HOWEVER well-intentioned, the demand for political correctness is making the world a blander place, writes Michael Kelly
A man walks into an Edinburgh chip shop and orders tomato ketchup with his chips. He is told that, while brown sauce is free, there is a charge for the red variety. Being originally from Glasgow (wouldn’t you know?) where red sauce is evidently more preferred, he immediately claims racial discrimination. No, this is not one of the runners-up in the competition for funniest joke of the Fringe; it actually occurred.
Lest there be any doubt, let me get on record that I abhor discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion or any other reason and I applaud efforts made to make the UK a more equal place. Coming three generations ago from an immigrant background and of a religion that was regarded with fear and loathing, I could hardly feel otherwise. But political correctness gets my goat.
The term has a pretty disreputable history beginning as it did with reference to the absolute obedience the various Communist parties run from Moscow that demanded belief in its interpretation of political events. The invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the building of the Berlin Wall to prevent East Germans fleeing oppression for the more attractive West so exposed the divergence of the Red cover up of these events and reality that it became an expression of ridicule.
In the 1970s, it appeared in a much more benign mode. These were the years when more detailed attention was being paid to issues of inequality and the recognition that there were many groups in society missing out on mainstream benefits because of their identity and traditional perceptions of them.
Equal pay for women doing equal work was one of the more obvious examples. How well entrenched that was is illustrated by the fact that even after specific legislation and years of experience and case law, this form of discrimination still exists. And that was one of the easier areas to tackle as it was fairly easy to identify where abuses existed. The fight to remove the glass ceiling that prevents women reaching the higher echelons of business has hardly begun.
When one turns to minority groups discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation, the prejudices were even greater and the fight for rights even more difficult. The attempts to change society then began to include changing language, trying to make it less discriminatory, less demeaning and more inclusive.
It was this aspect of political correctness that brought the term into disrepute. That was partly because those on the Right had no particular love for the aims of the PC brigade. Vested interests had no desire to see society changed in a way that might create more equality and threaten their positions of privilege.
But this is where the PC played into their hands. For example, there was the attempt to introduce gender-neutral language such as “policeperson”, which was laughed out of court. This has been amended to the more acceptable “police officer”. Though why we are not allowed to refer to “calling a policeman” until one arrives and we can adjust the term to suit the gender of the person attending is a PC mystery.
However, many of the sillier examples of banning certain words were simply made up by opponents of political correctness. The best example of this is the claim that certain schools in London banned the singing of Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, which never happened.
The drive for political correctness did have beneficial effects. For a start, it highlighted words, particularly words referring to ethnic minorities that the host population used without any understanding of the offence they were causing. We know now not to use these words. It has also drawn attention to the plight of minority groups causing, if not great respect, at least great care with how they are spoken about and dealt with.
Changing the language has resulted in improving the standing of these groups, though whether forcing people to use words unfamiliar to them changes their beliefs is a moot point. It is doubtful if feelings are altered simply because certain words are forbidden.
At the very least, however, it does force them to consider what descriptions they are going to use – which does draw their attention to the issue.
The objects of political correctness have been achieved insofar as, first, proper attention has been focused on inequality and discrimination. Second, there is a general political consensus that such abuses should be eliminated. Third, there are in place laws – from the Equal Pay Act through to the Equalities Act of 2010 – which impose on the government, when making strategic decisions, a duty to take socio-economic disadvantages into account.
The battle has not yet been won on the ground, but the instruments are in place to ensure that things will continue to improve. In these circumstances, I would make a plea to the language police to lighten up. To be truly political correct, one must undergo a humour bypass – a procedure that I refuse to submit to. Hence, one contributor to the social media got abused for posting “cunning Asians” after the Kazakhs had talked down their chances of winning before beating Celtic in the first leg of their Champions League match. He was condemned for stereotyping and accused of racism, instead of his comment being treated as the joke it was.
That was nothing to the treatment meted out to BBC Five Live commentator John Inverdale, who inadvertently referred to the physical attractiveness of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. Of course, her charms for John had nothing to do with her ability on court, but is it now socially unacceptable for a man to comment on the appearance of a woman? It apparently is.
Further, are we asked to pretend that all woman are equally attractive when that is clearly nonsense? That’s where it is going. Political correctness now prefers uniformity to variety, blandness to diversity. It has had its day.