Political correctness and the virtue of causing offence

Defining words and actions as offensive is tantamount to declaring that your feelings have been hurt. This idea is nothing new. But people have extrapolated on this simple fact, and manufactured it into an anti PC war-cry. Advocates of political correctness are accused of trying to create a world without offence. Of trying to manufacture a right to be free from offence. Of attempting to control a cold, unforgiving world by sheltering themselves from certain hurtful words. This mischaracterisation of what political correctness is for and what it can achieve is as much the fault of its advocates as it is its enemies.

Causing offence can be a revolutionary force that drives change. It can topple taboos around sex, gender, religion, and correct behaviour. The debate that follows in the wake of an act regarded as offensive can help us understand if there is a legitimate grievance beneath the outrage. Or whether it is rooted in some outdated set of values that no longer applies to a secular age striving for genuine equality. We are forced to analyse the fundamentals at play behind a given issue.

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The virtue of causing offence – intentionally or not – is routed in the direction that the offence flows. It is a fist, and when used correctly it can punch towards the corridors of power and force us all to re-evaluate their purpose and legitimacy. Blasphemy, upsetting a super-being, is no longer regarded as controversial in polite society, because for hundreds of years critics, activists, authors, artists, and the scientific method, have ground down the iron grip that the church had on social conduct and language. Galileo caused great offence to the Church through publishing scientific findings based on the available evidence. He may have lost the battle against the Inquisition when faced with the threat of torture, but his defeat de-legitimized the Church, exposed it as a dogmatic institution, an insecure bully not fit for purpose. Of course, scientists rarely set out with the intention of causing offence to accepted norms. But it has been a common biproduct of their work throughout history.

Activists, artists, journalists, social commentators, even politicians, all have been causing offence for centuries whether intentionally or not. It can be a useful tool in their arsenal when pushing for change. We regard many such people operating today as crass, vulgar, and ultimately impotent, generating controversy for its own sake, for attention and money. That being said, there were times when the accepted truths of today were highly offensive to the average citizen of yesterday. The fundamentals of equality, plurality of faiths, women voting, the idea that a person can be born one gender and die another. These were offensive concepts to the status quo not very long ago.

Ultimately the virtue of causing offence must be treated on a case by case basis. We can weigh and compare various values and discuss how they play off each other. But the common theme of ‘positive offence’ is a punching up, towards the corridors of power, towards an outdated and sometimes harmful status quo.

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Political correctness is an imperfect attempt to make people understand the power of certain words in certain contexts, to make language more inclusive. It is clumsy at times. And it is subject to debate and change over time. Nothing about it precludes permanently excluding those who break the rules of this code of conduct now and then. Nothing about it precludes policing every aspect of the language that we use day to day. And nothing about it precludes demanding a right not to be offended.

Take one example. If I – as a white man – were to throw a racist slur at a black person, it becomes more than a word. It now carries the weight of history with it. It carries the kidnap, rape, murder, and oppression of a people over centuries. This is an extreme example of course, there are far more mild phrases less burdened by the horrors of history. And we are constantly re-evaluating which words (in which context) may cause offence and which may not. Despite what some would have you believe, political correctness is a process that is always evolving. Which is why there will always be borderline words and actions, the status of which will be up for debate.

The point: by breaking the tenants of this code – a code that is easy to understand and follow – one is causing offence in the wrong direction. There is nothing subversive in the offence generated by the above example. There is nothing subversive about dehumanizing generalisations aimed at certain groups of people. And there is nothing unreasonably demanding about the split second of thought it takes to refrain from using certain words.

From Katie Hopkins to Donald Trump, those with a degree of power have a responsibility to transmit ideas to the populous in a digestible and engaging format. Instead many use this power to position themselves as outsiders, to claim they are undermining a draconian set of rules that has muzzled the oppressed majority. They will claim that a sheltered elite, from academics, to politicians, to journalists, are laying down the law not just of the land, but of your speech and your very thoughts. They will claim that these laws are complex, contradictory and ultimately pointless. As a result they will refuse to follow them. And they will claim that those who do follow them – and demand the same of others – are overly sensitive, sheltered, thin skinned, yet somehow elitist. They have been so effective in this endeavour that ‘Political Correctness’ has become a dirty phrase. It immediately stifles the arguments of their opponents. If you tar someone with the PC brush they are automatically undermined in the eyes of observers.

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But these people are just as elitist as those they claim to attack. They are not some noble advocates of an oppressed majority. They claim a set of rules that demands a second of thought before speaking is impossible to follow. But they have helped to illustrate one point now endlessly debated by journalists of the left. And that is how to speak to the white populations of the US and the UK in a way that gives them pride. The genius of their success lies in couching political correctness as a war on white people. They couch political correctness as the agenda of a white elite forced on a white majority. They say that a PC agenda would have us tear down our idols, Nelson, Churchill, Kipling, the heroes of Empire and the civilizing mission. A PC agenda would strip us of our very identity, ban the Union Jack from public places and demand that even declaring your own Britishness is now a thought crime. The genius of this mischaracterisation of political correctness, is that it speaks to the pride of a group of people who are running out of reasons to be proud.

Communities long since left behind are now blaming groups even worse off than themselves thanks to the engaging rhetoric of the Farages of the world. Rather than turning their attention to unchecked free market forces they turn their attention to the fabricated oppression of inclusive language. These false prophets position themselves as mavericks reclaiming the power of upsetting people, of causing offence and hurting feelings. When in reality they distort history and in turn the historical power of certain words, they speak to those at the bottom at the expense of others at the bottom with different accents and skin colours.

As an aside, this is closely related to the recent sexual harassment scandal. The frustrating thing in the wake of each new allegation is the non-apologies and comments of those who claim to lead public opinion and debate. They characterise the rights and wrongs of these issues as somehow complex, as hidden in shades of grey, as ambiguous. This constant obfuscation and removal of agency from apologies, from discussion of misconduct, this gives the impression that a simple code of conduct is somehow impossible to follow. The reality is that the standards demanded by #Metoo and related campaigns are the most minimal one must meet to be a person in society. Once again, public figures who have a responsibility to transmit simple ideas refuse to do so when motivated by their own agenda.

So what’s the solution? Teach more history in schools, in the hope that this will prevent those with irresponsible eyes on power from rewriting it? Stop talking down to the frustrated many about how great they have had it? Form a counter narrative, reclaim political correctness from its current dirty word status? Reclaim new heroes and a new sense of pride for people? Reclaim patriotism and what it means to be British from some archaic notion that Britain is a moral and spiritual leader of the world? In fact a start would be to show up Farage, Hopkins, and Rees-Mogg for the offence mongers that they are. But this is not a war on causing offence, this is a debate about the worthy targets for offence.

Shouting at patriots who display the Union Jack in their windows misses the point of political correctness. And it plays into the hands of those who claim it is a complex, oppressive attempt to police the behaviour of the many. Screaming outrage at the slightest misconduct skews the issue, and plays into the hands of those that would claim we are pushing some puritanical agenda akin to the moral crusades of Protestantism.

The truth is I have no solution. I only have a word of caution. And this relates to the power of language. And this time I am not talking about the power words have in causing offence. Rather it looks to the use of language to remove agency. The enemies of political correctness will use language to subtly mischaracterise it, until PC’s advocates find themselves defending a position they never held in the first place. That is our failure.

Katie Hopkins does not believe the things she says. She saw a gap in public discourse and she filled it, and she made a great deal of money in doing so. Spitting forth outrage in response plays into her hands, just as it does with the likes of Rees-Mogg. Their response is simple. They will call you sheltered, overly sensitive, unwilling to hear certain truths, or that you have missed a truth that they have grasped. It is at this point that causing the right kind of offence is important to consider. Through calm, measured discourse it can be possible to remind people of their civic duty, that despite everything we have a responsibility to each other, which means certain language and behaviour is prohibited without exception. We are engaged in a race to the bottom to distil ideas to their simplest components and to transmit them in the calmest manner possible. Nothing could be more offensive to the overly sensitive elites of the anti PC brigade than reminding them to take responsibility for their actions.

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