How to be politically incorrect

Society is divided, or certainly feels so (even if the pandemic has brought us together a little). This article is half of a pair of articles, each aimed at one “side” of the argument. If you hate the sound of this one, try the other.

Political correctness (PC) has been a significant cultural and societal trend in the UK in the last few decades. With PC, the UK has moved from being an openly racist society to one where, while racism may still exist, racist language and open discrimination are frowned upon and/or illegal. PC may well have made a big contribution to the development of the tolerance and loveliness in what Laurence Fox calls “the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe. 

How you define political correctness probably depends on your point of view. I’ll have a go (probably giving my standpoint away in the process): I think it’s the normalisation of holding back from expressing things that might be considered offensive; that is to say, prioritising this aspect of communication above others. 

In theory, the bar is set with whatever the listener might find offensive, rather than what the speaker thinks. This means that to be politically correct means potentially avoiding lots of topics, and keeping up to date with changes over time in what people find offensive. PC has made it less acceptable to be, for example, overtly racist. Also within scope however are, for example, gender stereotypes, which are not as widely rejected (some people who we might suppose would suffer under these stereotypes – namely people assigned male or female sex, with associated gender stereotypes that they might feel pressure to conform to –  embrace them and indulge in them). Partly because of this broad and changing scope, some people feel unfairly caught in PC’s crossfire. These same people might well agree that, for example, racism is bad, but feel that the collateral damage associated with PC, such as perceived restrictions on free speech or even free thought, are not worth the benefits.

In certain sections of the media and society, to a reader like me, it might for a while have seemed that PC had won. It was no longer “acceptable” to say certain things (or, perhaps more accurately, to say certain things without criticism or reproach) and perhaps this would be a permanent victory. You would occasionally hear accusations that PC had “gone mad”, but this seemed to be on the fringes.

In the last few years, however, it has become clear that non-PC and anti-PC views didn’t go away, but were just suppressed, at least in some areas of public discourse. The internet, by which I mainly mean social media, has had a big part to play in uncorking this bottle. I’m convinced that the vehemence of people’s views must only increase (and their willingness to compromise must only decrease) when they feel silenced. 

I’m also convinced that taboos – of which PC is a form – are generally a bad thing. They are supposed to encourage a desirable goal by making certain behaviour socially outlawed. But humans are poor at self-control (sorry, Peter Hitchens). In the context of crime, bans on things that people like doing only serve to drive those things underground. Invariably this leads to harm of some kind or another. In the context of freedom of speech, there may occasionally be justification to ban certain types of expression, such as the banning in Germany of some fascistic expressions in the context of that country’s recent history. However in general, taboos frustrate rather than convince.

Beware the professionally outraged

I do believe – unlike many who seem not to – that the BBC makes an effort to be balanced, at least on its news and current affairs programmes. I suggest that the fact that someone like Laura Kuenssberg gets accusations of partiality from people across the political spectrum is evidence of this.

BBC’s Question Time programme can be infuriating to many with strong views, precisely because it presents strong views from both sides of the divide. Everyone has to face up to opinions they dislike, stridently expressed.

There is a little cadre of un-PC champions who regularly appear as panellists, including Nigel Farage, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Isabelle Oakeshott, Kate Andrews (who presents with more of an ‘academic’ slant) and so on. 

When you imagine them on that programme, you can see them with their faces contorted in dismissal and contempt for what they’re hearing from the audience or other panellists. “Ridiculous!” They implore. 

But is the contempt necessary? It certainly gets a reaction from the crowd, whipped up into righteous anger and derision. Are they selflessly speaking up for “the people”? Or are they somehow getting off on the experience? I suggest it is somewhat the latter. Speaking in front of a crowd is “exciting” in the sense that it is hard to be fully relaxed doing it. Getting the crowd on your side is one way of improving the experience. These people do it by enticing the crowd to be angry. Are they right to encourage anger in others? Are they doing a good thing by doing it? Anger usually results from feeling a threat from others who may take away what you see as yours. It is an extreme emotion. It might be for the general good to encourage in others thoughtfulness and consideration rather than blind fury.

Let’s go further. These people benefit in tangible ways through making people angry. They might sell books, further their political objectives, gain a media profile or get more public speaking engagements. This is their job. 

The same applies to Spiked magazine, or Infowars, or anyone else telling you there is a conspiracy against you and people like you. Be more cynical about this. Think about what those people have to gain by convincing you they’re right. They’d really love to convince you that they’re just like you – and vice versa – but this isn’t really possible. You’re just not coming from the same place. The view is different from up there on the stage.

Thinking for yourself, and the benefits of being considerate

To a certain extent, therefore, these performers should be viewed separately to people who are not on a public stage. We can’t expect them to behave kindly, because it’s not in their interests to do so. But do “ordinary” people need to ape their behaviour? I’d argue they don’t. They might do so because they look up to these famous people. They might because they feel threatened and angry. Although it can take some strength and magnanimity, there is another way. And if you get really good at being strong and magnanimous, you could even end up expecting more of the Question Time lot.

Take as an example people sometimes derided as “snowflakes” – those seemingly far too sensitive and liable to complain in response to what you see as minor antagonism, and those with a sense of entitlement about not being offended. “Snowflake” is in itself a term used to offend but, like many divisive things people say “on both sides”, there may be a kernel of objective truth in it. It could well be that, perhaps due to recent parenting practices, many millenials (disclaimer: I am one) and other young people have been raised without resilience. They are fragile, and would like to go through life without having to counter anyone else’s views about them, or even to hear those contradictory views at all.

And this fragility may well seem ridiculous to you. But do you need to react with contempt or anger? A part of PC’s underlying appeal to lots of people that is relevant to us all is kindness. Don’t confuse this with niceness or weakness or dismiss it as a hashtag-based fad – in fact, ignore the hashtag for a moment. Despite the hashtag, I believe kindness is still the right word. You can still be firm and strong while being kind. In fact, being kind in the face of provocation, or while you are feeling under threat, can take a lot of strength.

If you encounter someone who you think is too sensitive, should you mock them or shout at them? Or consider that their lack of resilience is actually bad for them, calmly try to understand their point of view and explain to them why you disagree? This is the third way: you don’t have to agree, you don’t have to belittle and disparage, you can calmly disagree.

It is not nice to feel like you are being silenced. However, remember the importance of being kind. Might kindness mean you decide to silence yourself sometimes, rather than “speaking your mind” (a very overrated quality, in any case)? Maybe you can’t agree to this. But maybe it can affect the tone of what you say. There are ways to say difficult-to-hear things that make them easier to hear, while retaining the sense of what you want to say. It’s harder to do, and takes more skill than throwing your verbal grenade over the fence then running. Kindness is as important to societal health as good law and order, social mobility and good physical and mental health. So make an effort, because it’s worth it for all of us – including you. 

PC aimed to abolish hate but threw a baby – some parts of free speech – out with the bathwater. It isn’t nice to feel silenced, but, if you want to throw PC out, kindness is the baby you must protect.