And why Political Correctness is a good thing.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s racism was not only practiced and preached by almost everyone I met, it was also supported by almost all the UK’s institutions from schools to places of employment. It was also completely legal. Clubs and societies, shops, rental agencies, landlords and the population at large were able to exclude whosoever they wished.
By the 1970s, the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and the Race Relations Act went some way to enshrining in law the inclusion of women and BME groups. Equality before the law has, since then, steadily improved with rights for LBGT people only recently being properly addressed. But equality for less powerful groups and individuals in societal terms has lagged behind the law; law that was only enacted through the efforts of campaigners and activists; in short through Political Correctness, to put right what was fundamentally incorrect.
Research by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Runnymede Trust, and projects by the BBC and Channel 4, and numerous university departments has shown that racism has been in decline and, with luck, will gradually become a thing of the past. Yet, over the last few years, many people have noticed it is on the increase. In advertising, in films, in the media generally and in political discourse the so-called ‘casual’ racism of the 1950s is returning.
The recent debate over the future of Jeremy Clarkson at the BBC, for example, is set against the rise of UKIP and a huge number of smaller political groups who are openly nationalistic, often racist and unashamedly anti-PC. As if to be PC was somehow to be precious and effete, as if the robust and predominantly masculine attitude of atomistic independence and freedom of thought could be emasculated by fairness, kindness and respect for others. Ironically, it is the very same people who see those qualities as essentially British Values, who often propose the end of equalities legislation; the cries of freedom and colour-blindness emanating from those who are highly unlikely to be threatened by racism themselves.
But, as the likes of Farage and Clarkson might maintain, if racism is on the decline in general terms and equality is now accepted by almost everyone, why do we need legislation to enforce what has already happened? And why can’t people’s differences be the subject of humour? After all, if white people can laugh at themselves and non-white comedians can make fun of their own stereotypes, what’s the problem? In short, we should all lighten up, they say, and stop seeing racism everywhere.
Power and Adversity.
When a BME individual is growing up in a predominantly white society, the teasing, taunting and racist comments can be relentless; less so now than in the 1950s but still sufficient to make the lives of many people unbearable. Of course, by sheer luck or circumstance, not all BME people have the same experiences. At one end of the scale some people never experience racism and, at the other end, the racism is daily and life-threatening. Most BME people’s experiences are somewhere in between. And the reason for this uneven spread of verbal and physical assault is simply that the geographical and cultural spread of racism is itself inconsistent. Researchers have concluded that roughly 75% of people were overtly racist in the 1960s compared to about 25% today; a massive and fast improvement by anyone’s standards. But that means that, at any one time, 1 in 4 people are wilfully belittling the life-chances of vulnerable groups and individuals. And if society can change fast in one direction, it can change just as fast in another.
In an HR department that, say, employs 12 people, 3 will feel justified in binning a BME’s application without even reading it. In some firms or government departments, there might be no racists at all while in others there might be many more than 25%. In some industries, the racist culture is much, much worse than others. The car industry springs to mind. In all walks of life, the equality laws are thwarted, ignored and flouted by people who not only have 1950s attitudes to gender, race and nationality but would prefer a society in which those attitudes were applauded. Yet those racists are not displaying some kind of abnormal behaviour; racism is both endemic and built-in to our very being.
Whether by nature or nurture, probably a combination of both, humans are tribal. There are good scientific reasons to think that natural selection favours both tribalism and universalism for different but valid reasons of survival; we all have those traits to varying degrees. But, in the same way that we do not advocate killing our children should they seem to be a burden to us, or killing all our neighbours so that we might steal their gardens and grow more crops to feed our families, we do not have to follow our urges and instincts just because they are there. Historically, of course, powerful nations and groups have exercised their tribal urges in the extreme; from the exploits of the state-sponsored ‘pioneers’ and ‘independents’ who created the Atlantic slave trade to the growth and formation of the British Empire, the cause of tribal expansion was marked by the blood and suffering of millions. World wars, genocides and terrorist atrocities have punctuated history with ghastly regularity and it seems the human appetite for tribalism is almost unending. But it need not be.
Theologians, rulers, artists, campaigners and political commentators have, for centuries, been at the heart of racism and of the fight against it. Racists and non-racists come from all walks of life and all social classes but the difference between an overt racist and those of us who campaign against racism is a difference of intention rather than innate quality. Anti-racism campaigners are beginning to latch on to this through the idea of intersectionality; we recognise that all people are tribal and that it essential to recognise that overtly promoting our own tribes (gender, sexuality, race, disability and so-on) might have, as a by-product, the exclusion of others from a society we are all attempting to forge together. The intersectional approach is thus to recognise that to be ‘other’, i.e. different from those who hold power and cultural hegemony, is to have more in common with other ‘others’ than the differences that might conventionally divide us. Those who understand the distinction between racism as a quality we all possess, compared to a social discourse that we enact, are those we should listen to and to whom we owe a great deal.
It is telling that those who love competition rather than co-operation, those who regard success as the acquisition of status and power, are often those claiming to be the least racist while being free and easy with the support of casual racism and the constant references to the otherness of people who, unlike them, have little power or influence. It’s no accident that powerful, wealthy white men, and those who admire them, see themselves as colour-blind; in their eyes, racists are bad people, not like them. So anything they say or do can not be racist, in their eyes, because they are not bad people in general terms.
The Clarkson affair illustrates this beautifully. Top Gear is deservedly one of the most popular TV shows on the planet; not just because it is overtly, casually racist (though that has something to do with its broad appeal in a racist world), but because the presenters and producers are skilled and the editing and filming are superb. Being racist by supporting ‘casual’ racism does not mean one can not be excellent at one’s job. But the price paid by vulnerable groups and individuals is high.
It is well known that soldiers, having witnessed terrible things and having been in terrible situations, can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some do and some do not. But for those who do, a car backfiring, a flash of light, the sound of a person crying out or any sufficient stimulus might trigger the sufferer to live again the trauma and emotions of the original experience. Likewise, the same can be said of victims of rape, assault or accident. The extents to which those reactions are problematic vary from person to person. For many BME, LBGT people and for women, the number of situations they have been in, when their lives have been at stake at the hands of powerful white men (or other hegemonic group and their supporters) is vastly greater than for those white men telling them to “lighten up”.
Racist white men and their supporters often claim that everyone has trauma, everyone is picked upon and everyone is prone to disappointment and ridicule, so none has the right to special treatment. That is almost true. But what they do not realise, or experience, is that we have to put up with the racial abuse, lack of employment chances and life-threatening situations solely due to our skin colour or nationality on top of all the other life stresses. If a white child is constantly called ‘fatty’ or ‘specs’ or ‘nerd’ it is bad enough, but BME people have racial abuse in addition to those insults experienced by white people; and it doesn’t end at the school gate, or in puberty, or at work. It never stops. It’s in every moment of one’s existence in societies that feel it’s OK to pick on otherness.
And it is not just past trauma that can have that effect. The relentless barrage of small slights and injustices can also built up to intolerable levels; the constant denigration of one’s existence because of a trivial matter like skin colour ties in to what one knows about recent and current history. We know that ghastly tribal conflicts occur between peoples of very similar colours and societies, let alone between those who are outwardly different; from wars between different branches of Abrahamic religions to those between different types of Europeans, to conquests of whole continents. We know that perfectly good people can turn barbarous with very little persuasion. So when we hear the ‘great and the good’ championing overt racists as friends and ‘good blokes’, as has happened in the Clarkson affair, it does not make us feel safe. And after a lifetime in which our lives have been threatened by extreme racists (racist who also support the ‘good blokes’) it becomes almost impossible to tell which casually racist remark might lead to a beating or worse, and which might not. As history tells us, it’s a very small step from name-calling to genocide and all sorts of ‘others’ have found themselves loaded onto wagons by their neighbours for their last journeys to torture and death.
Being PC is not a means of closing down discussion, it is not a way of hiding crime, it is not a method used to prevent anyone from telling jokes and it not a barrier to freedom. It is simply enacting kindness when to be unkind might have unforeseen negative and calamitous consequences. The intersectional approach is thus to give up calling people ‘fatty’ or ‘specs’ or ‘paki’ or ‘nigger’ or ‘lesbo’ or ‘cripple’ or any of those similarly demeaning words unless you know for sure it will be taken in the spirit of kindness and respect. Is that possible? Of course. It’s all in the context.
Many disadvantaged groups adopt those words between themselves to take the sting out of them, to reinvent the words, to reclaim them. If you’re not in the group, it’s not up to you to use them. That is not to say one should be more tribal but to recognise that some groups are more vulnerable than you. It is to allow people who have suffered from those words to own them. In more formal settings, such as a comedy performance, even those outside the groups can, if they fully understand the context, use race or disability without causing huge offence and be funny too. But it takes massive skill and some first hand knowledge. Clarkson calling a Thai or Burmese person a ‘slope’ is not funny and is offensive just as calling someone a ‘paki’ or ‘nigger’ would be. Yet skilled practitioners of humour who have real-life knowledge of race-politics, such as S. African stand-up Trevor Noah, use race all the time in their routines and manage (mostly) to be funny and confrontational without being racist, because their routines are about the absurdity of racism.
Those who oppose PC, say they don’t know how to navigate the ‘minefield’ set up by ‘liberal do-gooders’ but it’s really not difficult. I suspect, they do know how to navigate it because it’s not a minefield; it’s simply choosing kindness and good manners rather than crude, cruel words. It might be true that some racist expressions are so common amongst those of a particular generation that it’s very difficult to avoid them. But ever since a friend told me that ‘paying through the nose’ was originally an anti-Semitic phrase, I’ve stopped using it. Was I anti-Semitic when using it previously? Yes, unknowingly.
Not only is everyone racist to a greater or lesser degree, but racism exists even when it is unintentional. If I said, as I did once in the 1970s, “I’m just popping down to the Paki shop.” I am normalising racist language and, if overheard by someone who has recently been called a ‘paki’ and is absolutely fed up with it, I might easily cause massive offence and indignation or depression, or even suicide – we can not know which will be the final straw. Those who claim PC stops free speech, need to think again; it is the freedom of others that the enactment of a PC way of life enables. If a powerful, rich, white man can ever feel upset and would rather people were kinder to him, then consider the feelings of those who do not share his position of privilege. It’s no wonder groups defined by race stick together in ghettos; anything to get away from being an oppressed, tiny minority every minute of the day.
But, the anti-PC people say, white people are under privileged too. Yes, they are. And we should stop calling them ‘white trash’ or ‘chavs’ or ‘Essex girls’ unless the context is very specific. Remember too, that those who are ‘othered’ by society have their poverty or lack of privilege to deal with in addition to the racism levelled at them. PC is about being kind and considerate.
Anti-PC people would have us believe that PC shuts down debate about all sorts of issues. They say it’s not possible now to mention that a group of rapists was Moslem. But why would one wish to mention it unless to say that their religion was somehow responsible for their actions? On LBC radio, that debate seems to pop up regularly and defenders of non-PC say that it’s only fair because the BBC/NHS DJ scandal around Savile and others, always mentions that the rapists were Disc Jockeys. But that does not relate to their religion but to their positions of institutional power. If one was to be even-handed one would call them Christian (if they were) rapists. And that too would be racist.
Now before you ask why I’m equating religion with race, let’s be clear. Racism is so named because, until recently, many educated people actually believed in ‘race’. As if trivial differences in appearance somehow defined, character, worth or ethical behaviour. Anti-racist campaigners have always known such a theory to be rubbish because we have better understood the political reasons for centuries of propagating such views; just as feminists realise that women who refuse to be subjugated are not witches to be burned alive. The human genome project has, of course, completely proved the point; genetic variation within ‘races’ is as great as that between them. In other words, ‘race’ has no scientific meaning at all. All it means today is a vague notion that people self-identify into specific groups. It’s all about tribes.
If one calls ISIS, ‘Muslim terrorists’, then one must call the IRA, or the first white (Edit – see comment below) Australians, ‘Christian terrorists’ or the Burmese generals ‘Buddhist terrorists’. But it is far better not to mention their religion at all unless there is a point to be made about those religions, not just as they are written but as they are generally practiced. All religious people cherry-pick from their scriptures because all their scriptures are internally inconsistent and contradictory, perhaps forgiveness being paramount in one chapter while vengeance is suggested in another. Yet atheists too can be genocidal.
The growth of casual racism, against a background of anti-PC, and a past trend of diminishing racism supported by pro-PC activism, has happened in consort with political entities, such as UKIP, the BNP, EDL and other groups, who know they can gain from a disgruntled and angry population. The fact that the population is predominantly white simply defines the types of racism being encouraged. It can happen anywhere. Farage insists he is colour-blind; all that means is that he does not acknowledge that racism still exists and refuses to see that the old idea of race, that skin colour defines character or worth, is still believed by many. His denial is outrageous. To legitimise it he has turned his attention instead to nationality. And because racism is all tribal anyway, it serves Farage’s purpose as effectively as racism based on colour. It also normalises the racist language used by his supporters if their language is deemed not to be racist. When Clarkson claims he tried his hardest not to use that word, he is being utterly disingenuous because he is in the communication business, it’s his job.
Racism is not really about race because race doesn’t exist. It’s about tribes, about affiliation, about feeling more secure by blaming outsiders for one’s own feelings of mortality or fear of poverty. PC is about life, about kindness, about understanding and recognising that it takes effort to fight against our own intrinsic tribalism. Nature and nurture have conspired to make us the most dangerous animals on the planet and, fuelled by tribalism, we head towards a bleak future that simply echoes our past but on a much bigger scale. So be better, be hopeful, be PC.
14th March 2015