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Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Rethinking Political Correctness

Political Correctness - PCness -  is something everyone now loves to hate. Rightly so. No one wants to be nannied about by low level functionaries with no other job of work to do than draw up Lists or by those who, unable or unwilling to articulate a distinction between Right and Wrong, can only purse their lips and raise their eyebrows as a substitute for argument. Worse, there are things which are widely believed to be PC when they manifestly aren't. You can't read a newspaper or an academic book without having to deal with the word "gender" being used incorrectly when what is meant - and should be meant - is "sex". This is not PCness gone mad; it is simple Orwellian mystification engineered by those who would prefer us not to think about questions of Sex and Gender.

We need a fresh start from a fresh starting point.

There are lots of social theorists who will tell you that social life is impossible without a background, routine assumption of Trust. Even in the most oppressive regimes, trust is indispensable.

We can build on this idea. I want to say that at the heart of a good society is an assumption that everyone, regardless of accidental characteristics like sex, race or sexual orientation can be trusted and should be trusted until it is proved otherwise.

Let me illustrate this idea by reference to schooling, where many of our troubles start. A trusting teacher will assume that every pupil, whether they be a boy or a girl, can do any of the things which are routinely asked of them and can do those things equally well. Reading, writing, math, swimming ... it's irrelevant whether you are a boy or girl. Go on, I trust you, just try. Just do it.

Interestingly, it will then emerge that there are some things - a few things - where it's not true that the distinction between boy and girl is irrelevant. At the end of the day, at the Olympics, we have Men's Swimming and Women's Swimming and we have functionaries to ensure that you don't cheat and claim the wrong sex for yourself.

In some areas, we may end up uncertain whether there is a difference or not - Chess is a good example. In those cases, it may make most sense to run both options - Single Sex Tournaments and Mixed Sex Tournaments - and let players choose or gravitate. Nothing terrible will happen provided only that you start from the assumption that everyone can be trusted and no one will be told at the outset, "You can't do that because you are a girl".

In the same way, no one should start off being distrusted because of their race. That is to state the bleeding obvious. But there are racial differences and they sometimes need to be taken account of. Men of African heritage are more susceptible to prostate cancer (you can Google that) and if the susceptibility is significant then it may make sense to engage in Profiling. Men of African heritage might be targeted for screening campaigns on the basis that they are more at risk and that targeting them is an efficient use of scarce medical resources. There is no discrimination against Caucasians if the facts stack up. And there has been no failure of Trust.

Profiling is hated because it is often no more than an excuse for discrimination. But sometimes it's hated because it is based on fact. Sometimes people protest loudly not because they are being discriminated against but because they have been found out.

No one should be distrusted because of their sexual orientation and old-style distrust often looks absurd and sometimes confused, as when the tastes of paedophiles are attributed to gay men.

Equally absurd are beliefs that women can't be trusted to walk down the street unaccompanied by a Minder - a belief which seems to be widespread and extremely difficult to change. It is a belief which rather obviously makes it harder for life just to go on, efficiently and reasonably happily.

But Trust doesn't quite capture another feature of social life which is indispensable. That is Civility, the thing which children are taught when they are taught to say "Please" and "Thank You". Now Civility is interesting because it is something you are supposed to grant to everyone, and rightly so. You don't size up a person's sex or race or sexual orientation before deciding whether to say "Please" or "Thank You" - or if you do, you are making it harder for social life to go on, routinely and unproblematically and to the benefit of all.

In many ways, I think Civility is the thing which Political Correctness tries to concretise but does so by the mistaken method of making Lists.

I'll stop there. My proposal for now is that we start re-thinking Political Correctness by going back and thinking through the ideas of Trust and Civility.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Respect as Political Correctness" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

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