Will this be the year that political correctness undergoes a course-correction? All the signs point to a rising enthusiasm for subversive expression against social liberalism. The revolt is against perceived censoriousness and complacent self-righteousness in speech, public policy, political choices and even stand-up comedy.
On December 26, the BBC’s flagship domestic radio show, The Today Programme, featured a remarkable exchange between British prize-winning artist Grayson Perry and Marina Hyde, a liberal commentator on politics and culture. They discussed what Ms Hyde described as the “incredibly ponderous” nature of the political left’s response to national and international events, and its tendency to be too “puritanical” about language or action that might cause offence to minority groups.
Right round the time of this discussion, some culture mavens declared that it was time to bid a glad goodbye to the 2010s — a decade of guilt in which naming and shaming, and an overwrought conscience, had played both too prominent and too ineffectual a part. Interestingly, this appeared in a British newspaper that predominantly serves business titans, bankers and suchlike on both sides of the Atlantic.
The left should lighten up and be less judgemental about those who question. And the right must be less afraid of the metaphorical “other” and more willing to address the reality of ceaseless change. That would set the terms of the debate very nicely for a new decade
Then in August, Dave Chappelle, an African-American once universally hailed for his stand-up comedy, offered up a profoundly politically incorrect Netflix special titled Sticks and Stones. Critics were unimpressed, acidly acknowledging that while Chappelle may still have the power to offend, he had lost the all-important comic’s power to shock. But audiences loved the show, giving it a Rotten Tomatoes score of 99 per cent.
And finally, some say that the backlash against political correctness has already proved itself, through election outcomes, not least Boris Johnson’s landslide in Britain on December 12. It has been like that since 2016, when Donald Trump’s complaints about eco-friendly restrictions on hairspray and his comments on women and minorities garnered controversy but did not decisively affect his electoral support. Four years later, Mr Trump is still seen by some as a champion of plainspeak.
A caveat is in order at this point. If there is any re-jigging of political correctness it will not mean the end of all linguistic good manners. The collective vocabulary has already expanded to a point beyond which it is simply unacceptable to levy racial slurs or to make jokes that denigrate people for their culture, beliefs, the colour of their skin, or a physical or mental disability.
So, what to make of the backlash to more than two decades of political correctness? How far will it go? Politicians who supposedly tell-it-like-it-is — think Mr Johnson in the UK, Mr Trump in the US, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines — have a following that celebrates the freedom to rebel. The insurgency is directed at “political correctness gone mad”, a phrase that is seen to encapsulate a deep and pent-up anger against a culture that allegedly prizes tolerance over truth-telling.
Back in May 2016, the intensity of that anger was expressed by a 22-year-old Trump supporter to The Atlantic magazine as follows: “Disagreement gets you labeled fascist, racist, bigoted, etc. It can provoke a reaction so intense that you’re suddenly an unperson to an acquaintance or friend. It’s almost impossible to have polite or constructive political discussion.”
Is that really true? Is political correctness really constraining honest debate and the free expression of opinion in the 21st century? Is it so bad to have linguistic guardrails for tolerance and magnanimity towards weaker sections of society? Is freewheeling majoritarian commentary, no matter how insensitive and threatening to everyone else, a necessary indicator that a society is really free?
The honest truth is that no society can flourish without genuinely free debate, especially about fraught issues that revolve around culture, majority values and minority rights. And it is equally true that no debate can be free if it is argued only with brutish rhetoric that stokes the majority’s fear and anger under the guise of rebelling against too much political correctness.
There should be no shame in updating the concept of political correctness based on the experience of past decades. The re-jigging would have to happen in two ways.
The first is relatively easy. Re-label, re-define and call political correctness what it really is: the verbal form of good manners, with inherently civilising qualities. The second course of action is a great deal harder: leave little space for the category that currently goes by the name of “politically incorrect”. Nothing should be politically incorrect. Instead, it can be true or false, right or wrong, legal or illegal. Once political incorrectness falls away, it should be possible to have even the most difficult discussions — those that bump up against liberal political principles — without throwing around the charge of fascism, racism or bigotry.
So long as the discussion keeps to the now globally accepted collective vocabulary, we can be assured that everyone’s rights — vulnerable minorities, as well as majority communities — are protected.
Culture wars are not really ever settled by election victories, successful stand-up comedy shows or trenchant media commentary. More to the point, both sides are well matched in this contest for the ages. The anti-political correctness brigade has formidable tools of its own to match the “cancel culture”, “woke-ness” and “no-platforming” associated mainly with left-wing liberal opinion.
There has to be a middle path. The left should lighten up and be less judgemental about those who question. And the right must be less afraid of the metaphorical “other” and more willing to address the reality of ceaseless change. That would set the terms of the debate very nicely for a new decade.
Originally published at https://www.thenational.ae on January 1, 2020.