Notes From the Margins…

In Praise of Political Correctness

  • May 01, 2019
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There was a time, in the Thatcher years, when the concept of ‘political correctness’ was used to de-legitimize the left and/or bring feminism and particularly antiracism into ridicule and disrepute.

Bliss was it to be alive in those days,  when the British yellow press regaled the nation with mostly invented stories about what ‘loony left’ councils were supposedly doing to combat racism and sexism.

This was a time when the gutter press sniggered at Hackney council for banning the word manhole as sexist; at Haringey council for replacing black dustbin liners with grey ones because the former were racist; at Hackney, Brent and Islington councils for banning Baa Baa Black Sheep or changed the words to Baa Baa Green Sheep or whatever.

It was all a larf, and the fact that all these stories were fabrications did nothing to diminish the humour at the expense of the po-faced leftie/feminist/commie commissars policing the boundaries of free speech and free thought, simply in order to make themselves look good.

Because this is was what ‘politically correct’ essentially defined – a fake ‘virtuous’ left whose single overriding aim was to make itself look good by saying the right thing.   It was a term used mostly by the right with an ironic nudge and wink – look at those silly little feminists and antiracists with their silly little causes and their silly little words.

Through relentless usage the term became a cliché.  Initially used to mock the real or imagined attempts to combat sexism and racism,  it was also used to say things that might actually be racist and sexist.

All you had to do was presage your statements with ‘ This might not seem politically correct but…’ and bingo!  You became a bold proponent of common sense truths, a defender of free speech or just a jolly prankster wanting to have some of the good clean fun that those joyless commissars and ‘social justice warriors’ were seeking to suppress.

Beneath the joshing, the lying and the ironic winks, this was the essential framework: that ‘political correctness’ was being used to hedge in or suppress ‘free speech’, and that ordinary white folk were unable to say what ordinary white folk wanted to say.

What did they want to say?   In the last few years however, it has become depressingly clear, a dismal procession of shock jocks, white nationalists, Nazis, populists, Islamophobes, rapey ‘pick up artists’, homophobes, gamers and ‘incel’ types have used arguments about free speech and political correctness as a battering ram to reinsert racist, misogynistic, sexist messages into mainstream political discourse.

They include ‘comedians’ like the UKIP candidate Mark Meechum aka ‘Count Dankula’, who posted antisemitic jokes on YouTube, and who also jokes about how raping students at uni, and shares racist messages on the white supremacist Internet forum Discord.

Following a conviction for causing ‘gross offence’, Meechum described the verdict as a ‘very very dark day for free speech’. Poor Mark.  And pity the society where you get convicted for teaching your dog to respond to the call ‘gas the Jews’ eh?

Well no.   More recently Meechum’s fellow-UKIP candidate Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkon told a press conference that it was ‘acceptable’ to joke about raping an MP.

Elsewhere Benjamin has made homophobic, racist and antisemitic slurs, and used the N-word.   Challenged by Buzzfeed on his use of such language, Benjamin replied with a mock-statement: ‘BREAKING NEWS: Anti-political correctness entertainer has used naughty words for fun.’

Not surprisingly UKIP leader Gerard Batten has described both men as ‘free speech merchants making comedy acts’.

Spiked Online has predictably taken a similar line, and posted favourable pieces on both men.

Those of us who regard the far-right as a threat should not succumb to these facile and disingenuous arguments.   Because there is a very good reason why the language that people use in public should be subject to scrutiny and subject to boundaries.

Contrary to what Lenny Bruce once argued, some words – sexist or racist insults for example – are painful and hateful, and a society that wants to be inclusive and seeks to promote gender and racial equality cannot – and should not – interpret free speech as a license for privileged white men to insult whoever they like simply in order to prove that they can ’cause offence.’

Placing limits on the ability to cause offence has nothing to do with political correctness.  It’s not about making ourselves look good or imposing ‘McCarthyite’ restrictions on what people think.

It’s actually common sense.  It’s a recognition of the essential civility that makes coexistence possible and allows society to go forward.

It’s an attempt to protect the rights and dignity of all members of society, by refusing to allow hatespeech to contaminate the public sphere.  This ought to be obvious, but too many people who should know better appear to be missing the point.

Consider this anonymously-posted mini ‘manifesto’ entitled ‘ An Atmosphere of Fear and Change’ from 8chan’s ‘Politically Incorrect’ page ‘ .  Addressed to the ‘ soldiers of an undeclared civil war, defenders of Europe’, the manifesto was dedicated to the Christchurch shooter – once a frequent poster on 8chan – and cited the Utoya Island massacre as ‘ a black swan event of unique proportions; the first raindrops of a thunderstorm to cleanse Europe. A perfect unity of word and action.’

Such ‘ unity’ was necessary in order to ‘ stop the destruction of ethnic, cultural, social, racial borders’ and ‘stem the bleeding, prevent our ethnic and cultural replacement, prevent the death of our people; REMOVE the invaders.’

So essentially a white supremacist invitation to mass murder, in full public view to anyone who goes onto 8chan.   Such ‘politically incorrect’ messages like this can be found on any given day on 8chan.

Should we regard these anonymous shitposters as ‘comedians’ or ‘free speech activists’ engaging in the legitimate ‘right to cause offense?’  Should messages like these simply take their place in the ‘marketplace of ideas?’ Do their activities benefit society in anyway whatsoever?

As Steely Dan once sang, only a fool would say that.   I think this particular site should be shut down.   It doesn’t matter if its users are forced to inhabit the more obscure corners of the Internet.  Obscure corners are where such people belong.  And the same could be said of the ‘anti-political correctness entertainers’ who use free speech arguments to lower the threshold of acceptability.

It’s not a question of ‘banning’ them – unless they actually break the law.  It’s about raising the threshold of acceptability and keeping it there.  Because the more that threshold is lowered, the more people can step over it.

So if the choice is between these ‘offense merchants’ and ‘political correctness’, I have no doubt which I prefer.


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1 Comment

  1. brad

    15th May 2019 - 3:48 pm

    “So if the choice is between these ‘offense merchants’ and ‘political correctness’, = i prefer the former, thank you very much: and thanks goodness I can do so…

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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