There’s no getting round it: life throws up tough conundrums. Why am I blessed with nipples? Is Jimi’ s All Along the Watch Tower, or Bruce’ s Chimes of Freedom, the best ever Dylan cover? When I drop a hundred slices of toast on my kitchen floor, and the number landing buttered side down is not significantly higher than fifty, is Murphy thereby shown the door or is the devious bastard screwing my rigorously controlled experiment?
But up there with the toughest is this: does political correctness serve any purpose beyond making a middle class cognoscenti even more smug?
I speak as one implicated. First generation middle-class, thanks to Beveridge, I not only saw the arrival of telly but, fifteen years on, of seventies feminism too. I loved every minute: scooping brownie points for using ‘she’ as universal pronoun in undergrad essays … sternly admonishing mates when they called me a daft cunt rather than daft prick … getting laid without risking rejection. On that last, faint heart may ne’er win fair lady but who cared? With women exercising the Right to Choose, any halfway presentable chap could, by mastering the lingo of lib and appearing more Emotionally Aware than the next guy (not hard in 1975) be invited to a cornucopia of feminist beds.
That was the high point, mind. Maintaining the Good Sport rictus of a Bruce Forsythe contestant while some gay “lib” knobhead tormented you with tiresomely camp innuendo was less pleasurable. Ditto the fiction, on the late night tube to Brixton, that the two anoraks talking Great Tractors of Yesteryear on the facing seats posed as likely a threat as the gang of West Indians (er, group of Afro-Caribbeans) toking weed and taking three seats apiece down the carriage. If you value intellectual integrity such monumental denial takes its toll. Yes, investigate causes. No, don’t reject the bleeding obvious: it’ll cost you.
I recently saw a column by one of those earnest young women who pen for the broadsheets. (Say what you like about the indefatigably ridiculous Julie Burchill, she can at least give you a laugh.) It was headed ‘Political correctness works’. I didn’t read it. Remiss of me, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that any linkage of PC language on the one hand, improved experience for all women/blacks/gays etc on the other, is methodologically suspect. Too many confounding variables, you see, though I’ll grant that anti discriminatory legislation, invariably derided by the “common sense” brigade, can indeed effect slow but measurable cultural shift, and for the better.
My gripe with PC culture is not that it distracts, though it does in its elevation of word over deed. Sexist talk may be rarer now than in 1970 but the lives of working class women have worsened over the same period. (Go figure the impact on feeding the kids of zero hour contracts.) Nor is my gripe that said linguistic elevation instills its own bigotries within the articulatte, though it does that too.
My gripe isn’t even that it promotes simplistic responses to complex issues, though it assuredly does that. I recently had a woman berate me for declining to call myself a feminist. Its opposite, she insisted, is sexism. I beg to differ. A few years ago I wrote on Islam, attacking de facto tolerance of intolerance in the forms of sexism, homophobia, antisemitism and anti-secularism. Of some two hundred recipients, eight had Islamic backgrounds. Of these, two Iranian exiles applauded me. One other, intelligent and cultured, engaged me in reasoned argument. Five ignored me, probably because if they even read my piece they couldn’t care less what I think of Islam, and why should they? Just two readers, middle class ‘liberal’ white women, expressed real hostility. One, a longstanding friend, cold-shouldered me for a year. The other invaded my house to shriek that I was beyond the pale. Neither offered reasoned argument; neither showed awareness that uncritical defence of Islam – not the same thing, btw, as unconditional defence of Muslims – is incompatible with other of their cherished opinions and beliefs.
Such things may irk me on a bad day but don’t get to the heart of what’s wrong with being PC. My key objections are personal and political. At a personal level it induces a climate of fear, mild but real. Years ago I worked with parents struggling for social inclusion of their disabled children. Time and again I heard how the biggest obstacle was not fear of disability but the denial of that quite natural fear. It was such a relief in public forums, they said, when somebody came right out with what everyone else was thinking but too scared to say. Only then could issues be thrashed out, weak points of view countered. Truth is, there’s a world of difference between wanting to do the right thing, and being fearful of doing – or being seen to do – the wrong thing. PC cultures blur this vital distinction.
And at a political level? In 2012 three corporate giants were hauled before a select committee on tax avoidance chaired by the steely Margaret Hodge, a rare Westminster hero. Two had nothing to fear. Amazon and Google are immune from our main parties, timid at best, and from consumer discipline. Only Starbucks was spooked: rightly concluding that punters can easily go to Costa instead, and feel great about themselves. Hence its offer of a one-off £10 million ‘voluntary’ tax payment.
Amazon and Google laughed up their sleeves.
I know folk who boycott Amazon. Not all are smug. Some are smart enough to see that a dying business model can’t be propped up for long by consumer choice, but intelligence isn’t the only requirement here. Also needed is a political and – dare I say it? – class perspective. For starters, not everyone can afford to pay 40% over the odds to make a PC point. Wages are linked to cost of living, itself impacted by the likes of Amazon. (The latter a perfect metonym for free market capitalism: good news, pre-monopoly, for the consumer; terrible news for the worker and citizen.)
More important, lets not reduce the struggle for human decency – which for those who don’t get this precludes employers hiring and firing at will … precludes big capital enjoying all the benefits of the law while bypassing its obligations … precludes big capital freeloading skills and literacies the taxpayer subsidises – to a PC version of “consumer choice”. To do so plays to the most atavistic and corrosive interests of our time. Cui bono when we see ourselves as individual consumers rather than players in a world driven by class forces; players whose only real strength is through collective action?
Now excuse me while I butter some toast.