Heav­ily ap­plied po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is no dif­fer­ent from re­li­gious ex­trem­ism

The Sunday Telegraph - - Sunday Comment - CHAR­LOTTE E GILL READ MORE READ MORE

Watch­ing the hor­ri­fy­ing crowds of men in Pak­istan call­ing for the death of Asia Bibi seemed like watch­ing an­other, medieval world. Bibi, a Pak­istani Chris­tian woman, spent eight years on death row, af­ter al­legedly in­sult­ing the Prophet Muham­mad dur­ing a row with neigh­bours. Last week, the Supreme Court ac­quit­ted her, and she se­cretly left her prison, caus­ing vi­o­lent protests from Is­lamists, who said she should be hanged for blas­phemy. The For­eign Of­fice has said that she is still in Pak­istan, mean­ing her life is at tremen­dous risk. Even the judges who al­lowed her re­lease are in dan­ger now, af­ter an Is­lamist leader said all three “de­served to be killed”.

Many of us will feel far re­moved from Bibi, a vic­tim of one of the most op­pres­sive mobs this decade has seen. But, while the sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the West may have led us to be­lieve that the vi­o­lence and au­thor­i­tar­ian na­ture of Pak­istan could not be repli­cated here, his­tory shows us that so­ci­eties twist and turn, and new move­ments are quite ca­pa­ble of re­plac­ing re­li­gion. What hap­pened to Bibi should serve as a les­son as to what hap­pens when cen­sor­ship is al­lowed to en­gulf a coun­try.

In­deed, there are trou­ble­some par­al­lels here. The UK has been slowly mov­ing in a dan­ger­ous di­rec­tion of late, steered mostly by the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect Left, which has be­come ev­er­more au­thor­i­tar­ian about what peo­ple can say, and there­fore be­lieve. Their be­hav­iour is alarm­ingly akin to that of the re­li­gious fa­nat­ics in Pak­istan: mon­i­tor­ing words for any signs of evil sen­ti­ment, some­times mis­quot­ing them as proof of wicked deeds. Heav­ily ap­plied po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is no dif­fer­ent from re­li­gious ex­trem­ism. It is the same thing: be­liev­ing that ev­ery­one is blas­phem­ing against you.

The news is lit­tered with ex­am­ples of this sweep­ing fa­nati­cism, which paints a pic­ture of a new re­li­gion – a be­lief sys­tem with its own ab­so­lute truths, re­vealed only when some­one of­fends against them. In­sult the idea that peo­ple can self-de­clare whether they are male or fe­male, or sug­gest that the gen­der pay gap is not a real thing, and you find your­self at the whim of the fun­da­men­tal­ists. The of­fen­sive may not be thrown in prison, but they will be os­tracised and cast out by way of Twit­ter ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And let’s not for­get the ex­is­tence of du­bi­ous laws that can pun­ish peo­ple for “in­sults” that cause “dis­tress”.

PC fun­da­men­tal­ists, with their cult-like pro­cliv­ity to­wards hys­te­ria, sanc­ti­mony and fol­low­ing the crowd, care noth­ing for nu­ance – as ev­i­denced by the re­cent con­dem­na­tion of the philoso­pher Roger Scru­ton, who has said con­tentious things about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, Islam and rape. No mat­ter that what he said was in a com­pli­cated, aca­demic con­text – merely to call into ques­tion the re­li­gion is enough to be con­demned. Such events, though largely lim­ited to the in­ter­net, can have hugely stress­ful ef­fects on peo­ple’s lives, as Jon Ron­son points out in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Pub­licly Shamed. Take Lind­sey Stone, the US care­worker who, when a pho­to­graph of her goof­ing around in

at tele­graph.co.uk/ opin­ion Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery be­came pub­lic, was ac­cused of “dis­re­spect” and sacked. The witch-hunt that fol­lowed meant she hardly left the house for a year.

In daily life, many of us know the dan­gers of speak­ing our minds; we try to as­cer­tain the re­li­gion of our lis­tener be­fore we delve into con­ver­sa­tion, and, should we find our be­liefs con­tra­dic­tory, we tip­toe around. It’s partly po­lite­ness, but in­creas­ingly also an aware­ness of the so­cial con­se­quences that await us should we of­fend. Western so­ci­ety is still one of the most free in the world, but leg­is­la­tion and the polic­ing of lan­guage draw us dan­ger­ously close to wob­bling. Should the tightrope on which we all walk on when we speak be­come much thin­ner, who knows what the risks might be?

All of this might seem ir­rel­e­vant in com­par­i­son to the case of Asia Bibi. But con­sider this: it has been re­ported that her re­quest for asy­lum in Bri­tain has been de­nied be­cause for her to come here may cause civil un­rest. Even while we in the priv­i­leged West count our lucky stars not to be in her sit­u­a­tion, are we com­plicit in her in­abil­ity to es­cape it?

Bibi’s plight should teach us how cru­cial it is for a free so­ci­ety to ex­tend the bound­aries of speech, not con­strict them. Last week, a so­cial me­dia cam­paign across the West called for the re­lease of the Raif Badawi, the Saudi blog­ger im­pris­oned for apos­tasy. The irony that this hap­pened while, on the same plat­form, users were sift­ing through the works of writ­ers for ev­i­dence of of­fence is al­most beyond be­lief. We must learn from the lessons from other parts of the globe – of the im­por­tance of the lib­er­ties we have taken far too much for granted.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but go­ing on holiday may soon be as so­cially un­ac­cept­able in cer­tain quar­ters as eat­ing red meat or driv­ing a car. Be­cause a new word has en­tered the travel lex­i­con: “over-tourism”. It once re­ferred sim­ply to the enor­mous pressure that places like Venice and Dubrovnik face as they struggle to cope with ex­plod­ing vis­i­tor num­bers. Now, ex­treme en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have latched on to a few hor­ror sto­ries to push an agenda that would kill the dream of mass mar­ket travel for good.

Plainly, there is noth­ing pleas­ant about liv­ing in – or vis­it­ing – a place that is un­able to cope with the in­flux of peo­ple. We Brits, on our cramped lit­tle is­land with its con­gested roads, shrink­ing houses, and rammed train car­riages, can ap­pre­ci­ate that more than most. Just as plainly, there are things those places have every right to do to man­age num­bers.

The Ja­pa­nese city of Ky­oto has just said that it will start mon­i­tor­ing vis­i­tor flows us­ing Wi-Fi sig­nals to bet­ter con­trol the crowds. Ex­pand­ing in­fra­struc­ture, nudg­ing peo­ple to less-pop­u­lar at­trac­tions, even giv­ing vis­i­tors a time-slot – as is the case for many mu­seum exhibitions – could all make a dif­fer­ence.

One ex­per­i­men­tal pol­icy worth try­ing is dynamic pric­ing. Ticket prices and park­ing charges could be hiked at places fac­ing excessive de­mand (with ex­emp­tions for lo­cals), and cut when things are qui­eter, much

Should the tightrope on which we all walk on when we speak be­come much thin­ner, who knows what the risks might be?

One pol­icy worth try­ing is dynamic pric­ing. Ticket prices and park­ing charges could be hiked at places fac­ing excessive de­mand and cut when things are qui­eter

at tele­graph.co.uk/ opin­ion

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