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Friday, 1 May 2015

In defense of Political Correctness

The term political correctness is fraught with ambiguous and conflicting meanings, and so to open this essay I will explain its origins, history, intent and current disparate meanings.

As many are wont to remind, political correctness finds its origins in Soviet Russia.
It was used as a shorthand to describe party doctrine, things that were acceptable to say. Quite literally, things that had been politically defined as correct.

As many Russians will attest, this was extremely subversive and quickly became a tool for scathing criticism. The oppressed often rely on gallows humour through both overt and subtle means.

Later socialists and others on the political left would come to use this term with similar meaning, a sort of cautionary self criticism. Irony and satire were the watch words; as sex positive feminists levied sarcasm, rather than rhetoric, in criticism of antisexwork crusaders.

As times change, so does the usage of jargon. The political right seized on the term to undermine liberal politics. An accusation of political correctness ensured mature discussion of subjects was impossible as ideological lines were drawn.

Some time later, as culture shifted, the accusation carried less weight, as many of the things deemed "politically correct" were simply an expression of manners. And so, political correctness seemed to have a makeover. While still often seen as burdensome or over sensitive, it is also widely regarded as either a necessary evil to promote civility, or a benign (perhaps misguided) attempt at moderation.
And this is where I begin my defense.

Now, to iterate in rather explicit terms that may not be misunderstood;

I am not a big fan of censorship. I am not a big fan of "the right not to be offended"

"I am offended" is a largely meaningless phrase to use in the public sphere, saying more about the speaker than the target.

Borrowing a response from the redoubtable Stephen Fry to such charges: "so fucking what?"

It would seem to me that freedom of speech is the one true and unassailable right we should grant in order for civilisation to prosper. If you do not believe that offensive speech should be protected, you do NOT believe in freedom of speech.

To repeat a wisdom I am in thunderous agreement with; take all my rights, but leave me free speech and I will use it to regain the others. (I read that on, paraphrased & unattributed)

However political correctness, within a narrow set of circumstances, is an acceptable compromise.

I firmly stand by the principle that with certain privileges come responsibilities, and this is where the modern definition of political correctness (or sensitivity/civility) comes into play.

When used as a weapon in rhetoric against any group of people, political correctness is nothing but a smear; regardless of the ideology brandishing it. A quote from CS Lewis comes to mind as a stark warning; “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.(...)  To be "cured" against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

When used to hold people in authority to account for their lack of empathy, understanding or knowledge; it is a necessary tool to ensure those in authority are responsible.

I think this has become the problem, as political correctness becomes a shield for authoritarians (and authorities) to claim the best of intentions, while practicing the worse excesses of bigotry.

I can only hope that the merits of political correctness become accepted, and its firm adherents educated as to its pitfalls.