Hi. This is my second blog and in this one I want to talk about defining political correctness and how it impacts on people living and working in modern western liberal democracies
The entire gamut of ideas and concepts that give rise to concerns around equalities and diversities, anti-discrimination, human rights, a caring society, avoiding offensive behaviour, risk minimisation has collectively and derisively become known as “political correctness” (PC). In many ways PC is intimately linked with the rise of political liberalism and an associated evolution, over the past thirty years of an aggressive individualism which has marked out concerns with individual rights unprecedented in human history. At the risk of some simplicity the constituent parts of PC comprises in large part of the following:
- The search for equality
- Anti-discriminatory practice
- Cultural relativism
- “Rights”, individualism
- Risk aversion; health and safety
It is not being denied that this welter of ideas and concepts have brought positive benefits and enhanced the quality of life of large numbers of citizens in western societies. This is undeniable. What is being contended here is that untrammelled PC in line with aggressive individualism has several effects:
Firstly, it sets up codes for rules of behaviour which most people cannot live up to or follow. It seeks to establish Ideal Types which are impossible to achieve in practice, are intrinsically contradictory and can cancel each other out. These Ideal Types, in turn, can be used to discriminate and persecute; i.e. to achieve precisely what PC set out to avoid.
It also leads to risk aversion and associated with this it necessitates regulation ‘from above’ leading to greater intrusion into people’s working, social and even personal life. Both of these latter two points will be explored in the next chapter.
In the 1990s BBC Scotland produced a comedy series, which was eventually shown nationwide in the UK, entitled Chewing the Fat. It consisted of a series of sketches involving two main characters. In one particularly popular sketch one of the two characters would crack a joke or embark on a play on words relating to the particular situation they were in. The other character would then respond to this with another joke or play on words on the same theme. This would provide the cue for an extended sketch lasting a few minutes as both characters attempted to outwit each other and the jokes, actions and word play would get more extreme. Eventually, after one of the characters had performed an action or made some outlandish, ridiculous remark only loosely connected to the subject they’d started with; the other character would give a long pause, affect a stern look and in a serious voice say to his counter-part: “You’ve taken that too far”, the trademark of that particular sketch.
In many ways that remark can be seen as a metaphor for the situation in a PC landscape. Initially well-intentioned measures and practices to bolster rights, eliminate discrimination and promote diversities and equalities have been taken to extremes, have been taken too far; the result of being applied as an absolute devoid of context and without restraint and balance.
The consequences of a too rigorously applied PC culture are that it alienates people and pleases no-one, including those for whom it was originally intended to benefit. It causes people to censor their language and behaviour to “speak in tongues”; as it were. As with all absolutes, PC culture is closed and impervious to changing events, circumstances and the reality outside it. Furthermore, as well as alienation it leads to disaffection and opposition; it can paralyse activity as people, groups and whole organisations are afraid to make judgements leading to stagnation. The ultimate paradox of a PC culture is that it undermines itself, endangering the very ideas it sought to enhance and the people it tried to help. In an uncertain, rapidly changing and dangerous world, trying to please everyone, seeking not to offend anybody, attempting to minimise and even eliminate all risk can lead to stagnation and paralysis.