Odd, isn’t it, that being correct is something to be accused of? Guilty of being right.
In its modern sense – as a term of abuse – “political correctness” has had 25 years of use defending rudeness by attacking the respectful. It is always used as an accusation, often with an accompanying suggestion that the accused is a “loony leftie”, trying to deny liberty, freedom of speech. Which is ironic, since freedom of speech is just what the accuser is trying to shout down.
There are older terms for what is now castigated as “political correctness”. One is “politeness”. Another is “showing respect”.
What got me into this was a rather feeble joke repeated online by one of my virtual friends. I won’t repeat it here, but it was a faintly topical twist on an old stereotype of the kind Bernard Manning used to trade on. I told my friend I was disappointed that he was promoting sexism.
At which point, drearily predictable, my accuser stepped in and began ranting. In his view, it seems, the right of men to mock women trumps the right of women not to be demeaned. And perhaps you can see his point. Freedom of speech and all that.
Except that casual, trivial sexism ceases to be casual or trivial when it’s repeated so often that it becomes accepted as part of the world’s fabric. As if the sexist remark were true. Not just in an isolated instance, but as a comment on all women.
And however light-heartedly it was meant, my friend Marc’s little jest was an insult to half the population. He may have meant it ironically, but the irony was surely missed by at least some of those who read it and passed it on.
This may all seem relatively unimportant – a “first world problem”. But it goes deeper than that.
Many of the jokes Bernard Manning told could not be repeated on TV or radio. And he defended his use of words I can’t print here – and wouldn’t want to – not because they were vulgar, but because they were racist.
His act, like that of so many “comedians” of his generation, wasn’t clever or witty. It was merely abusive.
Perhaps the humour, if that’s what it was, lay in getting away with saying the unsayable. Except that the very fact he was saying it – over and over again – made it sayable.
He defended his racism, his sexism, his homophobia, his cruel abuse of the disabled, in exactly the same way Marc justified his quip. “It was just a joke.”
But nothing is only a joke. “Only joking” is exactly what the schoolyard bully says when confronted. Jokes reveal the attitude of the joker and spread it around.
Recent psychological research suggests that sexist or racist jokes don’t turn people into bigots. But they do confirm those who are bigots already in their prejudices. They give them licence to be more outspoken. Crucially, they tend to make them hold their anti-social views more strongly, and to act on them more aggressively.
Jokes of this kind dehumanise people. And dehumanising people – for their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their religion, their politics, their status as refugees – makes them victims.
As David Eagleman made very clear in his recent excellent BBC series The Brain, this process can lead frighteningly quickly to horrors like the Holocaust. The “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia in the 1990s. Or so much of the Middle East today.
This may seem a long way to have come from a relatively mild joke about International Women’s Day. But the connections are all there. And so are the excuses.
As long as even generally broad-minded folk like Marc can excuse sexism as “only a joke”, there’s clearly a long way to go on the road to gender equality too.