Jenny Ni­cholls asks if “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” re­ally ex­ists.

North & South - - Columns -

Jenny Ni­cholls de­fends the scourge of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

Since the early 90s, some say, a creep­ing fog of cen­so­ri­ous­ness has spread through West­ern cul­ture – dead­en­ing minds, em­pow­er­ing bores and com­pli­cat­ing the nam­ing of roads.

From its birth­place in some mar­i­juana-soaked Berke­ley dorm, the move­ment de­scribed by New York Times writer Richard Bern­stein in Oc­to­ber 1990 as “a grow­ing in­tol­er­ance, a clos­ing of de­bate, a pres­sure to con­form” swarmed like measles through the cul­tural body.

Be­fore long, swarms of know-italls spread “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” be­yond the mossy walls of their eye­wa­ter­ingly ex­pen­sive uni­ver­si­ties. Im­pres­sion­able minds soaked up this PC creed of “treat­ing peo­ple with re­spect”, even if they were fat, ate funny food or only had one leg.

In New Zealand, the con­ta­gion spread to our in­ner­most sanc­tums: the smoko rooms where Doris made the tea and Mervyn went on about ho­mo­sex­u­als and his daugh­ter’s Maori boyfriend. Then po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness hit the na­tion like a bloody thun­der­bolt, as Mervyn might say, and those sun­lit days went the way of Hori and “the half-gal­lon jar”. Now, the bloody Maori are run­ning every­thing and the high­way out­side has a bloody tani­wha un­der it, with a bloody new name that bears no re­sem­blance to the King’s bloody English. Or the Queen’s, ei­ther.

El­derly vo­cab­u­lar­ies, which wel­come change as much as mid­dle-aged guts em­brace kale smooth­ies, came un­der pres­sure from an in­di­gestible tor­rent of “isms”. “Ableism”, for in­stance. And there were tax­ing new vowel-less acronyms such as LBGTQ, which re­quired enor­mous men­tal ef­fort to get in the right or­der.

Some­one like Mervyn might see po­lit­i­cally cor­rect lan­guage as a con­spir­acy de­signed to make his life more com­pli­cated, ex­pen­sive and dull.

But isn’t it sim­ply “old-fash­ioned” cour­tesy to want to avoid caus­ing of­fence? Does the ac­cu­sa­tion “PC” re­ally just re­flect a fear of cul­tural change? We have never been more con­nected, our so­ci­eties more di­verse – and our lan­guage has changed to re­flect this, as it al­ways has.

In fact, “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” – like “virtue sig­nal­ing” – repack­ages de­cency to make it sound sin­is­ter and co­er­cive, with the bru­tal im­pact of an ad­ver­tis­ing slo­gan. The only dif­fer­ence be­tween lines like “Don’t dream it. Drive it” and “po­lit­i­cally cor­rect” is that PC is a car no one wants to drive, a club no one wants to join. The words are a jibe, a cat­call, a whinge, and some­thing that is only said about some­one else.

A term of abuse with a use­fully aca­demic ve­neer, it closes down de­bate while ap­pear­ing to do just the opposite. If go­ing into de­tails will make you sound like an ig­no­rant bigot, just throw the “PC” word grenade, and leg it.

The phrase im­plies a se­cret do­min­ion of pry­ing aca­demic eggheads, left­ies of course, paid to study things no one re­ally needs, like snails or the­o­ret­i­cal physics. Their “rules” are said to have seeped ev­ery­where and ru­ined every­thing, like a sort of dis­mal in­tel­lec­tual fog. Fa­tally, how­ever, this all-pow­er­ful “PC bri­gade” has no ri­poste of equal sim­plic­ity and im­pact.

The lack of an equiv­a­lent taunt robs PC left­ies of an at­tack strat­egy, which worked so well for Don­ald Trump. As Guardian pun­dit Moira Weigel com­mented: “Ev­ery dem­a­gogue needs an en­emy.”

“I think the big prob­lem this coun­try has is be­ing po­lit­i­cally cor­rect,” Trump told Fox News host Megyn Kelly and an ap­pre­cia­tive au­di­ence who seemed to agree: po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness was a big­ger is­sue for the US than the econ­omy, in­fra­struc­ture, or a byzan­tine health in­sur­ance sys­tem im­pov­er­ish­ing mil­lions.

Trump never de­fined this foe, but gave the im­pres­sion that things or­di­nary peo­ple en­joy – from fried chicken to Miss Uni­verse con­tests – were in mor­tal dan­ger from mas­sive, se­cret kill-joy PC forces.

As well as some­how clos­ing down calorific sexy man-fun, the Pcers, Trump claimed, kill de­bate by sup­press­ing the truth, a claim broad­cast en­thu­si­as­ti­cally across the world on myr­iad plat­forms.

Trump won the world’s most pow­er­ful job de­spite call­ing women “fat pigs”, “dogs”, ‘slobs” and “dis­gust­ing an­i­mals”, and Mex­i­cans “rapists”. His vic­tory begs the ques­tion: does po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness truly ex­ist in any po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial form? Or is it, as Weigel main­tains, a phrase too elas­tic to mean any­thing, a “phan­tom neme­sis” in­vented by the right?

Treat­ing oth­ers with cour­tesy what­ever their colour, creed, gen­der or skill set, is hardly new. “Do unto oth­ers as you would have them do unto you” is the best work­ing def­i­ni­tion of “PC” I know. How can this be shame­ful? It seems such ba­sic moral hy­giene that op­pos­ing it should no longer be al­lowed to hide be­hind a phrase as tired as Mervyn’s walk-shorts.

Left: “Great Amer­i­can Nude” by pop-art pain­ter Tom Wes­sel­mann.

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