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Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?
The idea of PC “gone mad” is a fig-leaf for naked prejudice, says Julia Symons.
by Julia Symons“Drunk on virtue.” Thus did Lionel Shriver, an American author, damn a commitment made by the British arm of Penguin Random House, a publisher, that “its new hires and the books it acquires reflect UK society by 2025.” A conscious effort to ensure diversity is, says Ms Shriver, wholly incompatible with the publisher’s raison d’être of acquiring and publishing good works of literature. If an agent were to receive a manuscript from a “gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter” it would be published, even if its quality were execrable, warned Ms Shriver.
Her screed suggests that the unthinking application of political correctness (PC), in this case in the form of a diversity target, will threaten liberal, Western culture and produce small-minded individuals. Like some of Ms Shriver’s previous interventions on this topic, this one was met with outrage online, with thousands of tweets and column-inches devoted to criticising the author.
Welcome to the culture wars. Welcome to “political correctness gone too far”.
The notion that political correctness has “gone mad” is familiar to anyone who follows even vaguely any aspect of modern political or cultural life. The phrase, ostensibly referring to language or action that is designed to avoid offence or harm to protected groups, has become a sharp criticism. It is synonymous with a sort of cultural McCarthyism, usually committed by the left.
In its modern iteration, it pops up in a couple of different forms. First, there is the use of the word “snowflake” to criticise younger generations — those more likely to be in favour of affirmative action and gender-neutral bathrooms, for instance, who are perceived as thin-skinned and less resilient than their forebears. The second invocation of PC gone mad is “freedom of speech”: specifically the idea that the use and enforcement of politically correct language will endanger it and by extension freedom of thought.
Regardless of how it is labelled, its underlying idea is the same: that measures to increase “tolerance” threaten the liberal, Enlightenment values that have forged the West. Self-styled opponents of political correctness and proponents of free speech may find themselves (mis)quoting Voltaire: “I disapprove what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
When framed like this, it seems utterly reasonable to think that political correctness has the potential to be a menace. Moreover, some aspects of tolerance culture, particularly the actions of students — who frequently draw the ire of such culture warriors — are, in many cases, cloying and precious.
Britain’s National Union of Students, and campus politics generally, is rife with such examples: at one conference, it urged its delegates to use the “jazz hands” motion to express their appreciation, lest the noises made by clapping “trigger” other delegates. Meanwhile Facebook, in its own efforts at tolerance, has made a list of 71 genders from which its users may choose to identify, including genderqueer neutrois and bi-gender. This is farcical and arguably trivialises the very real struggles that transgender individuals face.
However, some easily-dismissed examples aside, the notion that political correctness has gone too far is absurd. That a man who boasts gleefully about grabbing women by their genitals, mocks disabled reporters and stereotypes Muslims as “terrorists” and Mexicans as “rapists” was able to become the leader of the free world should disabuse anyone of that notion. Indeed those who invoke “political correctness” often use it for more cynical means. It is a smoke screen for regressivism.
Let us return to Ms Shriver’s argument. It is untethered from reality. If a “gay transgender Caribbean” primary school dropout were able to gain a book deal with such ease, then where are all of the books by such people? Worse yet, the dichotomy she draws between demographic diversity on the one hand and worthwhile literature on the other implies that writers who are not white and heterosexual produce inferior literature. Moreover, Ms Shriver seems not to have considered that drawing upon the full spectrum of the human experience, particularly by seeking out voices and stories that have been hitherto silenced or under-represented, can only enrich our literature.
It is an illiberal argument masquerading as the opposite. This is common whenever the term “political correctness” is bandied about. Another example comes from Australia’s pugilistic former prime minister, Tony Abbott. During that country’s 2017 plebiscite on marriage equality, Mr Abbott — a devout Catholic, social conservative and ardent ‘No’ campaigner — urged the Australian public: “If you’re worried about…freedom of speech, vote no [to single-sex marriage.] If you don’t like political correctness, vote no because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.”
By wilfully conflating several unrelated issues, Abbott managed to frame depriving same-sex couples of the right to marry (and of the rights that accompany it) as a bold and defiant declaration of freedom. That “stopping political correctness” was, for him, not only synonymous with but contingent upon the continued subjugation of certain minorities, indicates the illiberalism in which anti-PC reactionaries are steeped.
Not only is “political correctness” invoked to reinforce prejudices, it is often simplistic and reductive. A 22% increase in knife-crime in England and Wales, largely concentrated in London, has seen alarmist headlines about London’s murder rate eclipsing that of New York’s (true only if one squints hard enough at very particular statistics.) The reasons for this are complicated, but largely to do with significant cuts to the police (whose numbers have fallen by nearly 20% since 2010) and also other social services: in the absence of youth services and clubs, for example, children are more vulnerable to recruitment from gangs. Many experts, including Metropolitan Police chief Cressida Dick, see this through the lens of public health, in which strategies for prevention are needed, not just enforcement.
For opponents of political correctness this is another consequence of political correctness run amok — and another convenient excuse to attack the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. During her tenure as Home Secretary, Theresa May (hardly a bleeding heart) rightfully placed significant restrictions on the use of the policing tactic known as “stop and search,” which disproportionately targeted ethnic minorities. There was no evidence that it reduced crime in any statistically significant way. However, the reactionaries ploughed on, impervious to facts, with right-wing media outlets such as the Sun and the Daily Telegraph calling for the return of stop-and-search to restore order on London streets.
These phenomena — invoking “political correctness” as a fig-leaf for naked prejudice, and in spite of evidence to the contrary — find their most troubling embodiment in political figures like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Mr Trump once stated that “the problem [America] has is being politically correct,” and sees himself as a corrective to that. Mr Farage, too, sees himself as a crusader against political correctness.
Both consider themselves to be “taking back” their respective countries from a varied cast of bogeymen: among them elitists, social justice warriors, Muslims and immigrants. Both seem to want to undermine the very institutions that preserve our rights and liberties.
At best, the notion of political correctness having gone too far is intellectually dishonest; a fallacy similar to a straw-man argument or an ad hominem attack. At worst, it serves as a rallying cry to cover up the excesses of the most illiberal in our society.