Saturday, 1 May 2010

An appropriate number of cheers for the PC brigade!

An article I wrote for Leeds Student online.
An appropriate number of cheers for the PC brigade!
Political correctness has had a bad name for too long. It's time we took pride in being PC
By Steve Akehurst

I was amused to read in LS recently that two shirtless men promoting for RAG were asked to cover up by the Union’s Equalities Officer after a complaint was lodged about ‘objectification’. I thought the best bit of this escapade was one of the men’s angry response. Storming out of the building, he’s reported as saying: “This is political correctness gone mad!”

In terms of parodying yourself out of an argument, this could only have been bettered by him jabbing his index finger down onto a conveiniently nearby work surface and bravely declaring: “Do you know who the most oppressed minority in this country is? Straight, white, middle class men!”. Very 2005, dear! Yet it reminded me that somehow ‘political correctness’ remains a derisory phrase in public life. I don’t see why it should be.

Political correctness at its heart is just the recognition that the power which shapes our lives lay everywhere; that norms inherent in acceptable language, tone or behaviour shape our society, our personal relationships and how we feel about our place within them.

In this sense PC has always been around. You would have been admonished in the 1950s for blasphemy; you’d still be today for slandering the armed services. No one calls these right-wing norms ‘political correctness’ - why? If you’re frowned at and deemed sexist in polite society for calling a woman a ‘cunt’ then it’s because times have changed, not because you’re about to be hauled off to a Gulag. Likewise, that “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” isn’t an acceptable election slogan in 2010, as it was for the Tories in 1964, is also a function of political correctness.

More institutionally, ‘Political correctness’ in the form of Equalities officers, workplace training schemes, International Womens Week and so on is just a recognition that minorities currently face a culturally uneven playing field, and that efforts should be made to combat this at every level.

Paranoia over this leads to a ludicrous position in national life where ‘PC gone mad’ is used to resist any change to the status quo. If you want to argue against being criticised for using the term bum bandit then do so on its merits, don’t hide behind reductivist arguments about free speech. “You can’t say anything these days can you?” Yes you can, we’ll just tell you you’re an idiot.

This is the fine line between censor and censure that gets lost in debates over PC. Of course it’s frightening and unnecessary if norms of politeness are actually enforced by law and an old man is carted off to prison for holding an offensive placard, but such instances are extremely rare.

The much criticised ‘twitter mob’ which complained about Jan Moir’s infamous Daily Mail article were not asking for her to be slung in jail – why shouldn’t they be able to collectively express their disaproval? It’s vital for any healthy, democratic civil society that they do so.

That’s all that happened to our two shirtless friends. No one called the police or asked for RAG, or say the Shirtless Men Solidarity Group, to be banned by Union diktat from organising on campus - heaven forbid, that would be really despotic. Someone made an individual complaint to a democratic representative, who then acted on it by making a request.

At the very least, these slightly excessive incidents are a price worth paying for the wider cultural shift in the UK towards tolerance that PC has cemented. At best they get people thinking about the ways their behaviour impacts on others.

It’s about time that more of us were proud to be politically correct and that we stood up, jabbed our index finger down onto a conveiniently nearby work surface and declared that ‘PC gone mad’ has gone completely bloody mad!