It’s always a shame that, whenever a politician is caught in the act, doing something they shouldn’t be or saying something unacceptable, that their apologies all sound the same. They stand in front of TV cameras, usually with their spouse and family beside them, and read the same pre-prepared platitudes that we hear each and every time – “I made an error of judgement”, “I’m lucky to have my family stick by me through this difficult time” et cetera, et cetera.
This is what makes it so refreshing when a politician breaks from usual procedure and reacts in a genuine and open way. This often takes a bit of pushing, as shown by the infamous interview in which David Frost brought ex-President Richard Nixon to the point of saying that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”. However, in some circumstances the politician is not willing to toe the line and so is eager to do things their own way.
All this is by way of getting round to talking about Godfrey Bloom, the UKIP MEP who referred to aid recipients as natives of “Bongo Bongo Land”, parroting the worst Gilbert-and-Sullivan-esque stereotypes imaginable. This is clearly racist nonsense, no matter how he may have later tried to back track (claiming that, as a dictionary defined the Bongo as a white antelope, he clearly wasn’t referring to a country). However, the most important and under-reported element of his response was what he said about political correctness.
“I’m not a wishy-washy Tory. I don’t do political correctness. The fact that the Guardian is reporting this will probably double my vote in the north of England.”
The first two sentences are certainly true. The third, whilst probably not exactly true does reveal an important fact about British society – political correctness is not cool, it’s not even seen as being good. It’s seen as an overbearing, fiendishly complicated system of self-imposed regulation (or rather regulation by the liberal elite) of free speech, and an infringement on common sense.
Given the history of political correctness, this ought to be a strange state of affairs. Political correctness, as we know it, arose from political movements in the latter half of the 20th Century that aimed to turn the tide against things such as racism, sexism, homophobia and so on. These are all noble aims and battles that have come a long way in a short space of time. However, it is very clear that whilst we have, as a society, internalised these aims to an extent, there are plenty of small backlashes going on in everyday speech.
Every time someone says “I’m not a racist, but…” and then goes on to spout some horrific racial stereotype we can see exactly how these function. We pay lip service to political correctness and give the illusion of supporting these noble aims whilst simultaneously undermining these campaigns with whatever we then go on to say. When we reject political correctness, we give ourselves license to act in a way that goes against the proud traditions of anti-racism, anti-sexism (etc) that we tell ourselves we support. That’s the more apologetic end of the spectrum. Where alternative comedians (Jo Brand, Stewart Lee, and Alexei Sayle) used to bend over backwards to be respectful of minorities in their sets, people like Frankie Boyle and various minor idiots do the opposite, attempting to rebel against the PC system by making “shocking” statements. The idea is that this is something foisted upon us and something which has to be resisted.
The truth is that political correctness is not the vast, artificial nonsense that it is often made out to be. Believe it or not, it comes down to common sense. Political correctness is the act of calling someone by the term they would wish to be called. That’s not difficult. If you’re unsure how to refer to someone, just ask. If you go against their wishes, you are contributing to power structures that deprive them of an equal footing in society to white, straight, middle class, cis males, but, even more than that, you’re just being an arsehole.
The reason that so many people deride or despise political correctness is that it has been systematized, and there are words which people are not allowed to say. It’s natural to dislike boundaries and to want to break them, especially when, in some circumstances, those boundaries seem purely arbitrary. However, if we cease to use political correctness as a kind of standardized vocabulary and allow people to define themselves and how they would like to be referred to, and only require of others that they respect those decisions, that doesn’t seem to be particularly onerous. To rebel against that sort of political correctness couldn’t be seen as daring or risqué, only as arrogant and disrespectful.
Political correctness isn’t mad, it’s just common sense.