It’s political correctness gone mad!

We are all PC now.

It is difficult to think of a political issue that generates so much heat and light as political correctness. This little idea – that how one uses language might have damaging political effects and therefore one should try to negotiate a vocabulary that is more inclusive and less offensive – has become a lightning rod for all kinds of political vexation. A great deal of the contention derives from the expansion of political correctness into a broadening realm of political activity, triggering the ire of the political Right, concerns about freedom of expression, and a confusing attitude towards truth and subjectivity.

Political correctness in the way we recognise it today emerged in the 1980s in the UK as a linguistic sub-culture within which a set of phrases were perceived to be offensive and exclusionary and therefore needed replacing with words that were more dryly descriptive or purposefully advocating different values. In a nutshell, nicer words.

PC was based in three premises: that language mattered politically, that it could be purposefully changed, and that these changes could both reflect and produce better social organisations and institutions. In all three respects, PC is correct. And, in a very basic sense, we are all PC in that we take some care in how we speak to people who have endured histories of prejudice and marginalisation. Thank you, politically correct brigades, for helping to expunge terms like coloured, mongoloid, and invalid from our common tongue. Political correctness was also part of the battle against the use of words like poof, spazz, and paki. Unless you harbour a heart-felt prejudice or you think that language doesn’t matter politically because of ‘common sense’ or because ‘it was just a joke’, then you are, sibling, a member of the politically correct brigade.

Not using racist, sexist, homophobic names and bringing into popular discourse nicer terms seems, thankfully, to be a generally-accepted fact of life – although this hardly means that everyone has internalised them. But beyond this, things look far less certain. As the linguistic project of political correctness has expanded, it has sought out a wider remit for itself, and in the process come to look less certain in its endeavours. The question is, then: are you a member of the politically correct brigade gone mad?

There is one important development that emphasises – and roughly delineates – the division between a robust political correctness and a more exploratory and contested one. This is the emergence of a range of rights movements. The challenge to language that normalises prejudice has hardly been the exclusive province of generally well-wishing middle-class people (like me). Anti-racist movements, movements for gay rights, campaign groups for those with disabilities and so on have provided the foundations upon which renegotiations of language have taken place. In these respects language matters not only because of its role in norm construction through language; it also matters materially because it is inextricably linked to struggles for dignity, against violence, for equal treatment.

The travails of political correctness I: common sense

But, what sense do we make of the expanding frontiers of PC, and the suggestion that it is a project that has exceeded itself? Everyone has a couple of examples of political correctness supposedly ‘gone mad’… of ‘blackboards’ being replaced by ‘chalkboards’; of ‘holidays’ replacing Christmas; of universities banning sombreros… It is worth remembering that whatever ‘political correctness gone mad’ examples you have might well be urban myths, stoked up by those who are hostile to the agendas behind PC. A great deal of Daily Mail fury about PC seems to work itself up on the slenderest of evidence, as if a great leftish Orwellian verboten had been imposed on ‘common sense’.

Let us pause and consider that phrase ‘common sense’. It is often wielded by those who wish to attack political correctness. And, it is a clever phrase to use, framing as it does the attacker’s language as less problematic or less obviously from a partial point-of-view. ‘Common sense’ is a phrase that has been used many times in political oratory and public intellectualising to occlude ideological underpinnings or political ambition. ‘It is just common sense’ is a way of trying to shut down political discussion. In this way, it is at least as culpable of acting as ‘thought police’ as is political correctness.

Certainly in debates about university curriculum design, ‘common sense’ can easily be decoded as a kind of conservatism, hostile to ‘multiculturalism’, cleaving to a supposed self-evident canon of orthodox and classic bodies of knowledge that are hostile to changes wrought by ‘the Empire writing back’. It is no coincidence that the bulk of hostility towards political correctness in the American university system comes from writers on the Right. This is just another political correctness which does not have to announce itself so loudly for being passively and historically embedded in a network of incumbent power.

The travails of political correctness II: the aesthetics of public culture

PC has expanded and changed and in doing so it has become more ambitious, addressing the symbolisms, supposed effects, and historical context of a broadening range of cultural production and performance in ways that are both more politically contentious and raise questions about the impact of political correctness on the freedom of expression.

The banning of certain speakers and performers in universities, and the attempts to prohibit certain kinds of vocabulary (misogynistic or disrespectful of religions for example) in the arts are clearly restrictions of freedom of expression, and they do not often justify themselves very strongly. They might come with an argument about the supposed social effects of a song or a text or a play; or they might come with an argument about how offensive someone’s public performance is. It is in these respects that PC’s moral purpose and coherence weaken. Let’s take a quick look at these two claims.

  1. The ‘supposed effects’ argument suggests that, say, violent and misogynistic lyrics will encourage and enable male audiences to harass or even assault women. It is a variation on the argument that video nasties or shoot-em-up video games make viewers more likely to act violently. There is no clear evidence of this ‘copycat’ behaviour in these respects: there is evidence that they generate a temporary heightened level of aggression and that is as far as the evidence goes. There is only speculation that unpleasant art will produce unpleasant acts in its audience. And these arguments tend to be expressed through anxieties about moral decline, fear of the young, and a degree of patronising concern that some people are driven by basic mimicry.
  1. The argument that certain forms of public performance or art should be banned because they are ‘explicit’, ugly, and offensive is no argument at all. It is the expression of an emotion. There is a great deal of sexist music and racist joke-making which – should I chose to listen to it or be exposed to it – might offend my sensibilities. But this a prohibition does not make. Offence is a capricious and unstable metric to establish those minimalist forms of regulation that accompany maximalist rights of expression, especially in a social media age when ‘offence’ can lead to ‘click’ so easily.

But I should probably be a little more honest here about a self-contradiction. I started with a defence of PC and an argument that it is good that some words have been beaten down by PC projects. Here, I seem to be saying that offensive words should be allowed even if one doesn’t like them.

There is a two-fold distinction that helps me out. Firstly, there is a certain license that is generated by the symbolic and aesthetic content of public performance and art which is different to the casual and direct deployment of politically incorrect words in schools, communities, or workplaces. The affects and effects of artistic production – which is by definition at least in part generated by the unfixed nature of its symbols – leave some play and ambiguity in its political content. Perhaps a concrete example might be clearer. I have watched Frankie Boyle’s stand-up and find it offensive. I have also found bits of it funny because it is well written and delivered. I am also unsure about his intents in performance because he writes a liberal and left-of-centre opinion piece in The Guardian. He seems, therefore, to be guided in some part by a tradition of provocation and shock which is not necessarily an honest representation of himself. It is also the case that I cannot assume that all the thousands of people who go to see Frankie Boyle agree with the literal content of his jokes or that they are bad people. I could have a long discussion in a pub about all of this and it would be enjoyable and I might change my mind about Frankie Boyle. This is what unfixed symbols do to you. But I doubt very much that I would come to a conclusion that Frankie Boyle’s stand-up should be banned.

Secondly, it makes a difference within what institutions political correctness asserts itself. In the spaces of public culture we expect an unconstrained interplay of different artistic forms, none of which we are compelled to engage with and none of which explicitly propound a political project. The foundational political correctness that I think has affected us all emerged in local governments, some non-governmental organisations, within the schooling system, and within some mass media organisations. In each of these realms there is a sense that there is a public duty or responsibility, that the way these institutions behave has general social effects and that people cannot chose simply not to encounter these institutions. Furthermore, these institutions concern themselves with more literal matters than musicians, comedians, actors, and fictionalists. Their symbols are more fixed.

My argument is that the closer a discourse gets to being an official, public, or formally political discourse, the more seriously it should take the founding sensibilities of political correctness. The further way one gets, the weaker the PC narrative becomes, dissolving into a weak-kneed, censorious and prurient claim that some things are offensive and therefore should be redacted or prohibited.

The travails of political correctness III: the university

Especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Western tradition of the university holds that it is a place of open inquiry, of debate; a place where ideas are neither held as sacred nor beyond the pale. All can only be assessed through their testing against other ideas and against evidence through forms of inquiry that are transparent in their deliberations. These are generally-held norms within British universities, even if they are at best loose approximations of the realities generated by the neoliberal managerialism that dominates higher education. These norms do give universities their unique appeal – a means to remain distinct from other institutions.

If, supposedly, in the university, nothing is sacred it is intriguing, then, that universities have been the site an expansive political correctness. And, as a professor in a politics department who teaches African politics, it seems too good an opportunity to miss some commentary on this.

I have a dislike of the word ‘tribe’. Some of my students use this word and I will explain why I think it is a bad word – suggesting they are wrong to use it. In a nutshell, the word is a European colonial invention that has a history of being used in racist ways to portray Africans as primitive and irrational. Empirically, it is a useless term: there is no social structure that one can define as tribal which maps onto any general ‘African society’. It is often used as a lazy journalistic shorthand to explain why Africa is failing in some fashion: civil war, famine, corruption… all get associated with ‘tribalism’. I expect my students to be careful about their language not because of ‘political correctness’ but because these are concepts that require some consideration and critical assessment. My teaching is, in a sense, a literal political correctness in which I am teaching students to be more correct in their political thinking.

But, this kind of pedagogy is not labelled as political correct. The term PC is applied to an approach to teaching which emphasises intersubjectivity and deconstruction. In practical teaching terms this involves a shift towards the recognition and validation of student’s own views and reflections on an issue; and it is less confident that some views and reflections are more valid than others. It tends towards relativism in which all statements about a political phenomenon can be pulled apart and analysed as in some sense based in assumptions, reliant on norms, and integrated into broader systems of power.

A concrete example from my own teaching some years ago. In my African Politics module, I had a student who often preceded their comments in seminars with something like ‘speaking as a Kenyan…’. The majority of my undergraduates are White British. When this Kenyan student spoke, I could sense a certain heightened attentiveness in the room which I think was a product of most students thinking that what the Kenyan student had to say was in some sense more valid. It was interesting, then, that she often said things about ‘Africa’ which were just personalised speculation or even quite daft. Now, according to my ‘political correctness’, my task is to offer my own comments and ask questions that facilitate, cordially and indirectly, a critical discussion of the student’s remarks. I am also obliged to correct empirical errors or substantial misrepresentations. The intersubjective and deconstructionist political correctness would be less certain of doing this because of the fact that I – a White male European – might be imposing a narrative upon a Kenyan female student. The deconstructionist might say ‘check your privilege’: this is another example of Eurocentric silencing of marginalised voices. It might say that my challenging of the student’s comments is not about finding a better ‘truth’ but of imposing one truth on another. (I did it anyway, and still do).

In essence, we have two forms of political correctness in pedagogy here: one in which we check concepts and statements according to their ability to stand up to critique; and another in which we eschew this approach because teaching as if some concepts and statements are better than others might well be an authoritarian project, an imposition. I exaggerate for clarification but there is a pervasive literature on teaching in higher education that debates these strategies of teaching and learning which mirrors this distinction.

It is at this point that the notion of political correctness seems to make little sense. It has come to simplify and antagonise ongoing discussions about teaching practice, both defending and attacking facets of teaching which are best addressed through more nuanced and complex discussions. The fact that students might say things that are incorrect but that political correctness might weaken a teacher’s ability clearly to identify the error for fear of triggering a discursive power-effect seems like a self-destructive pedagogy in which the battle for correctness (a thing we believe in so that we can assess what we think) and ‘correctness’ (a relativised value which we can all articulate) resembles Ouroboros, rolling around in hungry pursuit of its own tail.

Post-PC?

Political correctness has come a long way and bears the wear and tear of its travel. From establishing a foundation in our discourses which desires more inclusive and less derogatory terms for those who have been historically marginalised and oppressed, PC has moved out into the media and education to take on conservative and right-leaning discourses, battling for the ideational high-ground. It has extended into a diverse and turbulent waters of artistic production and performance, raising fears about a shutting down of voices declared as offensive. It has also entered into the university system as an approach to teaching in which correctness has been relativised and deconstructed into ‘correctness’, producing a kind of formally proper but bewildering pedagogy beset with a flurry of quotation marks.

It seems clear, then, that PC has overstretched and that in doing so it has made it more difficult to engage with a range of political issues and contentions. It has become both a ‘buzzword’ – a go-to word that allows people instantly to recognise what you are saying – and a ‘fuzzword’ – a word that has become so vague and widespread as to make it confuse as much as clarify. The heat is winning out over the light.

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