The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate

Edited by Sarah Dunant, Virago

Writing in The Guardian last year, Richard Gott called Political Correctness a 'notional construct put together by the Right to create a non-existent monster on the Left that it can then attack'. With not dissimilar rhetoric, Jean-Paul Sartre, in Reflexions Sur la Question Juive (1946), claimed that the Jew as such does not exist, except insofar as he is defined from the aggressor's 20perspective: the Jew embodies all the anti-semite's fears, negativities and inadequacies. He is the 'simulacrum', to use Baudrillard's term for an image without content. Having been defined by his enemy, the Jew becomes Other not only to the non-Jew but to himself as well.

Unsurprisingly, many of the essayists in Sarah Dunant's The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate attempt to disassociate themselves from the negative condition imposed by liberal-minded PC-opponents, such as Melanie Phillips or Christopher Hitchens, who have joined the neoconservative backlash movement with such fervour. It is those who are not prepared to stand up and be counted, but who will not, nonetheless, join in the backlash, who propose that PC is a media-created chimera; that PC does not in fact exist.

This is pure sophistry, as anyone who has worked in local government or education in the course of the last ten years can testify. Multicultural, non-sexist, anti-racist education, with the emphasis on liberating minorities from the strait-jacket of being other-defined (in Sartre's terms), has been the backbone of inner-city education policy-making for a decade at least. It is not an American import falsely grafted on to a British liberal agenda, but an attempt, admittedly at times over-zealous and self-defeating, to address questions of class and gender empowerment and of the shifting patterns of ethnicity in late 20th century Britain. It is infuriating to see Christopher Robin and his white middle-class cohorts (pace Tigger, Pooh and Eeyore) replaced by dreary photo-realist books with titles like My Mum's a Social Worker. But is there anyone out there still prepared to insist on the literary merit of Little Black Sambo? Who will explain to me what precisely is wrong with including John Agard on the poetry shelf alongside Michael Rosen and Robert Louis Stephenson? How a well-stocked bookshelf in a school classroom can be held to constitute the dread threat of 'cultural relativism', as Melanie Phillips would have us believe, remains unclear.

The impetus behind Political Correctness, of course, is the urge to empower those who have not traditionally, historically, been allowed to express themselves. Christopher Hitchens calls this 'victimology' and Phillips decries it as 'patronising'. But of course the really significant, if unstated, achievement of PC is precisely that now everybody is allowed a whinge. Even white middle-class liberals get to see themselves as victims through the splintered lens of a post-modern politics of identity. It is evidently no less devastating to the liberal mind to be faced with the possibility that 'free speech' might be a notional, contingent, ideological construct, than it is to be the real victim of centuries of political, educational, cultural, economic and linguistic oppression and discrimination, whether it be based on gender, race, ethnicity or sexuality.

The media are only too happy to remind us of the absurdities that PC has led to on certain North American university campuses, where Codes of Sexual Conduct have been established and the battle-cry of date-rape has replaced the liberated come-on of sexual permissiveness as the trendy student posture. But as Linda Grant makes clear in her essay on date-rape, 'radical change has always attracted zealots, for it is only those who see the world in black and white terms who can successfully initiate and sustain action'. Notwithstanding the justified criticism of date-rape feminists for their simplistic and extremist positions, when the dust has settled, attitudes towards sexual harassment and sexual mores will be seen to have changed, 'and we will have those mad, bad, muddled date-rape feminists to thank for it'.

In the London Borough of Haringey I once heard someone berated for urging a group of teachers to 'capitalise' on their strengths. (I assume that even under Shirley Porter the burghers of Westminster were allowed to socialise.) PC in extremis is a laughably easy target. As Stuart Hall rightly says in the final essay of the book, 'PC should know that challenging the assumptions built into our ordinary use of language is one thing, policing language is another.' Hall's shrewd analysis exposes the paradox of the 'vanguard politics' of PC which, whilst 'correct in taking these wider cultural and social issues on board, has no proper understanding of the centrality of an "educative" conception of politics, and of the winning of consent...Trying to get people collectively to change their behaviour towards minorities is one thing and telling them what they can and can't do is something altogether different.'

Hall argues the paradigmatic problems of PC persuasively and sensibly. He is right, absolutely, to insist that 'the real break comes not from inverting the model but from breaking free of its limiting terms.' But, caught in the interim in the binary opposition 'are you/are you not politically correct?' I'll stake my claim that the world is actually a very slightly better place for the fact that it is deemed unacceptable to refer to someone as a 'tart' or a 'wog' in the workplace. If that makes me PC then I'm happy to stand up and be counted.

Issue 20

First published in Issue 20

Jan - Feb 1995

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