‘Political correctness’ is about listening, not speaking

I find myself increasingly frustrated by established writers like Nick Cohen writing again and again on so-called ‘political correctness’, equating it with a top-down controlling approach to language, when in fact it is very often the opposite.

What I often see when people talk about ‘political correctness’ is the democratisation of language. The ‘objective’ consensus that existed before the days of ‘PC gone mad’ about what is and isn’t acceptable or offensive, where did that come from, if not the educated ‘establishment’? The top-down slurs used to dehumanise and devalue entire groups of people, where do those words come from, if not the ‘establishment’? When the charity MIND responded to Cohen’s most recent anti-political correctness article on the subject of mental health slurs, they stressed the fact that their language objections and suggestions come not from political types or academics, but from all sorts of ordinary people that they work with. Asking well-paid high profile media professionals to listen to the voices of those people is the very opposite of a top-down imposition from the ‘political class.’

Nick Cohen also explicitly makes the argument that using respectful language about anybody with mental health problems is what softens the public up to the cuts to services or benefits. The idea that people with mental illnesses were treated better before the days of respectful language is so bizarre it is bleakly amusing. You don’t need to look back as far as the Victorians to see that this is false. Over the last century there has been, broadly speaking, consistent positive improvements in terms of how we approach mental health which correlates almost directly with the work done by groups like MIND. That work includes campaigns around language – not just discussing which words we ‘can’ say or write, but all of us together re-evaluating the way we think. Dehumanising language is problematic because it’s an expression of dehumanising thinking, and far from ‘political correctness’ leading to less humane policies, history would suggest that the best way to justify inhumane policy is to first dehumanise the necessary groups – using language.

Besides, isn’t what Cohen says he advocates here just as much a case of ‘political correctness’ as what MIND advocates? He argues that we should use x or y terminology to justify government spending on mental health. That argument is either disingenuous or else he’s come so far round full circle that he’s forgotten what his original point was (that those on high shouldn’t dictate language for political reasons). Either way, he seems, along with far too many others, to have given up on challenging the underlying reasons why anyone should resign themselves to being dependent on ‘charity’ in the first place. Benevolent charity from on high is arguably much more of an imposition by the ‘political class’ than asking people to check their language.

And the reason why such a societal model is problematic is evidenced by Cohen’s own message to MIND: don’t you dare criticise the way people treat you or speak about you, because they could withdraw their oh-so-generous ‘charity’ any time. It codes it into our social and economic DNA that inequality is inevitable, that power disparities are inevitable. It isn’t true. And when we start to talk about, say, people with mental illnesses in language that implies difference not inferiority or weakness, we begin to ask questions about those power structures. We begin to ask that employers make an effort to accommodate various types of mental illness. We begin to ask that transport providers make an effort to accommodate various types of physical disability. We begin to ask how much of that ‘inevitable’ inequality is down to stigma, prejudice, greed and inflexibility on the part of society’s institutions, rather than something innate which we must all accept. How much of the social isolation that can go alongside mental illness – which can, in turn, be connected to other inequalities from housing to imprisonment rates – could be mitigated by breaking down stereotypes and slurs?

Reshaping the way we value each other, reshaping the things we believe to be central to each other’s humanity and the things we don’t, reshaping our priorities, those things should be central to tackling mental health inequality – all inequality. The real irony that so many miss when getting upset about what they can or cannot say or write anymore is that at the root of what is fashionable to call ‘political correctness’ the point isn’t to say or write anything at all, but to listen to each other.

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins, scientist-cum-professional-controversialist, has confirmed what I have for a while suspected: that, in spite of being a very talented scientist, he is also a – how shall I put this – a less than lovely human being.

Today he is lamenting the great injustice that perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crime are given too harsh sentences. “Who was hurt, except the pig?” he rhetorically asks his thousands of Twitter followers, as the pair who (in their own words) “invaded” an Edinburgh mosque by attacking it with bacon were sentenced to jail

This is the same Dawkins, let us remember, who, when Rebecca Watson wrote about how uncomfortable it was to be chatted up in an enclosed space like a lift right after giving a talk on sexual harassment, took the time to sneer at how trivial her complaint was, compared with the serious things happening to other women, in other countries. (Sam Ambreen has written a brilliant blog here about why this line of reasoning is nonsense.) This matter of anti-Islamic criminals being sentenced to jail is presumably the kind of high priority issue he would prefer people spent their energies on.

The attack on the mosque wasn’t just any attack. One of the perpetrators is a member of the Scottish Defence League – the Scottish version of the EDL. The self-appointed ‘rationalists’ seem to think the fact that you should always be free to criticise people’s religion (obviously true) applies here. But it doesn’t. The EDL and the SDL are not critiquing religious oppression. Many are hardline ‘Christian’ extremists, full of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-choice rubbish of their own. Nobody was critiquing passages or verses from the Quran. Nobody was asserting their own right to disbelief in Allah. This was bacon attached to and thrown at the door of a mosque, in a climate of rising hatred and violence towards Muslim communities. It is more akin to attacks on synagogues in a climate of rising anti-semitism than to an atheist or humanist critique of religion.

Attacks like these have nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ or atheism and everything to do with the nasty shadow of the far right that is creeping across Europe. When we talk about fascism and far right politics, we are too quick to talk about the role working class people play in driving it forwards, and too slow to talk about the responsibility of journalists, academics, politicians, scientists, and all sorts of other middle class professionals who have historically been central to the rise of fascism whenever it has occurred. Scientists, doctors and psychiatrists in particular played a huge role in legitimising racism in the early part of the last century, with their cold, ‘objective’ evidence based on measuring foreheads and gaslighting women into mental illness.

Rationalist liberalism likes to position itself as objective. The privileged arrogance of assuming yourself to be impartial and everyone else to be subjective speaks for itself. Too often, white rich men are able to see themselves as objective because they are the default human being, after all: what possible biases or prejudices could they have?

Nobody is removed from the context of the society they live in. If you describe yourself as a rationalist, far from being a super-rational person, you probably just have blind spots to your own privileges and prejudices.

Richard Dawkins talks of Muslims being “offended” by the bacon attack but we are talking about oppression, fear and real violence. Context, as I have written before, matters. Last week a woman was killed possibly, the police say, for wearing Muslim dress. Britain First are making threats to journalists for writing about them. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has topped the EU elections in France. The party is being widely reported, even by the BBC, as a ‘Eurosceptic’ party. This is the reality of the context this hate crime – for that is surely what it is – happened in. To say that nobody was “hurt” by one individual incident, as Dawkins did, highlights the limits of liberalism. Liberalism, by itself, ignores the structural. ‘Pure’ liberals, ironically, seem to have ended up as devout believers in the shiny religion of individualism, even when increasingly the evidence tells us that both socially and economically, liberalism is no longer, by itself, enough to make society better.

Michael Fabricant, jokes, political correctness and context

Michael Fabricant, jokes, political correctness and context

Michael Fabricant doesn’t seem to take much seriously. So it’s not surprising to me that he thinks it’s a right old laugh to joke about punching a Muslim woman in the throat if she gets a bit too opinionated for his liking.

As the defenders of ‘political incorrectness’ like to say: context is all. You have to take it in context. Stop being offended, you’re just taking it out of context. So I have to ask: what is the context to this comment?

Last week, a woman was murdered. The police believe it could have been because she was ‘wearing Muslim dress.’ Tell Mama has reported that Muslim women are experiencing ever-higher levels of hate crime, so much so that, according to reports, just going outside means taking an explicit risk.

The context is that hey, feminists are hysterical, and women overreact, so we need not be taken seriously in our outrage. Not so when the Liddles and the Farages of the world get outraged; no, then it must Mean Something. Ah, we need to respond to this! Their outrage shows the alienation of the public from the political class, or the rise of political correctness gone mad!

It’s not like Fabricant’s tweets are never taken seriously. When Fabricant, back in the days when he was party chairman, tweeted something which embarrassed David Cameron, of course, that was an entirely different matter. He was sacked for saying it was ‘about time’ Maria Miller went. But joking about punching a Muslim woman in the throat, in the midst of a climate of rising racism and violence? Cameron backs him up.

Ah, context. When respected, professional men like Michael Fabricant jokily sympathise with somebody wanting to give a woman a punch, she, not he, is the one who is then subject to a heap of abuse. That is the real context to Michael Fabricant’s joke.

The more marginalised you are the more people believe your right to be heard is conditional. The more people believe your right to be heard, the right to your humanity, is conditional, the more disproportionate the reaction you ‘provoke’ will be. The anger expressed to wards Alibhai-Brown or Diane Abbott (or, in America, Michelle Obama or Melissa Harris Perry) never seems proportionate to whatever they have supposedly ‘done’.

Was Yasmin Alibhai-Brown seriously imagined to be somehow more unpleasant than Rod Liddle was, in the interview that so offended Mr Fabricant? Liddle rudely insulted the interviewer and complained – a typical manifestation of the entitlement ingrained in the faux-anti-establishment brigade – that the questions weren’t about the things he fancied talking about. He pretended he didn’t know what Alibhai-Brown was referring to when she mentioned his comments on Stephen Lawrence’s murder – comments that it is extremely hard to believe he had forgotten, given that he was found to have breached a court order over them, and the Spectator was fined. If Liddle, who writes of ‘black savages’ and compares supporting gay marriage as a conservative to endorsing sex with a goat as a conservative, does not provoke an equivalent violent fantasy from the likes of Fabricant, it begs the question: what would a white man actually have to say to provoke one? You don’t even have to agree with Brown or disagree with Liddle to see that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was certainly not being any more provocative that he was.

Provocative is a strangely gendered word. We do not often hear of men being provocative, or at least, when we do, the bar is set so much higher. A man is provocative, for example, if he is seen carrying a weapon, or if he shouts abuse in the street at a stranger, or if he gets drunk and squares up to somebody in a bar. A woman is provocative if she wears a miniskirt or has an opinion or two.

When we talk about context, which is the third magic word that pops up alongside ‘irony’ and ‘intention’, it always seems to be a very specific context that those people are interested in discussing. “You have to take it in context,” cry endless apologists for ‘ironic’ sexism or racism, before innocently asking why they cannot say the N-word, if NWA can, or why they can’t shout ‘bitch’ at women in the street if Beyonce can sing the word in a song about empowering herself.

Reacting to ‘jokes’ like Fabricant’s is not about being offended, and it’s certainly not about being knee-jerk. It’s not even about the individual joke itself. Would Fabricant actually punch Alibhai-Brown in the neck? It’s highly unlikely that he would. (What a thing, though, to be an MP, and have people rounding behind you to assert that you wouldn’t really punch a woman, as if that alone is amazingly high praise that qualifies you to keep your job.) No, much of the reaction to these seemingly silly little incidents is a dispassionate, structural analysis of the context in which those ‘jokes’ sit. The context, not the single incident, is what makes it matter. The context is not just that two women a week die of domestic violence. The context is how many of those women died because they were made to believe it was a little bit their fault, because they were, in some small way, too provocative.