As a middle aged British man, I have a particular perspective on political correctness, as it is, from my point of view, relatively new. Born in the sixties and growing up, at least in media awareness terms, in the seventies, much of mainstream media was the polar opposite of what is now considered to be politically correct.
Casual racism, rampant sexism and homophobia would, in 2016 be considered taboo by programme makers, but in my youth they were the norm. I grew up watching Love Thy Neighbour and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, not to mention the Black and White Minstrel show, all considered so out of touch with current tolerated values that they have not been repeated for many years, and yet they were hugely successful at the time.
Most comedies, and even dramas, totally overlooked the notion of strong female characters. Women were generally divided into a limited subset of options – pretty but feeble and/or stupid, overbearing, nagging dragons or promiscuous prey for whatever hunky male lead was required.
Gay people were openly derided. On the sort of television that was easily accessible to impressionable children, words like fairy, queer, poofter etc were used openly and frequently. Gay men were usually portrayed as limp-wristed, mincing queens.
Of course, attitudes have changed in the forty odd years since these shows, and generally for the better, but in their place a new sinister force has emerged, the requirement of political correctness.
It is not new for social attitudes to alter over time. There are many examples of media that was once banned for being outrageous and unacceptable to now appear innoccuous and tame. Political correctness, however, is not a reflection of changes in attitude. It is something worse; it is enforcement of them.
I do not know how or exactly when the term political correctness was first coined, or by whom, but I first heard it as a student in the 1980s. Naturally, as in all generations, student life for me constituted a melting pot of cultures, backgrounds, viewpoints and attitudes. I cannot be certain now if the terms arose at the same time, but I associate them broadly concurrently in my own memory, but at around the same time as I remember hearing about political correctness, I also recall the rise of alternative comedy. A new breed of hip, young comedians came along, supposedly to sweep away the staid old traditional comedy of my parents’ generation. In hindsight, of course, that did not really happen, but it was the perception of the time.
Ben Elton was the first example of the politically correct comedian that I recall. Looking back, I don’t remember comedians before him being so preachy, imposing their world viewpoint on the audience, attempting to both entertain and cajole the world to subscribe to their perspective. It may not have been the beginning of the political correctness movement, but it was the beginning of my awareness of it.
There was little development on this in the first few years. We were told we were naughty to laugh at what had been mainstream light entertainment only a few years earlier. We were told certain terms we had grown up with were now offensive. Significantly, we were generally not told that by those to whom the offence was to be expected, but by others acting on their behalf, prescribing what we could say or not say, write or not write. Over time, it seems that has morphed into what we are allowed to think.
I recently saw some furore over a digitally edited image of Ellen DeGeneres, an active campaigner for equality, riding on the back of Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt. There were claims that this was racist. I did not see it as racist. I saw it as funny. I have not heard or read of Usain Bolt’s reaction to it. I suspect he may also have been amused, but it seems that what he feels is irrelevant. Other people have chosen to take offence on his behalf. I find this mind-boggling. Had she edited a picture showing herself riding on the back of a successful, powerful and stong white athlete, nobody would have pulled out the racist card. That was surely the point of the edit. He is fast, he is strong, he can carry her to work. There was the joke. However, she edited an image of a fast, strong athlete who just so happened to be black. Somehow that made it racist. I fail to see how. Ellen DeGeneres is no racist. She has become the victim of people who have chosen to take offence.
This is the crux of my problem with political correctness. Offence is a choice. Anyone who has read my earlier blog posts will know my disdain for bigotry, in all its forms, whether it be based on race, colour, religion, orientation or anything else. I actually consider political correctness, somewhat paradoxically, to be a form of bigotry, in that it enforces people to adhere to positions with which they may or may not agree just because of the risk that failing to do so might cause offence.
Offence is an entirely human social construct. Dogs do not ostracise each other just because one of them barked the wrong way. Looked at from this perpective, political correctness is ridiculous.
I am not suggesting that society, as a whole, is not better because we have moved on from the bigoted attitudes of our past, but we have replaced them with a new bigotry, a new approved Newspeak, a new censored approval of thought. That is not politically correct, it is ethically dangerous. It stifles imagination, creativity, inspiration. It strangles the likelihood of challenging the status quo, of reaching beyond the known.
When children are told how they are allowed to think, what they are allowed to say, we are restricting them from being the next generation of dreamers, inventors, innovators. We are creating a generation of programmed automatons. This is no better than the generations of the past who conditioned open minded youngsters into gender-specific roles of the nuclear family.
A society afraid that what it thinks may be wrong may one day stop thinking.