Why would it be so great if “political correctness” was finished?

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┬ámarginalised 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.

The scary state of UK politics

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so depressed, and frankly scared, about the state of UK politics as I do right now… and that’s coming from someone who’s always found it pretty depressing ever since I started taking an interest in it about 20 years ago.

It’s clear that a lot of people are very angry with the political classes right now, and many of them vented that anger by voting to leave the EU. Although I’m not going to pretend I think that was a smart move, I do think they have legitimate reasons to be angry. A recent study shows that the UK is almost the only developed country other than Greece that’s seen ordinary people’s incomes fall in real terms over the past decade. Inequality continues to increase, with the people at the top (in some cases the same ones who were most responsible for the financial crash) getting even richer while the poorest areas are left to stagnate. Property prices have spiralled out of reach of the young, and insecure, badly paid jobs are becoming more and more the norm, making it impossible for them to plan their futures in the way their parents’ generation could. Health and education systems are being restructured so that their primary purpose is to generate profits for the companies that run them rather than providing a public service. Right wing politicians and media have been blaming immigrants and poor people for all this and, to top it all, there seemed little hope of anything changing because for years neither of the two main political parties (Tories or New Labour) had any inclination to do anything about it.

So yes. There’s a lot to be angry about, it’s true. Perhaps not surprisingly for a middle-class lefty, I blame Thatcher and Blair for much of the current mess. Thatcher because huge swathes of the country have never properly recovered from her destroying their livelihoods, and Blair because instead of doing anything much about this he decided to continue in much the same vein as the Tory governments before him. I also hold him responsible for teaching an entire generation that there’s no real point in voting because whichever party wins, you get policies that pander to the super-rich while the poor get shafted.

What scares me most is what’s going to happen when all those angry people start to realise that leaving the EU hasn’t solved their problems, and that if anything it’s just further empowered the right wingers who caused most of the problems in the first place. That anger isn’t just going to go away… they’re not just going to meekly shrug and say “OK, things got even worse then, fair enough”… but there’s no way the populist politicians and their cheerleaders in the press are going to let that anger turn on them, no matter how much they deserve it. I’m sure they’re already busily coming up with the next scapegoat, and that’s what worries me.

Will it be the EU’s fault for not giving us a decent deal when we left? Or maybe the fault of the immigrants that are still here despite Brexit? Maybe it’ll be the fault of lefty Remain voters (like me) for being unpatriotic traitors who won’t rally together for the good of the country (even though we voted against this madness)? Will it be the fault of the unemployed and disabled for bleeding the country dry? Or the public sector workers for being part of a bloated, lumbering bureaucracy that’s like a millstone around the neck of the sainted “wealth creators” in the private sector? Or even those pesky Scots for causing trouble and trying to de-stabilise the United Kingdom?

Most likely, it will be all of the above. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that no matter how bad things get, none of it will ever be the fault of UKIP, or the Tory party, or their voters, or their supporters in the media, or their rich donors.

I fear things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better. The Leave campaign, assisted by the tabloid press, have unleashed a force that no-one’s going to be able to control… they’ve stoked up people’s (rightful) anger and skillfully channeled it to exactly where they wanted it… but worse than that, they’ve encouraged anti-intellectualism to the point where I can’t see what, other than a disaster so massive that no-one in their right mind can possibly deny it, is ever going to stop this tide of anger now.

After all, how can you argue with someone who’s effectively rejected the entire concept of rational argument? It doesn’t matter how much evidence you can produce to support your viewpoint if your opponent is just going to dismiss all evidence as part of some elitist conspiracy against them and use it as an excuse to hold onto their opinion even more strongly and angrily than they were before. Of course, behaviour like this has always been pretty widespread, but the Leave campaign have now legitimised it on a huge scale.

I think the only thing that might defuse some of this anger would be if the politicians started addressing people’s real concerns, if they actually made some changes to re-balance the economy back towards benefiting ordinary people. Ultimately, offering to be tough on foreigners and criminals and the unemployed might be an appealing lightning rod for attracting some of that anger I was talking about, but it’s not going to actually satisfy anyone for long; what’s really needed is a fairer distribution of wealth, more secure employment, more affordable housing, etc., because those are the things that really make a difference to people’s lives. But the chances of that have never seemed more remote: look what happened when someone who seemed to genuinely believe in that won the Labour leadership last year. His party have thrown a huge hissy fit and been trying to force him out ever since, and the media have gone into overdrive trying to discredit him as an extremist, dangerous, out-dated, Marxist, terrorist sympathiser.

It worries me how many Labour members and supporters seem to think that if only they can get rid of Corbyn and install a nice, safe, media-friendly Blairite clone back into the leadership, everything will be just like it was back in 1997 again. It’s as if they haven’t learned anything at all from the Brexit vote, from Corbyn’s landslide win in the last leadership contest, from losing 40 of their 41 Scottish MPs last year. I’m not saying Corbyn is perfect; my feelings are that although his heart’s definitely in the right place, he possibly doesn’t have the temperament or the pragmatism required for leadership. But if Labour go to the other extreme and go back to being almost indistinguishable from the Tories again, that’s not going to do anything to solve the underlying problems that caused this current mess.

(Eagle-eyed readers will notice that despite living in Scotland, I barely mentioned the very different political situation north of the border. That’s because this post was getting long enough already… I might write more about Scotland specifically in a future post though).

To try to pre-empt some of the inevitable objections that people will have to the above…

“It’s people like you, calling Leave voters stupid and assuming you know what they think, that caused this result”.

I never said that all Leave voters were stupid, or that I know why they all voted the way they did. The EU isn’t perfect, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to object to it, and many people will have voted leave after considering those reasons. I just don’t happen to agree that those reasons outweigh the positives. However, it seems almost indisputable that a large number of people voted leave because they were furiously angry about feeling ignored by politicians for a long time, that many of them were disaffected Labour voters who on the face of it had little to gain and potentially a lot to lose from Brexit, and it seems reasonable to speculate about why this might have happened.

“Your side lost the referendum. Just get over it and shut up about it”.

What, like the Leave side would have done if Remain had won? Oh wait… Nigel Farage said before the referendum that he wouldn’t accept 52-48 as a large enough margin for a Remain victory, but now that it’s turned out to be a 52-48 victory for Leave, we’re all just supposed to quietly accept that and not even talk about one of the most momentous changes to our country in decades?

In any case, this isn’t just about the referendum… these problems have been brewing for a long time, the referendum just brought them to the surface.

“You just hate Blair because he was successful and got elected, and you lefties are much more at home in permanent opposition”.

Nope. I hate Blair because he squandered a great opportunity to undo some of the damage of the Thatcher years, because he removed any meaningful choice for voters in the UK, and most of all because he started an unnecessary and pointless war that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and destabilised the Middle East with disastrous consequences. The fact that he got elected doesn’t even figure in my hatred at all… I would have been over the moon if a Labour leader with genuine social democratic principles had got elected instead.

Anyway, by that logic I ought to hate Nicola Sturgeon even more, since she got elected, and she’s probably more popular in Scotland right now than Blair was in the UK even at his peak. But I don’t hate her at all, in fact I like her.

“Saying that Blair’s Labour party were no different to the Tories just shows how ignorant and biased you are”.

I never said there was no difference at all, and New Labour did do a few good things that the Tories probably never would have, like introducing the minimum wage, and devolving some power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it’s surely beyond dispute that Blair moved the Labour party much closer to the Tories than they’d ever been before. It was his government that introduced tuition fees; it was them that first introduced the Work Capability Assessments and benefit sanctions that are still causing so much misery for people who have to depend on benefits today; they funnelled huge amounts of taxpayers’ money to the private sector via scandalously wasteful PFI schemes (which in many cases didn’t even work properly). Whatever your opinion of those policies, they’re certainly not things anyone would have expected a Labour government to do prior to Blair. They are much more in traditional Tory territory.

“A fairer distribution of wealth isn’t possible in today’s globalised world. Any government that tried it would strangle growth and leave everyone worse off, so it’s not going to happen. That’s why neither main party will do it”.

I don’t accept that. As I said near the start, the only developed countries that have experienced such a large decline in real-terms wages since 2007 are the UK and Greece. Other comparable countries, like France and Germany and even the notoriously pro-corporate USA, all experienced significant wage growth over the same period, so it obviously isn’t impossible.

Positive Reasons to Stay in the EU

Even as a staunch Remainer from the start, I have to admit that the official Remain campaign has been pretty lacklustre. Not as bad as the borderline racist and almost entirely fact-free Leave campaign, thankfully, but just dull and uninspiring. Most of what they’ve put forward (at least, most of what I’ve seen) has been about the likely economic impact of leaving, and its effects on the cost of living.

Personally I think that, important though the economy is, it was a mistake for them to base their campaign on that. I doubt it will have convinced many potential Leave voters to switch sides, because it’s far too easily countered. When being told that the economy might be damaged or the cost of their weekly shop might go up, people can respond with “It’s a price worth paying to get back control of our country”, or “Well, people like me haven’t been benefiting from economic growth anyway, so why should I care about it now?”, which is an understandable sentiment considering that both main UK parties have spent the last few decades making sure that most of the proceeds from growth get siphoned up to a tiny minority of already rich people.

Some would argue that it had to be this way: that the Remain side was never going to be able to come up with anything very inspiring, because they’re tasked with defending a status quo that people are already accustomed to, and because even those who on balance support the EU find it hard to get very enthusiastic about it. It’s common to hear people say resignedly “My heart says leave, but my head says remain”.

I don’t agree with this. In my opinion there are far more inspiring and positive reasons to stay in the EU than the danger that GDP might drop by 2% or that your cornflakes might cost 12p more if we left. They just aren’t being put forward as much as they should be. In my case, my head certainly says “remain”, but my heart also says “remain”, if anything even more strongly.

"Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I'm also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house". #CatsAgainstBrexit

“Being black, I worry about the rise of the anti-immigration Right. I’m also concerned about the effect of Brexit on the value of my house”. #CatsAgainstBrexit

The continent of Europe certainly has its problems, and if you only look at what’s right there in front of you right now, some of those problems can look serious enough that it might make sense to bail out. But I think you need to look beyond that. If you look at the context, at the entirety of human history, and at what things are still like in much of the rest of the world, it’s hard to deny that (relatively speaking at least) present day Europe is an incredible success story, a beacon of prosperity, democracy, tolerance and peace in a world that seems desperately short of all those qualities.

We live in a continent that only a few decades ago, still within living memory, was tearing itself apart with war. Now its major member countries live in peace, co-operating on trade, science, solving environmental problems, and almost every other area of life. Even more recently, large swathes of Europe were still under totalitarian rule. Now those countries are starting to thrive as free, modern democracies.

For all the talk you hear of defending British values, I think Europe shares our most important values with us. The EU is made up of countries where (in general) you don’t need to worry about going bankrupt if you fall ill; where the poor and vulnerable are looked after rather than left to starve; where violence is seen as something abhorrent and shocking rather than as a normal, everyday occurrence; where people can think and say and believe whatever they want without fear of oppression; where workers are protected from the worst kinds of exploitation; where people’s opportunities aren’t limited by their gender or sexuality or skin colour; where everyone, no matter how poor, gets an education; where those accused of crimes will get a fair trial and won’t be tortured or executed by the state under any circumstances. Of course, not all of that works perfectly all the time, but by and large we are much closer to those ideals in Europe in the present than most of the world has been throughout the vast majority of human history, and I don’t think we should be taking them for granted and assuming that they’re all going to continue indefinitely no matter what we do in the future.

I’m not saying that all of this is going to be reversed straight away if we leave the EU. Clearly if there’s a Leave majority on Thursday, it’s not going to spark off World War III on Friday. But it seems to me that turning our back on the institution that’s presided over such a progressive group of countries for so long, pushing away our neighbours with whom we have so much in common, is fundamentally the wrong direction to be moving in. Last week, with the tragic murder of an MP by a far right “activist”, we’ve already had an example of what can happen when people are led down the path of hatred and division instead of friendship and co-operation. Let’s not go down that path as a nation.

I believe it’s going to be essential to have some sort of close international co-operation in order to solve the problems of the future. Issues such as climate change, tax avoidance and terrorism don’t stop at national borders. I would rather have a strong super-national body like the EU to help deal with those things than let them run rampant and unchecked; and I would rather it was a relatively democratic body with an elected parliament as well. The world has changed, and the challenges of today aren’t the challenges of 50 or 100 years ago. If we shut ourselves off from the world, those challenges aren’t going to go away, we’re just going to damage our ability to overcome them.