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Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Social Function of Political Correctness: Do Your Shoes Shine in the Right Kind of Way?

In my country, a depressingly familiar newspaper story informs us of a head teacher, usually male and usually Christian, who has sent all the pupils home for breaches of some set of wilfully elaborate school uniform rules. He has stood at the school gates himself, assisted by highly paid deputies. School budgets in England always contain a significant slice to pay for this Uniform Police time. It’s one reason why there is so little learning in English schools.

In a rigid caste society, you can’t rise out of your caste but you can’t fall out of it either. So you don’t have to worry too much about etiquette. In less rigid societies, like my own, where there is some mobility, then you can try to get out of your caste and rise into a higher one. But those higher up will always be checking your credentials and, if they feel under threat from too many new arrivals, they will jack up the requirements for admission.

When Britain was dominated numerically by an industrial working class, a major internal distinction within that class was between those who were rough and those who were respectable. There were many indicators. One step up and out, the lower middle class was homogeneous in that there was no such thing as rough lower middle-class. In many ways, lower middle-class just was respectability and the signs of that respectability were many. The front garden, the net curtains, church attendance, the absolute avoidance of coarse language and any sign of intoxication, regular habits, regular bowel movements.  On the other hand, paying your taxes wasn't quite so clear cut since it was something which did not show. The headteachers who stand at school gates are basically the most extreme and even deranged representatives of  this lower middle class respectability, holding out to their pupils a false promise that if their shoes shine in the right way they will be able to rise in the world.

With de-industrialisation and the advent of mass higher education which has converted every local tech and poly into a university, we have ended up with a situation in which there are just too many people trying to get into the old middle caste. There just aren’t enough white collar jobs, not even enough low level pen-pushing ones. So there is a caste struggle over who is in and up and who is out and down. Political correctness is a weapon in this struggle, the main aspect of which is that it has added into job requirements a demand that you profess certain beliefs. Sometimes, it has succeeded in making profession of belief an overriding criterion which displaces competence altogether. So we have got to a situation in employment areas like local government where the wagons have been tightly circled to keep out undesirables. There are just too many people with rubbish degrees and some further qualifier has to be added. Political correctness is that qualifier.

Just as with the headteacher at the school gates, political correctness can assume absurd and grotesque forms – hence all the stories of “Political Correctness Gone Mad”.  Just as in the past, coarse language excluded you from respectability so now the wrong words exclude you from desirable employments. And the  words keep changing.

Most struggles are dynamic. The marks of respectability are not static and nor are the marks of political correctness. Beliefs and behaviour which would have qualified you as non-racist or non-sexist twenty or thirty years ago no longer do so. The barrier to entry into the caste has been raised as the job opportunities decline. Expect both trends to continue. Look at what has happened in the USA where its impoverished youthful  "squeezed middle" fights it out over shoe shine issues whilst the very rich bank even more tax breaks.

At its beginning, political correctness was about making us more civil and respectful and had many successes. Now it is a search and destroy mission, hunting down rivals for scarce goods.


  1. On the other hand, zero tolerance of rule breaking is preferable to the disruption of learning by an anarchic minority that is prevalent in less autocratic schools. A more valid target for criticism is the head who banned children from using playground equipment if their parents did not make a voluntary financial contribution. That, simply, is indefensible.

    1. So the way to encourage compliance with sensible rules is to enforce pointless ones?

  2. It is, in fact, can be labeled as "pathetically comedy of circus." All developed countries are biased and denote underdeveloped countries as "Banana Republic (Not in so many words). opinion