One theme I’ve noticed cropping up again and again in the aftermath of the Brexit and Trump votes is the idea that people voted that way because they were fed up of “political correctness”. (Others say they were votes against left wing liberalism, but I suspect they mean something similar).
It interests me because I really can’t get my head around it. To be sure, there are plenty of things to be angry about in the world right now, and I can understand people being angry enough that they wanted to give “the establishment” a good hard kick in the balls. But to single out political correctness as the thing they’re most fed up with… that just seems weird to me. I’m trying to understand what it is that people think would be so much better in their lives if political correctness was to die.
Most of the people expressing glee at this “rejection of political correctness” tend to be quite vague about what they actually mean by political correctness, so I’ve had to read between the lines a bit and make assumptions about what they might be talking about. I may have assumed wrongly, but for now, in the absence of anything better, I’m just going to go with it.
It seems to me that most of the things people are talking about when they complain about PC fall into one of three categories:
Category number 1: things that have been massively exaggerated, or outright made up
Many of the stories in the media about political correctness turn out to have very little basis in reality once people investigate them a bit. Here’s a couple of common examples.
Firstly, the idea that Christmas celebrations are somehow being restricted because people of other religions (usually Muslims) find them offensive. This comes up a lot around this time of year. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any evidence of this whatsoever in real life (as opposed to in the media), and I work in the public sector, which is often viewed as some sort of hotbed of political correctness. At my work we have Christmas trees in the building and a big one outside; our Christmas break is called a Christmas break and our Christmas night out is called a Christmas night out; the director’s Christmas message to staff wishes us Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays; there is a carol service as well. As far as I know no-one has ever got offended by or complained about any of this, and if they did I doubt anyone would take much notice. In my experience people of other faiths often join in the celebrations, in much the same way that I join in despite being an atheist.
Secondly, the idea that organisations (especially in the public sector) are wasting huge amounts of money on employing “diversity co-ordinators” and similar. Again I see very little evidence of this outside beligerent articles in the tabloids and angry comments online – my department at work has around 80 employees, as far as I know only one of them spends any significant amount of time on diversity related work, and even in her case it isn’t her whole job. So it accounts for less than one eightieth of our staff time, not exactly a huge amount even if you do consider it a complete waste (which I don’t, incidentally).
Category number 2: things that are real, but are nothing to do with the government or the EU
Many (in fact, probably most) of the instances of political correctness that people object to are really nothing to do with the government and more to do with social changes affecting individuals’ ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. For example, if someone makes a homophobic joke on Twitter and gets a load of replies condemning them for it, it’s not the government or the EU that sends those replies – it’s individual people exercising their own right to free speech.
Similarly, the much-derided “safe spaces” are simply organisations (usually voluntary ones of some kind) deciding on a code of conduct for their members, as organisations have done probably ever since there were organisations. Nothing to do with the government, and certainly nothing to do with the EU.
Which makes me wonder: since these things are so obviously nothing to do with the government or the EU, why did people decide that national elections and the EU referendum were the place to register their disgust about them? What do they expect President Trump, or the UK government, to do? Do they want people with different opinions to theirs to be banned from responding to them on Twitter? And do they want the government to forbid student and community groups from making their own rules for their members’ behaviour? If so, those are quite bizarre things for people who always claim to value free speech and decry unnecessary government interference to ask for.
My point is that a lot of “PC” behaviour isn’t being dictated from on high. People haven’t decided en mass to start calling out discrimination because they’ve been brainwashed by Tony Blair or David Cameron. It’s being driven by social changes and improved awareness of what life is like for minorities, not by government.
Category number 3: things that are in the government’s control, but that would have almost no positive effect on most people’s lives if they were changed
The final category is perhaps more understandable than the other two. There are some things that people would place under the heading of “political correctness”, or left wing liberalism, that are related to the government. But my gripe with these is that in most cases I can’t see how on earth getting rid of the alleged political correctness would actually do any good.
The legalisation of gay marriage has certainly annoyed a lot of conservatives. But what would be the point of banning it again? What positive effect would that have on anyone’s life? Other than satisfying a few bigots of course, which hardly seems worth risking the huge negative effects that are likely to stem from Trump and Brexit for.
There is also a common narrative pushed by the tabloids that liberalism and human rights laws are allowing terrorism and violent crime to spiral out of control, and we urgently need to clamp down on this in order to protect ourselves. The thing is, by any rational measure, those things aren’t out of control – there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack in the UK for over ten years now, and violent crime has been falling (mostly) for years as well. Don’t get me wrong, of course every terrorist act and violent crime is unacceptable and we should be aiming to stop them altogether. But when they are close to being at an all-time low already and appear to be in long term decline, that doesn’t suggest to me that we need a fundamental change in our approach. When you look at the actual statistics rather than the media distortions, the current approach seems to be working reasonably well.
Other changes that people might class as “lefty liberalism” or political correctness would similarly have minimal effect on most people and a hugely negative effect on a minority if they were reversed – for example, the increasing awareness of mental health problems and improved rights for trans people. What would anyone actually gain by rolling back those? At best it might make some ignorant people feel better… but is that really worth driving the economy off a cliff and pissing off our neighbours for?
I can’t help feeling that most of this antagonism towards political correctness isn’t being driven by logic, but by emotions. A lot of people are feeling left behind and marginalised and out of place because of how society has changed, even if those changes don’t really disadvantage them in any practical sense. And in a way I find that quite ironic, since a lot of those same people would be among the first to be dismissive if a black person or a trans person talked about feeling marginalised and out of place. Ultimately I think people have more in common with those at the opposite end of the political spectrum than most would ever dare to admit.