Political correctness and the art of causing offence

The sentence ‘I find that offensive’ means ‘ I don’t like it’. Recently this commonplace observation has morphed into an anti PC war-cry. Advocates of political correctness are accused of trying to create a world without offence. Of trying to manufacture a right to be free from offence. Of attempting to control a cold, unforgiving world by sheltering themselves from the hurtful words. This mischaracterisation of what political correctness is for and what it has achieved is as much the fault of its advocates as it is its enemies.

Causing offence can be a revolutionary force that drives change. It can topple taboos around sex, gender, religious dogma, and archaic codes of behaviour. After an offence to the status quo, the debate that follows can help us understand if there is a legitimate grievance beneath the outrage. Or whether it is routed in some outdated set of values, one that no longer applies to a secular age striving for genuine equality.

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The virtue of causing offence lies in who takes it. Are the sensibilities of arbitrary power offended? Or an oppressed minority? Blasphemy for instance – upsetting a super-being – this is no longer regarded as controversial in many circles because for hundreds of years religious sensibilities have been ground down, the iron grip that the church had on social conduct and language has been loosened. Galileo caused great offence to the Church through publishing scientific findings based on available evidence. He may have lost the battle against the Inquisition when faced with the threat of torture, but his defeat de-legitimized the Church, exposed it as a dogmatic institution, an insecure bully not fit for purpose. Of course, scientists rarely set out with the intention of causing offence to accepted norms. But it has been a common biproduct of their work throughout history.

Activists, artists, journalists, social commentators, politicians, all have been causing offence for centuries whether intentionally or not. It can be a useful tool in their arsenal when pushing for change. We regard many such people operating today as crass, vulgar, and ultimately impotent, generating controversy for its own sake, for attention and money. That being said, there were times when the accepted truths of today were highly offensive to the average citizen of yesterday. The fundamentals of equality, plurality of faiths, women voting, the idea that a person can be born one gender and die another. These were (and some still are) offensive concepts to the status quo.

Ultimately the virtue of causing offence must be treated on a case by case basis. We can discuss and weigh values endlessly but the common theme of ‘positive offence’ is a fist upwards, towards the corridors of power, towards an outdated and sometimes harmful status quo.

***

Political correctness is an imperfect attempt to make people understand the power of certain words in certain contexts, to make language more inclusive. It is clumsy at times. And it is subject to debate and change over time. Nothing about it precludes permanently excluding those who occasionally break this code of conduct. Nothing about it precludes policing every aspect of the language that we use day to day. And nothing about it precludes freedom from offensive acts and words, so called safe spaces.

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Take one example. If I – as a white man – were to throw a racist slur at a black person, it becomes more than a word. It now carries the weight of history with it. It carries the kidnap, rape, murder, and oppression of a people, over the course of centuries. This is an extreme example of course, there are milder phrases less burdened by the horrors of history. And we are constantly re-evaluating the status of words and their contexts. Despite what some would have you believe, political correctness is a process that is always evolving. There is always room for disagreement. No one pretended to perfection.

The point: by breaking the tenants of this code – a code that is ultimately easy to understand and follow – one is causing offence in the wrong direction. There is nothing subversive about dehumanizing generalisations towards certain groups of people. And there is nothing unreasonably demanding about the split second of thought it takes to refrain from using certain words.

From Katie Hopkins to Donald Trump, many elites have positioned themselves as outsiders, undermining a draconian set of rules that has muzzled the oppressed majority. They will claim that a sheltered elite – from academics, to politicians, to journalists – are laying down the law of your speech and your very thoughts. They will claim that these laws are complex, contradictory, and ultimately pointless. As a result they will refuse to follow them. And they will claim that those who do follow them – and demand the same of others – are overly sensitive, sheltered, thin skinned, yet somehow elitist. They have been so effective in this endeavour that ‘Political Correctness’ has become a mark of shame. If you tar someone with the PC brush they are automatically undermined in the eyes of observers.

But these people are just as elitist as those they claim to attack. They are not some noble advocates of an oppressed majority. They claim a set of rules that demands a second of thought before speaking is impossible to follow. But the genius of their success lies in couching political correctness as a war on white people. Political correctness, the noble attempt to make language more inclusive, has now become a language that excludes white people. They couch political correctness as the agenda of a white elite forced on a white majority.

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If we are not careful, they claim, political correctness and its advocates will tear down our idols, Nelson, Churchill, Kipling, the heroes of Empire and the civilizing mission. This agenda would strip us of our very identity, ban the Union Jack from public places and demand that even declaring your own Britishness is now a thought crime. The genius of this mischaracterisation, is that it speaks to the pride of a group of people who are running out of reasons to be proud.

Thanks to the engaging rhetoric of the Farages of the world, communities long since left behind are blaming groups even worse off than themselves. Unchecked market forces are complex and faceless, the Polish family down the road are not, nor is the fabricated oppression of inclusive language. These false prophets position themselves as mavericks, reclaiming the power to upset people. When in reality they distort history and in turn the historical power of certain words, they speak to the worse off at the expense of those equally worse off with different accents and skin colours.

As an aside, this point is closely related to the recent sexual harassment scandals. One of the frustrations in the wake of each new allegation is the non-apologies and comments of those who claim to lead public opinion and debate. They characterise the rights and wrongs of these issues as somehow complex, as hidden in shades of grey, as ambiguous. This constant obfuscation and removal of agency from apologies, from discussions of misconduct, this gives the impression that a simple code of conduct is somehow impossible to follow. The reality is that the standards demanded by #MeToo and related campaigns are the most minimal one must meet to be a person in society. Once again, many public figures who have a responsibility to transmit these simple ideas have failed to do so when motivated by their own agenda.

So is there a solution? Teach more history in schools, in the hope that this will prevent those with irresponsible eyes on power from rewriting it? Stop talking down to the frustrated many about how great they have had it? Form a counter narrative, reclaim political correctness from its current dirty word status?

Shouting at patriots who display the Union Jack in their windows misses the point of political correctness. And it plays into the hands of those who frame it as a complex, oppressive attempt to police the behaviour of the many. Screaming outrage at the slightest act of patriotism proves the point of those that would claim we are pushing some puritanical agenda akin to the moral crusades of early Protestantism.

In an interview conducted by Ian Hislop for a documentary about immigration, Katie Hopkins regurgitates many of these arguments. A liberal elite has cordoned off chunks of language and symbolism and forbidden the noble masses from using them. Ian Hislop becomes the face of this elite, she then proceeds to lay thirty years of economic and social frustration at his door as a representative of this demographic. It is a question many people have been asking themselves recently. How can you counter these emotive arguments which point the finger of blame at immigrants and the soft liberals who allowed them in? The same liberals who ban calling them names are not at risk of having their wages undercut by immigrants they claim. So much easier to hate this clear and present threat than some faceless cartel of multinational corporations. A distant set of institutions that caused the crash of 2008, and in turn many of our actual woes.

Katie Hopkins probably does not believe the things she says. It’s a character. Her persona briefly lifts towards the end of this interview. She likens Ian Hislop and his peers to Doctor Frankenstein, and she the monster. In other words she saw a gap in the market and filled it. She tells it like is, and stands up for the honourable natives of our fair land. Never mind that she is cut from the same cloth as Hislop. Her career has not been marred by immigrants undercutting her wages. She has not lived in the communities up and down the land that have experienced the realities of economic deprivation. She is a charismatic business woman, and a talented one at that. If her language ever goes too far even for her allies, she invokes a context that everyone has failed to grasp. Never mind the common usage and implication of calling people ‘cockroaches’, she used the phrase to evoke resilience. She is not some advocate for an ignorant populous. If we show her that immigrants are people just like her, she will not suddenly cease to indulge in hate speech.

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There is nothing revolutionary, subversive, or positive about this rhetoric. It does not strike at powerful or harmful redundancies. It drags us backwards to the horrific old days. It attacks a fabricated elite. This is the same elite that has been cast as the enemy of the masses. Hopkins and others like her have made a success out of talking to people who are not part of the elite. Advocates of political correctness trying to counter Hopkins have been talking to a phantom. Her rhetoric is popular because a relatable counter narrative with a similar appeal and simplicity has not been addressed to her audiences. That is not to say that if this is achieved the problem is solved. The war of words is not an exact science. But it is a war that has been uniquely ill matched in recent years.

No, political correctness is not hard to follow. Yes, causing offence does still have a very important role to play in the dialogue of our age. These two statements are not contradictory. Do not be afraid of patriotism, be afraid of the hateful rhetoric of the powerful. When enough of this hatred is pumped out across society unchallenged, there will be consequences. There have been consequences. The failures of political correctness lie in the lack of a compelling story, a lack of historical context. One that is true to the facts of history and also engaging. A context that combines celebrating all the diversity of humanity with a sense of our national identity and pride that all can relate to.

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