Monday, 8 April 2019
The Social Function of Political Correctness
In all societies, at least some important goods are scarce. In all societies, goods are unequally distributed. Some societies are more rigid than others but probably none prevent all kinds of upwards social mobility. In a despotic monarchy, a king surrounded by unreliable nobles, each with their own power base, may choose to promote to high office a complete outsider - someone who has no title, who owns no land, and who may even dress badly and speak coarsely. That person is completely dependent on the king and so the high office does not strengthen an existing power base. That is why the person has been favoured.
It’s supposed to be the case that in caste societies you cannot move up from your caste of birth, or down for that matter, but that in class societies you can. Nonetheless, in class societies it’s blindingly obvious that though those one step up are obliged and even willing to admit newcomers to their ranks, entry is always policed in one way or another. If too many people are trying to climb the ladder at some historical moment, you can be sure that more rungs will be added to it to make the climb more difficult and to reduce the numbers of those making the upward ascent.
When Britain was numerically dominated by an industrial working class, some members of that class sought to differentiate themselves from the mass and thereby achieve a sort of internal mobility. If you played your cards right, you could make yourself better off than those around you. The key to this internal mobility was respectability which took you away from the roughness of those around you. Over time, the markers of respectability evolved but for most of the industrial period they included habits of religious observance, sobriety (which quite often meant total abstention from alcohol), avoidance of coarse language, cleanliness and thrift. When you got down to the smaller details, they might include shining your shoes, having net curtains, and reading The Daily Mail rather than a workers’ rag like the Daily Herald (now The Sun).
Those who pursued respectability were most often taking their cues from what was then called the lower middle class of people who did very modest jobs that did not involve getting their hands dirty. There was no such thing as rough lower middle class and the lower middle class as a whole renewed itself by recruiting from the ranks of respectable working class or their children. The daughter of a miner might become an elementary school teacher; the son of a factory hand an office clerk. But the entrance tests, the signs you had to display to move up, were quite demanding and, of course, differentiated by sex. The use of a swear word which might be tolerated in a male could be fatal to the aspirations of a female.
The vast industrial working class and the vast lower middle class, symbiotic with it, are no longer with us, though it is a bit unclear what is with us. My own lifetime has been marked by the advent of mass higher education, every polytechnic and technical college turned into a university to keep young people out of the labour force for three more years after the end of a schooling extended to eighteen. This expansion does not appear to have been associated with an equivalent expansion in the number of jobs for which a university degree is an essential entry requirement. As a result, many graduates now face the prospect of working in low-paid, low-status jobs which do not make any use of what they studied at university. Enter the graduate barista.
But there’s still some nice work if you can get it and for that work there is fairly intense competition. A lot of people would like a decent salary, decent career structure, decent pension. It is in this context that I believe we should understand what is called political correctness at least insofar as it is something driven by organisations like the National Union of Students and by young graduate employees. The social function of political correctness is not to make society a nicer place in which to live; it is to keep potential competitors away from desirable jobs. It is a sharp-elbowed politics of exclusion rather than a cuddly-bear politics of inclusion.
The topics which agitate the sharp-elbowed are simply a revised and updated version of those which agitated the old defenders of respectability. The emphasis on unacceptable language is the most obvious example. Where once coarseness would block upward mobility, especially for females, now language which can be construed as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, … will halt you in your career tracks. Tellingly, the list keeps getting longer and the barrier raised. Words which were acceptable to those who first thought of political correctness no longer are. I think this is indicative of the real intensity of competition for scarce goods.
There is one key difference. Whereas one hundred years ago, women were most likely to fall foul of respectability tests, which were always set higher for them than for men, today it is men who are most often tripped up. That may reflect nothing more than the fact that university expansion has hugely increased the participation of females in higher education, where they often form a numerical majority. At the same time, more women want to participate on a permanent basis in economic activity. The truth is, sexual equality in the job market cannot be achieved without some men going down the social mobility ladder. Faults against political correctness are one way of kicking them down. Just as in the past, coarse language excluded women from respectability so now the wrong words or actions can exclude men from desirable employments.
Time and time again, those who fall foul of the vigilantes of political correctness are groups like male-dominated or male-exclusive sports clubs and other “fraternity” outfits. They are not organisations which appeal to me - they are too much like permanent stag do’s, high on my list of things to be banned - and I realise that the mass expansion of higher education means that some students are not just rough but downright unpleasant. There are now frequent, shocking incidents of racism on English university campuses and in halls of residence.
But I am still not convinced that the vigilantes of correctness always occupy the moral high ground. In the past, dreadful things went on behind the net curtains of respectable homes. I am pretty sure that some dreadful things are said and done behind the closed doors of righteous groups who self-identify as this-or-that. Just as with the old-time deranged headteacher at the school gates, excluding pupils for breach of some wilfully elaborate uniform code, so does political correctness assume absurd and grotesque forms – hence all the stories of “Political Correctness Gone Mad”. But the madness is not really a mental disturbance; it has very material roots in the competition for scarce goods.
© Trevor Pateman 2019. First published here April 2019