Every day, I read some new account of misguided action condemned as “political correctness gone mad” and I sometimes find myself in agreement with the critics. I find myself suspicious of the people who get up the campaigns and unimpressed with the arguments they advance. At the heart of my unease is a sense that we are often enough in thrall to people who, given half a chance, would love to be working as full-time bureaucrats in some police organisation for the promotion of virtue and suppression of vice. And very unpleasant bureaucrats they would be.
It’s not so long ago that England had such a police force. Until 1968, if you wanted to present a new play on a public stage, you required the prior approval of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, an official body dating back to 1737. In the end, people (especially playwrights and theatre managers ) tired of the ludicrous changes demanded by this anachronistic bureaucracy and even more tired of the outright bans. So in the end it was abolished by Parliament and very few people had any regrets. Those who did took the opportunity to sponsor a “family values” theatre in Whitehall where you could go safe in the knowledge that you would not be amused, shocked or provoked. I never went there but I did go to see the first new London stage play to open after the ending of censorship, the musical Hair. And, yes, at the end I did dance on stage.
The Lord Chamberlain’s office had no clear sense of what it was that it wanted to discourage. Immorality. Things to which your wife or servants should not be exposed. Things which would not be suitable for a Sunday School performance. Potential double entendres. It was really no more than a dusty catalogue of prejudices and insecurity which guided them.
I don’t exaggerate. Remember that when Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, the prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones addressing the Jury actually asked them if they felt the book was one “you would wish your wife or servants to read”, a question for which he will be ridiculed until the end of time.
Unless of course opinion changes and we decide that in England, Saudi Arabia should be our role model. They still know how to do wives and servants. We already supply them with massive amounts of military hardware to help keep it that way.
But if “political correctness gone mad” is to be feared, is there still a sane version of political correctness which should be supported? Yes.
But what does the sane version look like? How can it be articulated so as to see off the witch hunters?
At the heart of public policy as it has developed in England over my life time is the idea that a civilised society and a democratic society can only be sustained if and when people routinely grant respect to all those they encounter in daily life (including in their life as public officials). Most of our encounters are with people we know little about beyond their appearance, how they look and how they sound. And we absolutely should not use how they look or how they sound to calibrate the degree of respect (or disrespect) which we accord them. Nope. You just cannot use the colour of a person’s skin, the sex or gender they present to you, their accent, their dress, their presumed social class or educational level , their religious beliefs if those can be inferred … nope, you cannot use any of those to calibrate how and whether you say “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me” and so on. That is basic respect, that is basic civility. The look or the sound of someone gives you absolutely no basis for withholding or graduating civility, still less for indulging in outright and unprovoked abuse (of the kind currently popular on our public transport systems).
Correct behaviour towards someone is also inherently politically correct behaviour since society as a whole has an interest (self-interest) in sustaining polite, respectful and civilised face to face conduct.
I have made that sound a bit old-fashioned. Never mind. But it is quite radical: it is the kind of thought which makes it difficult for someone like Jeremy Corbyn to kneel when he meets the Queen because it is the other end of a spectrum of behaviour which delivers only a grunt to a woman at a supermarket till .
Starting from the core value of mutual respect, it will be immediately clear in some cases what should not be tolerated. But in other cases, it will not be so clear. And in those cases, rather than proceeding stridently – which is one of the problems we have at present – we should proceed with care. Because it’s not blindingly obvious what is right and what is wrong.
This is the case with our current anxiety about not causing offence to anyone who may happen to read what we have written, see what we have painted, hear what he have to say. That anxiety has grown to such a level that it extends to cover cases way beyond those of the person who sets out to insult a group or stir up hostility towards a group, both of which fall foul of the idea of the basic respect owed to individuals. And it requires thoughtful debate to decide what to do in a difficult case. And that means No Bullying.
A word about bullying. I have never been bullied in what you might call the public arena, except once and I responded to it. It was in a University (Brunel) in the 1970s. At the end of a seminar, I was talking to a philosopher of science at that time getting a name for himself on the basis of his thorough-going relativism (out of the Kuhn-Lakatos-Feyerabend debates). I wasn’t a relativist (Karl Mannheim “relativism calls everything into question and criticises nothing”) and I was making the usual moves which non-relativists use against relativists His response was to get angry, and angrier, and to attack me personally. To which I pointed out that his relativism left him no means of argument with me and seemed to lead straight to bullying.
If you stand up to bullies, they often shut up.
We have in our universities now people who get off on getting angry about things they don’t always understand very well. I would like to engage in argument, because one of us might change our mind. But if instead I am bullied, well, I know what to do.