Thursday, November 29, 2012

The crisis of political correctness

Courier article - written before the UKIP fostering fiasco in Rotherham, which is a remarkably timely demonstration of what I'm talking about.

In his seminal work on the philosophy of science, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn describes what happens when one way of viewing the world gives way to another. Essentially, any way of viewing the world – what Kuhn calls a 'paradigm' – is always going to be incomplete. Slowly, over time, that incompleteness gives rise to 'anomalies', that is, there are things which are seen which cannot be explained in terms of the existing paradigm. So, for example, the Ptolemaic paradigm for understanding the movement of the planets (which had the earth at the centre) slowly gave way to the Copernican paradigm (which had the sun at the centre) because the former had to start making exception after exception in order to account for what was actually being observed. In other words, the old ways of thinking, the old paradigms, break down when they can no longer account for the piling up of new evidence – there are too many anomalies, things which don't fit. What is most interesting about Kuhn's account is the way in which he describes the resistance that takes place to the transition to a new paradigm. According to Kuhn the consensus of opinion changes, not because the majority are convinced by reasoning and evidence (which is the mythology of scientific progress) but rather that those coming into the field for the first time, without preconceptions, find a new paradigm to be more intellectually interesting, and those committed to the old paradigm simply and literally die out.

I find this understanding of intellectual change quite persuasive, and I believe that it applies to other fields just as naturally as science. A paradigm, a way of looking at the world, gets taken up and used for a long period of time because it seems to work. However, when the anomalies – those things that can't be explained within the paradigm – accumulate too far, then there is a revolution of understanding. The old guard is never persuaded, they are simply left behind as new thinkers develop more fruitful lines of enquiry. I believe that just such a process is now taking place with regard to 'political correctness', or, put differently, the established left-wing pieties are now being pitilessly exposed as inadequate to address the major problems that we face. As a result political correctness is in crisis.

To explore this further, I want to look at the BBC and some recent stories that they have been involved in. I want to look particularly at the BBC, not because I don't support it – I very much do – but because I see it, along with the Guardian newspaper (which I read daily) as the repository of this particular pattern of thought. So what are the recent stories?

The first is the Jimmy Saville scandal. One particularly telling detail about this was the way that the organiser of the Children in Need event had barred Saville from having any involvement with it. Why did this not set off any alarm bells? It would appear – and obviously a proper understanding needs to await the results of the relevant inquiries – but it would appear that there was a culture of 'protect the celebrity' in place at the BBC. Where there is no understanding of virtue, celebrity is the plastic substitute for character, and this blindness to the importance of classical values leads directly to such horrors.

In contrast to the protecting of celebrities there remains, on the other hand, a culture of 'hate the Tories' in place. There are plentiful examples of this stretching back over a long period of time, but the attitude has been brought into particular salience through the catastrophic Newsnight programme which led to the calumnies against Lord McAlpine. The default assumption amongst the politically correct is that to be right-wing is to be uncaring. Anyone remember the vilification of Margaret Thatcher after she made the comment 'there is no such thing as society?' Studying her remarks now, it is clear that she was making an important point – yet the coverage at that time simply assumed that as a Tory she was by definition heartless, and that this was the point that she was making. So alongside the blindness to classical virtues runs a self-righteous smugness and sense of moral superiority.

What do we actually need from the BBC? Something like a fair and balanced coverage of the issues that confront our society, and, perhaps, some indication of how to treat with them in order to make progress – to reform the bad and affirm the good. Some of you may have heard about the appalling situation in Rochdale where young girls were groomed and sexually attacked by groups of Muslim men – but of course, to use the word 'Muslim' in this context is to breach a taboo. For some reason the racial epithet 'Asian' is preferred, despite being so broad as to be meaningless (and also profoundly racist). Now, of course, it is not the case that being Muslim of itself means that a man is more likely to perpetrate such barbaric acts, but it is the case that there is a toxic fragment of 'Muslim' culture that fosters an attitude of treating white women as disposable trash. We are not going to be able to deal with such a situation unless we are able to speak honestly and openly about it. (I should add, for clarity, that the vast majority of similar grooming and sexual attacks is carried out by nominally Christian white males – that doesn't alter the point that I am making here). Alongside the blindness to classical virtues, and the self-righteous smugness, there is such a fear of being accused of racism or Islamophobia that mealy-mouthed equivocations and circumlocutions have to be employed to dance around the shocking truth.

Finally I want to touch on the coverage that the BBC is providing with regard to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians – a conflict which is likely to become larger in due course. That the BBC is anti-Israel is something of a truism, yet it is in such coverage that the contradictions of political correctness seem to me to come into very visible focus. The organisation Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel – it is a part of their founding charter – and if they succeed in their aims then the one place in the entire Middle East where a gay man, or a woman, or a Christian or Hindu can live in peace will be destroyed. Somehow, the need to support the apparent underdog against Israel trumps all the other elements of political correctness.

There is, I believe, an escalating disconnect between the claims being made by the adherents of political correctness, who pay lip service to issues of justice and equality, and the actual working out of their behaviour in practice. If we are truly committed to, for example, the rights of girls to be educated, to marry a partner of their own choosing, to work out their own path in life – then that also means at the very same time that the construction of sharia law in the United Kingdom is something that needs to be struggled against. It is not possible to be in favour of both – to support the rights of women, or gays, or religious minorities and at the same time to offer equal respect to an ideology that opposes such things.

I believe that the adherents of left-wing orthodoxy, political correctness, are being put to the test. What is it that they actually believe in? Put differently, I believe that what we are seeing is the working out of a contradiction that has always been at the heart of the secular enlightenment. The best of the enlightenment is, both as a matter of historical fact and philosophical necessity, bound up with the religious faith in which it originally formed. That is, a properly tolerant, rational and humane society can only exist on the basis of the religious and specifically Christian commitments which offer such things as their fruit. Where those religious commitments are discarded, the branches bearing fruit are cut off from the trunk and the roots – and so they die. There is a contradiction – an anomaly – between an enlightenment which accepts and rejoices in a full humanity open to all and an enlightenment which simply genuflects before the conventional left-wing pieties and is only concerned to be in with the crowd of 'right on' celebrities. If we believe in the former then we must, of necessity, reject the latter. It is not possible to straddle this fence – and that is the crisis for political correctness.


  1. I've become increasingly annoyed at the left, particularly those working from a postmodern/critical-theory paradigm which treats everything they dislike as socially constructed and therefore can be changed if only people get with the program.

    At it's core is an equivocation between equality and hierarchies. The postmodern left creates a hierarchy based upon the concept of privilege where the under-privileged are given additional privileges. Muslims in the west are currently considered an under-privileged minority. Therefore the privileged, ie you, are not allowed to criticize this group. They on the other hand are allowed, even expected, to be angry and obnoxious because they are being oppressed. This we are told is equality.

    I tried [here] to define political correctness. I wrote it about five years ago so there's some I would retract but I'd stand by the majority.

    The best of the enlightenment is, both as a matter of historical fact and philosophical necessity, bound up with the religious faith in which it originally formed. That is, a properly tolerant, rational and humane society can only exist on the basis of the religious and specifically Christian commitments which offer such things as their fruit.

    The best of the enlightenment was a rejection of religious and political authority which was brewing for some time. But the subsequent romantic counter-enlightenment period is far more important to our landscape today and is not given enough recognition.

  2. I see that right at the end of your post you equate "political correctness" with "left-wing orthodosy". But why?

    Didn't Maggie Thatcher impose her own version of political correctness -- views of society (evfen if she thought it didn't exist) and the way things are supposed to be that she wanted to be regarded as axiomatic and not to be questioned, especially by the "Tory wets" whom she regarded as politically incorrect?

  3. I was with you till the bit about shariah law, which made me cringe in the same way uninformed criticism of the Qur'an does. The primary purpose of Islamic law is not to oppress women, however much its current and historical social contexts might applaud that aim. The Orthodox and Catholic Churches (and the C of E) could be and are accused of the same purpose by people who don't understand their history and beliefs and who don't want to learn because they think they already do understand and can comfortably dismiss them.

    Also, from your first paragraph, the people coming to look at the issues for the first time are definitely not without preconceptions, because they are people. Their preconceptions may be different from and more acceptable to us than the previous generations' but that doesn't mean they don't exist.


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