Political correctness is a term used so promiscuously, both by its defenders and opponents, that it can be hard to know the meaning of the concept. I have – as on many issues – wandered between the camps and will try to offer a fair definition: it is the attempt to exclude inegalitarian sentiments from mainstream discourse. As a nonegalitarian leftist I often find myself opposing this trend because inequalities can be inexorable facts of the human predicament and to restrict their discussion is dangerously anti-intellectual.
This week, for example, we were told that comparing the manner in which the Social Workers Party officials behave to that of Sharia courts is “racist”. Left-wingers have been insisting that they have “no problem with…Sharia law, nor its exercise by Sharia courts”. No problem, then, with courts in which a woman can be told that being struck by your husband is “not a very serious matter”, and which can be staffed by blokes who advocate female genital mutilation and the marrying off of girls while they are young. Political correctness, at its worst, mandates the denial of reality.
I am all for political incorrectness, then. The problem is that being politically incorrect is often confused with “being a git”. The two need not go hand in hand. The first and only requirement for a worthwhile commentator, beyond the ability to think and then express oneself, is intellectual honesty. One must expose the truth: if it will be gladly received, so be it; if it won’t that is too bad. These things are both incidental to its being correct. The second virtue that I look for is sincerity. One can illuminate the truth while casting the beam of one’s attention round in the showy, frivolous manner of a controversialist but this is typically due to luck rather than judgement and is more liable to simply distract and irritate.
A third virtue that I look for is empathy. This is not to say one must be inoffensive. The fault of PC is that it encourages people to respond to fact claims with ire rather than arguments, and one cannot be truthful, sometimes, without offending others. Nor is it to say one should be hypervigilant in moderating one’s rhetoric. That only encourages hypersensitivity. Nor, indeed, is it a fundamental requirement. Mencken empathised with humans to the same extent that a butcher empathises with a flank steak but eloquence, wit and insight can make up for a lot.
Yet it is a virtue. I think you can guess what prompted this. Julie Burchill is a narcissistic bigot, largely famed for crude abuse and unreadable bluster about the most inane of subjects. She is known as a contrarian and disputant but has never made a truly thought-provoking argument in her life. In the screed that has resulted in so much controversy she defended a pal of hers from aggrieved transsexuals. She did this by calling them “shemales” and “dicks in chicks’ clothing”, and comparing them to the Black and White Minstrels.
I have never known a transexual nor given their experiences and orientation particular thought. It seems clear, however, that anyone prepared to undergo such laborious and frightening operations and then face such a potential for awkwardness, humiliation and abuse must have endured a lot of turmoil and arrived at strong convictions. Whatever the argument that one is making about their status or behaviour, then, to do it in a sneeringly unsympathetic manner does not make one an iconoclast but, well – a git.
This sort of poisonous pundit encourages the perception that unpleasant truths must be delivered unpleasantly. This seems peculiar. Policemen, when called to inform citizens that their loved ones have died, do not feel compelled to howl, “THEY’VE SNUFFED IT!” and start cackling. One should be sensitive to the fact that truths can frustrate ambitions, threaten self-concepts and raise disturbing implications to such an extent that they are understandably traumatic, and while this should not lead one to ignore or obscure them it should influence the manner in which they are presented. One should not, in other words, reveal them as if tossing the flattened remains of dogs into old womens’ laps; still less rub their noses in them.
The potential of words to damage and endanger can be overstated, that it is true, but they have that potential. If they did not carry such emotional force or social significance our right to use them as we wish would not be so precious.