RIP PC? You ain't seen nothing yet
You could be forgiven for thinking that we are living in a post-PC age. Relieved right-wing newspaper columnists have started talking about political correctness as a fad whose time has passed. Television schedules include self-consciously 'incorrect' programmes, from cheesy old situation comedies to irony-laden 'lad's TV'. In between watching lap-dancing and football, you can ridicule the PC language imposed over the past decade without being denounced as an emotionally/intellectually challenged dinosaur. Nobody in their right mind will now admit to being politically correct.
But don't be fooled into thinking PC has crawled off somewhere to die. The fact is that it has crept quietly into every corner of life. In Tony Blair's Britain, like Bill Clinton's America, we are living under a tyranny of political and emotional correctness. And the worst is yet to come.
Those who think that PC is out are turning reality on its head. In truth, political correctness is now so all-pervasive in our society, so ingrained in the public consciousness, that we no longer even notice anything odd about it. Only the most bizarre and extreme examples attract comment - like a ban on a traditional children's book, or a ruling that an onstage shower in a US strip club must have wheelchair access, or the insistence that the phrase 'accident blackspot' is a racial insult.
But this kind of cultural flotsam has never been what the phenomenon known as political correctness is really about. The essence of PC is the attempt to regulate personal behaviour - in particular, to lay down a new system of rules governing interpersonal relations. At this everyday level, political correctness now influences the way that all of us live. Yet hardly an eyebrow is raised.
Contrary to the general impression you get from its critics, political correctness was not simply dreamt up by a few bitter feminists and loony left council committees. It is a product of the general climate of our times, an age in which many of the old connections and soli-darities between people have broken down and trust is at an all-time low.
At a time when few of us seem to have much faith in other people (or ultimately in ourselves), when we are often ready to assume the worst about the motives of strangers and neighbours alike, there is a demand for more supervision of what people are allowed to do, say and even think. PC and its ubiquitous codes of conduct arose largely in response to that demand. It has since come to exercise a tightening grip on events - especially with the election to government of New Labour, the natural party of political correctness with a mission to re-educate the untrustworthy public.
At the same time as everybody laughs at PC language codes, for example, nobody questions the legitimacy of the voluminous new rulebook on what constitutes 'appropriate' behaviour between people today. Many words and gestures which might once have attracted little attention are now likely to be treated as serious offences against the sensitivities of others. Just see how often accusations of 'bullying', 'abuse' and 'harassment' now crop up everywhere from the workplace to the newspapers, as the definition of such personal crimes expands to cover all kinds of unexceptional behaviour.
Ridiculous PC rules, like the ban on interracial adoptions, may no longer be publicly acceptable. But the politically correct demand to regulate interpersonal relations now impinges on the practice of every important institution in society. From the churches to the medical profession, all have felt obliged to reorganise their affairs around the assumption of mistrust, introducing codes of conduct in a bid to persuade people that they are safe from abuse by the priests and doctors whom they would once have revered.
The key PC point which now informs debates about public and private life is that nothing can be left to chance, or to common sense. It is generally accepted that every aspect of interpersonal behaviour must be formalised, if not via a new law then through some kind of government guidelines or quasi-official advice. Take the issue of marriage and family relationships.
At a time when family breakdown is blamed for all kinds of social problems, the authorities are determined to interfere in and regulate our most intimate relations. Not content with making it even harder to get a divorce, the New Labour government now wants to make people pass more stringent moral tests before they can get married in the first place.
There are proposals coming out of Jack Straw's home office for premarital counselling (perhaps to prepare people for the ordeal of the compulsory counselling they now have to go through before their divorce). There are discussions of whether registry offices can be made to issue vicar-style lectures on commitment to would-be newlyweds - a dumb idea which has already been further dumbed down to the typically PC panacea of giving out an official advice pack to the assumed-to-be unhappy couple.
And there is Straw's brother, Ed, writing a pamphlet published by New Labour's favourite think-tank Demos, on how TV soap operas like EastEnders, Coronation Street and Brookside should show fewer marital break-ups and play more of a role in the moral instruction of the ignorant masses. (As if the soaps had not already been ruined by PC moralism, with their constant stream of stories which preach about the dangers of drink, drugs and Aids, and when barely an episode passes without family members earn-estly talking through their domestic difficulties like members of an addicts' support group.)
The PC notion that no aspect of human behaviour can be left for humans to decide for themselves is part and parcel of Blair's emphasis on 'lifelong learning'. Education is no longer just about imparting knowledge to young people. It is about giving us all moral instruction. In the classroom it means that children are now subjected to an intrusive regime of 'personal, social and health education', which lays down more rigid rules for life than the old Christian Brothers ever dreamt of beating into their charges. Beyond the school gates it means that we are all being treated like pupils in need of supervision. This is not the old-fashioned 'nanny state'; it is the new PC parent state, the caring professional state, the expert state that only wants to help us to make 'informed choices' - just so long as we make the 'right' choice based on the selective information we are given.
No sooner has the first half-decent day of summer dawned than doctors and council environment officers are queuing up to warn us of the dangers of sunstroke and skin cancer. The authorities repeatedly insist that adverts be amended or withdrawn to stop unscrupulous companies sending us 'incorrect' lifestyle messages about fast cars, strong drink or anything else off-message. And long before Ed Straw made his pitch for more moral soap operas, the makers of television dramas were already bombarding us with positive images of a PC world where worthy women put pathetic men in their place.
The rise of supposedly post-PC television also fits into this pattern. The defence offered by those involved with programmes like Men Behaving Badly is always that they are 'ironic'; in other words, we know it's naughty, but don't worry, we don't mean it - and we've got the sad bastards under control.
Scratch the surface and it seems that nothing is now safe from the influence of political and emotional correctness. In June's LM our World Cup special argued that even football is going PC on and off the pitch, being turned into another outlet for the nineties mantra about the need to regulate behaviour. That argument was spectacularly vindicated by the Gazza affair, where the lardy one was finally punished, not for being unfit and off-form (what else is new?) but for failing to fulfil England coach Glenn Hoddle's moral mission to turn him into a reformed role model for the macho miscreants whom the government has branded the 'Loaded generation'.
In the end, it does not matter how ludicrous or laughable we think the more extreme cases of political correctness might be. The tyranny of PC will continue, and continue to get worse, because it is feeding off the anti-human assumptions of our age. The assumption is that people are not capable of getting through life without more and more moral guidance; that we are all, in the words of Diana the PC princess, 'battered this and battered that', in need of support and therapy and the thought police. Political correctness provides an entirely appropriate morality for these mistrustful, insecure times. In the end it is not about what we think of words or images, but people.
At LM, we reject all of the lowlife assumptions about the human condition on which the power of PC rests. Our magazine is concerned to promote a human-centred morality for today, and to counter the culture of low expect-ations of which PC is an integral part. That is why, in this issue, we have made such a big deal of exposing the dangers behind the crusade against 'masculine values'. It is why I hope to explore these issues further at a forthcoming debate on 'The tyranny of the new PC', just one of the 'Living Dangerously' events which LM is hosting at the Edinburgh Festival in August (see page 14 for details).
While the critics sneer at the 'failure' of PC, it continues its quiet advance. Unlike Enid Blyton's books or Punch and Judy, there has not yet been a high-profile failed attempt to ban Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But my daughter has just been given an 'updated', non-adversarial version of the story in which, instead of being chased off by the hungry bears, Goldilocks instantly becomes their best friend and moves in with the family. No doubt the social services, NSPCC, ChildLine, Kidscape, Relate and the rest have been informed.
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998