when considering the context in which the phrase "political correctness" is used. It's not easy to measure context objectively, but if you type "political correctness" into Google or look for quotes in those dictionaries, it's overwhelmingly used in the negative context of "political correctness gone mad"; a reasonably timely example is a certain fracas. The internet generation might know this as "tumblr is leaking" (albeit there are certain differences; for example, the PC brigade are usually set up to be establishment figures while social justice or anti-oppression politics or whatever you want to call it is nowhere near as mainstream as the PC police are made out to be). And because easy pickings of the "you have good intentions but this is really getting ridiculous" (like, come on, who actually calls old people "chronologically advantaged" or whatever?) or "the PC brigade are going to steal our chickens and pillage our homes" kind are few and far between, due to most people having a modicum of common sense, innocuous bits of local news get seized upon and twisted into political correctness going mad. So a term that originally started off as leftist self-deprecation (we really, really, really need more of that) got turned into more or less meaningless gibberish, a snarl word used to denigrate anything vaguely liberal that the speaker doesn't like - it's a bit like unironically railing against cultural Marxism but less funny.

I'm no psychologist, and I'd rather not get into psychobabble for fear of at best making a fool of myself and at worst doing actual harm, but it seems to me like conjuring up the phantom of a politically correct establishment is a really brilliant way to avoid questioning your behaviour. You're taking a brave stand against an enemy that may not be well-defined, but it's big and it's institutionalised and it's attacking values like free speech. You're the hero, goddammit! It's a comfortable morality, I guess, but it's one that I find really lazy. Then again, I'm the kind of person who's in near-constant moral turmoil, so you might not want to take my advice on that one.

I think a lot of it also has to do with where you grow up. Where I grew up, saying "but Muslims aren't taking over the world" or "immigrants aren't diluting our culture" was very much the politically incorrect thing to say and would get me accused of being a "radical" - this when most radicals would consider me a reactionary! (As an aside, in 90% of cases these terms have been overused to the point of being meaningless.) Meanwhile, if you were bigoted but politely so, you got a free pass. I suppose if you grew up somewhere different, where you thought that people didn't have a right to your hard-earned money but popular opinion was rather in disagreement, you might come to see them as the PC brigade or believe in some giant left-wing conspiracy.

As it is, I freely admit I'm biased towards the left and towards believing that we live in an institutionally bigoted society, partly because a lot of the mainstream political discourse in the UK seems to revolve around being seen to reduce immigration, close the borders and be tough on benefits claimants. When you're an immigrant or you receive benefits or both, it does feel like you're being used as election fodder and that you're not a proper part of society. Even oh-so-red(!) Labour does it. This is a long way from trying not to insult or offend! And that's without going into other kinds of bigotry - this blog post is enough of a mess as it is without having to make exhaustive lists.

Are there certain groups that want to suppress speech they deem offensive? Yes, of course there are, and I think they're wrong. Are there problems with people censoring themselves? Yes, and I do as much as any one individual can do to challenge that because I hate censorship. But there are more specific and more neutral terms that one can use than political correctness, and these groups are not currently mainstream - even if some are trying to integrate themselves.

Yes, there are threats to freedom of speech and expression today - but railing against a near-mythical PC brigade will do nothing to stop them. Political correctness is a politically charged term used against liberals and leftists to be thrown around as one pleases. It is used to shut down discourse, not to open it up.