Sunday, 7 August 2016

Delegitimising Hate Or Irrationalising Ideals: Has LGBTQIA+ Political Correctness Really Gone Too Far?

"A political thought can be politically correct (politiquement correcte) only if it is scientifically painstaking" Michel Foucault's response to Jean Paul Sartre 1968.

Two trans political activists in their late 20's walk into a LGBTQIA friendly bar on Manchester's Canal Street. While they are great friends who have known each other since they were 18, one is a Conservative who consciously identifies as "right-wing", whereas the other is a self-confessed, unashamedly Labour Corbynista. A bloke comes up to them whilst they are innocently dancing, glances them up and down and asks them outright "are they trannies looking for a big gun to penetrate their new hole?". Two different responses are given to this use of language:
  • The Conservative trans activist laughs off the attack and turns his back away from the fella.
  • The Corbynista rebukes him for using politically incorrect language and kicks him in his overly-hyped Crown Jewels and runs off to tell the bar manager about the incident, which results in the guy being forcibly removed from the nightclub.
Example of "PC Criticism" from InTheSetTimes Feb 2007.
Which approach was the best approach? Would the situation have been handled differently by either activist if it had been said in a different location- a WI meeting or in a local youth club? What would have happened if the bar manager had not believed the Corbynista's claims? Is it ever socially acceptable for anyone to use the term "tranny" to describe a transgender or even non-transgender/ genderfluid/queer person? Would there have been the same response if the man had used a different term such as "transsexual" to describe them? Regardless of the extremities of characterisation I have used for my example, it highlights the great variance in socially acceptable norms when it comes to dealing with "politically incorrect" language. I shall try and address some of the complex issues surround PC language and actions and then relate to the LGBTQIA discourse community below.

What is politically correct language? How do we even define what PC is?
Politically Correctness or PC is a broad term used to describe the opinions and attitudes of those who are actively opposed to prejudice on grounds such as race, gender, appearance, disability...any of the protected characteristics as covered under the Equality Act (2010) for which a person can be prosecuted should sufficient evidence be placed against them in a court of Law. Organisations have tried to shape societal discourse to make them more distrustful of offensive language by creating PC terms.
Here are some examples of where PC has been used to try and change societal opinions:
  • Eskimo to Inuit - "Eskimo" is considered highly offensive because it is derived from an Indian word meaning "eaters of raw flesh".
  • Spastics Society to SCOPE- The society changed its name in 1994 because the term "spastic" is considered offensive to those suffering from a physical disability.
  • Unemployed to Unwaged - Not being in paid employment doesn't mean your time is not usefully employed.
  • Christian Name to First Name- Not everyone in the UK considers themselves as Christian.
To most readers, the first 2 examples of PC change would be considered appropriate; instances recorded of ableist (disability discriminative) language appear to have decreased over the last 20 years and having a much more diverse, inclusive National Curriculum programme along with increased use of the Internet means people are gaining a more nuanced understanding of where the words and phrases they use are derived from and giving them the choice whether or not they should continue to use them in daily discourse.

However PC has gained a stingingly negative connotation with some Alt-Right groups because they say it legitimises intolerant, restrictive or even extremist views from the Left. David Lodge contends that "the phrase "political correctness" encapsulates all the dogmatic, puritanical and narrow-minded arrogance that has made people distrust revolutionary politics from Robespierre onwards".

Now I'm not too sure I've seen any examples of "revolutionary politics" from the Right that have been censored incorrectly by the Government to protect the interests of minority groups. For example, the #FreeMilo campaign on social media that resulted from the banning from Twitter of the extreme right wing Breibart commentator Milo Yiannopoulos due to his racist goading of the Ghostbuster's actress Leslie Jones was said to be a result of Conservative tweeters fighting back against the selective PC of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. That was despite the fact that Milo had previously accused the trans community of unnecessarily binding "lesbians and gays" together even though "they hate each other" and had compared feminists to "cancer spreaders" on social media. Since Twitter is a privately owned worldwide platform that is not designed to adhere strictly to US constitutional rules, as a founder Jack had the right to act in a way that protected the interests of Twitter users as whole, so had no choice but to ban him. Was that a negative or regressive PC action? Breibart users may say yes, but I'd beg to differ. But then after all we are affected by our own political prisms, so what might be seen as PC by me will be different in entirety to those on the extreme far right.

Notwithstanding this, left -leaning commentators such as John Wilson "The Myth on Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (1995) have been critical of PC as a marginalising term in the past. They accuse conservative commentators of deflecting attention away from more "substantive" discussions of discrimination in society by focussing on minor, localised instances of "madness". They have also accused conservatives of ignoring their own forms of political correctness - e.g. insisting that God is written with a capital G or that female politicians are referred to by their first name rather than surname (extremely internalised). As Wilson remarked, "most often, the case is entirely ignored or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. ... A balanced perspective was lost, and everyone missed the fact that people on all sides were sometimes censored" (p.57).

Common Sense vs PC:

So I think any reader going through my article can see that PC has now gained a bad reputation both from the Left and the Right. Is this because it has been used to justify "pointless" decisions that would not offend the majority of the local population? One anonymous Yahoo user just last month made an interesting comment: "Political correctness gone mad" is redundant. Political correctness serves no useful purpose except to devalue the English language to soothe the feelings of hypersensitive nitwits."

Here are a few examples that have been quoted on the internet in the last 2 years- decide for yourselves whether it was PC genius or PC disaster:
  • Banning a Union Jack rubbish truck.
  • Avoiding use on the BBC of BC and AD in programming so as to not offend atheists.
  • Spotted Dick - Flintshire County Council changing the name of the pudding so as to avoid negative jokes being made against the dessert on social media.
  • Calling a person "duck" or "love" in Lincs because it may be seen as patronising/demeaning to women.
Opponents of PC believe that seeking to control the language we use comes dangerously close to trying to control how we think. It's rather counter-intuitively ironic then that these naysayers tend to make an appeal to "Common Sense reasoning" when considering what language to use and what actions to take. They concede that a "groupthink" approach is needed from all members of the community to decide whether an action should be taken or not. In Scotland for example there may be a majority leaning SNP council in charge of waste disposal, and they may want to use their Saltire or "St Andrew's Cross" flag on their rubbish lorries than the Union Jack. That decision might inflame tensions between English and Scottish residents but it would be considered "common sense" by some because it takes into account the majority view. Perhaps that's why a PC policy such as keeping the rubbish trucks a uniform colour such as green or brown has been in place across the UK. We are never be able to escape a form of "groupthink", so maybe it is "common sense" to follow the mainstream attitudes of those who have the most amount of power to make the most important decisions. But then that makes the issue look too "overly simplified"! So how can LGBTQIA people answer critics who may wish to enter or ban certain words or actions being taken by their own community or for/against the community?

My response to PC:

It's true, sometimes we don't even know what the "correct" form of political correctness should be. Even trying to debate and establish norms of correctness lead to bitter disputes amongst neighbours and selective unfollowing of professional armchair keyboard warriors on Twitter, who want to pick a fight just for the sake of it! I did address some elements of LGBTQIA word-bullying in an earlier article, which you can access from here: It is clear that there are issues to be resolved within the school environment and by helping to ban and address/correct language use at the primary school level will help reduce instances of embarrassment occurring such as that described in the gay bar at the start of my article.

The benefits of PC can sometimes be difficult to point out in any meaningful, clear way- for example protections are generally speaking enshrined in Common law through the creation of Acts such as the Data Protection Act (1998) or Consumer Protection Act (1987) but some trans people find the Equality Act (2010) restrictive and/or offensive, because the EA doesn't even protect all gender fluid/queer people explicitly unless they're going through gender reassignment surgery or have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a qualified sexologist.

Having policies governing use of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic language in the workplace is important; freedom of speech is restricted by the rules of your workplace and the laws of the land whether free speech activists like it or not. The recent example of the EAT decision to uphold a judgement against a solicitor  Asghar Ali and his law firm because he asked a woman Sunna Majid to "marry him" at the initial interview shrugging off his actions as "banter because he was already married" but then sexually harassing her with suggestive texts and demands and telling her "there were double showers installed" shows that PC policies still have a role to play in education and rehabilitation both for potential perpetrators and potential victims.

PC is meant to help deliver a fair society but quite clearly those that argue against the restrictive nature of PC would say it wasn't fair to them. Does PC help improve community cohesion? Where's the empirical evidence to show that this has become the case? It's time for the Government under Justine Greening to explore this in greater depth!

We shouldn't be in favour of routinely banning artists even if their art has been condemned as "ill conceived" or down right provocative but we may have to be prepared as a society to condemn that artwork once it has been produced. Artists must also be prepared to show a level of modesty and humility when it has been shown they have caused mass offence. This may mean examples of freedom fighting creativity such as when Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" may be subject to PC regulation even though he presented a fair critique of Islamic practices. Is that a price worth paying? I'm not completely convinced.

Equally we shouldn't turn any level of "blind eye" to provocative, disturbing narratives, particularly those that occur in other cultures and societies such as the forced wearing of the hijab in Saudi Arabia to shame women into maintaining their modesty when married. We should not only be "side eyeing people who support practices head on" but also helping empower women and minority groups in these societies to try and change the social, cultural and political mores from within. Imposing our own views on other societies hasn't worked well in recent history- look at the pitiful attempt at Western countries trying to establish secular democracies in places such as Libya and Syria!

So next time trans activists start talking about words that should be banned or critiqued or accepted into daily discourse they have to remember they may be having an important, wide ranging effect on helping to shape that discourse. Educating and rehabilitating "tranny" offenders and preventing them from legitimising use of such words from the start of a child's education may be the best way of silencing PC critics and making trans acceptance truly part of the common sense groupthink narrative-i.e.. the social, cultural and moral fabric of world discourse.