Recent news has been inundated with discussion of political correctness. Culture wars are being waged with renewed vigour: debate surrounding the removal of statues, the suitability of outdated films and TV shows, and the acceptability of JK Rowling’s recent comments (to name only a few examples) have dominated headlines and national conversation. To comprehend these recent events, Palatinate Comment asked two writers for their opinion on the concept of political correctness, and its significance today.
FOR: Political correctness obstructs the debate needed for social progress.
Political correctness is a force for good. It is the cultural successor to liberal ideas about hate speech, equality, freedom of language and so on. But that doesn’t mean it should be impervious to criticism, especially when it is predicated on the assumption that offence is a good guide to morality.
The very notion of political correctness is a fuzzy one. For some it concerns hate speech, no platforming, cancel culture. For others it’s just about telling your slightly racist grandparents that they can’t crack jokes about ethnic minorities anymore. But all these examples demonstrably share one feature: promoting the avoidance of speech acts or behaviour that are likely to offend a group of people. The emphasis here is on the notion of something being ‘offensive’ rather than genuinely offending someone. If a speech act offends, it is because someone is offended by it. If a speech act is offensive, then it has the potential to offend regardless if anyone is actually offended by it.
At the heart of this lies the assumption that causing offence is a good guide to morality. The principle that ‘it is wrong to cause offense, therefore, we ought to prohibit speech acts that make people offended’ may be invoked when cancelling an event at a university hosted by an antisemitic Holocaust denier whose speech acts would likely cause offense to Jewish students – even if no Jews are in the audience, what is said has the potential to offend.
But this principle does not hold when we look to history. More often than not, true social progress comes at the cost of offending a group of people. It is not hard to imagine conservative male aristocrats with monocles and bushy beards appalled by the idea that women should be allowed to vote as they smoke another cigar in their Gentleman’s club in Mayfair. It is not hard to imagine a racist offended by the idea that black people should have the same civil rights as them. You get the picture. Offence is therefore not an apt guide to goodness; in fighting for good we may very well offend people.
This doesn’t mean we should ironically cancel ‘cancel culture’ along with political correctness. Rather, we should be cautious when engaging in discourse concerning sensitive issues. If we are to progress as a society, we must be willing to challenge deeply held beliefs (including our own), to offend those with whom we disagree (and in turn be offended ourselves), so long as we do so in the name of social progress.
AGAINST: Political correctness is necessary to create a future of tolerance and acceptance.
By George Simms
Philosopher Karl Popper penned this paradox in 1945: “In order to create a tolerant society, a society must be intolerant of intolerance.” As snappy an epigram as this is, it still creates an inherent problem: how to be intolerant of intolerance without simply creating more intolerance.
Political correctness is perhaps 2020’s most misunderstood and over-politicised term. It has nothing to do with politics, and little to do with euphemistic ‘correctness’. It involves terminology and behaviour which aims not to offend, belittle, or exclude specific (often minority) groups. It suggests that unchangeable characteristics of identity should be something sacred to your sense of self, and something respected by anyone who wants the same respect afforded to them.
We stand now on the cusp of a potential second enlightenment. The chance to create a world in which everyone feels accepted. ‘Liberty’ has been the focus of the past 200 years – now onto ‘brotherhood’ and ‘equality’.
There are numerous hurdles to overcome to achieve this, starting with how we debate and view changing opinions. The virtual Rosetta Stone of vitriol created by social media’s ossification of opinions has formed a culture of ‘toxic rightness’. Being right or wrong is no longer a matter of mere opinion; modern dinner table debate is the manifestation of tribal identities clashing until each decides that they are ‘right enough’ to go back to angrily trying to stab peas with a fork. The process of mental change through changing opinions, recognising prejudices and constantly educating ourselves, is what needs normalising.
Next comes what we choose to take with us into this new age. A golden age of culture may await us: arts built upon the principles of tolerance, acceptance, and education. To parody philosopher Denis Diderot, everything must be examined, debated, and investigated, without exception, but with regard for everyone’s feelings. Come Fly with Me and Little Britain, amongst many others, are relics of a bygone era of casual intolerance. Much like statues, each TV show, book, and film must be considered for its merits and failings, and potentially marked as a product of a different time. While they can be appreciated for their value in that time, it must be understood that the art and culture of tomorrow will be built on different principles.
‘Cancel culture’ has become social media’s courtroom, except everyone gets the death penalty. We need to create a culture of justice, education, and rehabilitation: a refined and sophisticated court of political correctness. It needs to be built upon nuance and aiming to help and educate those who spread hateful, outdated opinions. JK Rowling could be the first defendant. She needs to feel the anger and pain her comments create to begin to understand it. But there then needs to be a period of rehabilitation and education. If she’s simply cancelled, then her opinion, and the hate that comes with it, will fester and no progress will be made.
This is where the political correctness movement needs to constantly improve and do better. It needs to create an atmosphere of education and tolerance which people want to be a part of rather than fight against. It must question everything, and most importantly create a world in which it’s ok to be wrong, and wonderful to learn.
Illustration by Cerys Edwards. JK Rowling image: Anais Shooter via Flickr. Colston’s statue image: mira66 via Flickr. Twitter logo: SEO Worldwide via Flickr. Typewriter image: Markus Winkler via Unsplash. Black Lives Matter Poster: Chris Henry via Unsplash.