Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer go head-to-head in this month's duelby Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Simon Heffer / October 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
YES: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
“Political correctness” (PC) arouses much sound and fury. Believers, agnostics and detractors disagree about what the term means, its mission and its place in a liberal democracy. PC unsettles traditionalists and unnerves the powerful who have wilfully distorted facts, made fake claims, and maligned those of us who believe language can be used as a weapon, that cultures are not static but dynamic, and, most importantly, there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech.
Everyone has lines that can’t be crossed. Even JS Mill, the high priest of free expression, was careful to register constraints in certain contexts—it was not, for example, acceptable to denounce a corn dealer to a mob that had gathered outside his house, and was ready to explode. There are always degrees of permissiveness, with cultural as well as legal limits that are so familiar we barely notice them. Claims about the inviolability of free expression are humbug.
Think of the long and ongoing emotional confrontation between many British Jews and the Labour Party. For a long time, Corbyn refused to accept the examples accompanying the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. That led to accusations of anti-Semitism, internal discord and widespread excoriation. Last year, the hard-right demagogue Katie Hopkins lost her job on LBC because she called for a “final solution” after the Manchester bomb attack, words that evoked the Holocaust. I didn’t notice any outcry about free speech over either of these episodes. Both involved words, not acts.
With online communication becoming wilder and more vicious, millions now understand how words hurt and disable humans. Those of us who are “politically correct” seek to ensure the public space is fair, caring, civil, yes safe, for all those who share it. How is that mad, bad and dangerous?
NO: Simon Heffer
It is true that there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. If I call a man a child molester, or a rapist, or a mass murderer, and he isn’t, then I can be prosecuted under the law of slander or, if I have put the allegation in writing, libel. But there is also, or should be, a code of good manners and reason, and it used to pertain in our society. Men who made remarks about women that were lacking in gallantry were viewed as low and ungentlemanly. Anyone who mocked the afflicted, be it the disabled or the mentally ill, was regarded as cruel or unkind. Those who insulted people because of their class were dismissed as snobs; those who did so because of their race were regarded as ignorant or prejudiced. We did not need an idea of political correctness to exact these social sanctions on people. We did it because we thought ill of people who spoke with such baseness or cruelty, which was how most reasonable and decent people were brought up.
Political correctness and its bastard cousin, virtue signalling, have changed all that. Someone who made an off-colour remark in the era before PC would simply not be treated seriously or with respect. Now, in a supreme act of vulgarity, he or she is denounced, because the denouncer feels that he or she obtains social and intellectual cachet by doing so. Few people in public life, or on its fringes, today feel such joy as when they can jump up and point the finger at someone who has been (in their view) racist, sexist, homophobic or in some other way cruel. But their denunciation is about them, and the pride they can take in it, rather than about condemning an act or a turn of phrase that, by its very utterance, condemns itself.
People should be allowed to say what they like, and use what language they like, within the law: many of the rights we enjoy today, such as universal adult suffrage, were obtained by people saying things that were at the time unacceptable. We cannot all be protected from offence, and in a free society people must be entitled to their opinions, however much others might disagree with them. But in a civilised society those who give offence should expect not to be denounced in the manner of the old Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, but simply to be placed at a bargepole’s length, and ignored.
YES: How I wish I could be you, looking at the world through your specs. Then I too would find PC impertinent, attention seeking, spurious and unsavoury. You say a code of good manners and reason pertained in our society before pesky PC ruined all that. Only a white gentleman would think that—and you are one of the most courteous and reasonable of gentlemen. However, you do not allow yourself to enter the worlds of those who have never found this country fair, just, kind, and open. Millions of us—women, minorities, the poor, gay people, the disabled—have striven hard and may even have achieved much, but would tell you how cruel and unaccepting life can be in this green and pleasant land. Years ago we were on Start the Week, you to discuss your tome on Enoch Powell, me to talk about my book on changing Britain. I asked if you had interviewed black Britons about Powell’s speech. You hadn’t. That sort of illustrates the point I am making.
You say legal sanctions control untrammelled free speech. Do you ever check out the verbal savagery that has been normalised online? Real life too is becoming intolerable. I get spat at on a bus; many of us are told to fuck off, go back where we came from, my female university students get lewd comments on buses and trains. No law can stop such microaggressions—a word you must surely detest. Such abuse leaves no marks. It leaves us feeling uneasy, dislocated. In my book defending political correctness, the first sentence is this, by Coriolanus: “When blows have made me stay, I have flown from words.”
PC did not incite social discord, it refused the status quo. Prelapsarians and the powerful fear that revolutionary spirit. I completely understand why.
NO: I’m not sure any of the four adjectives you apply quite explains why I dislike PC. It is the aspect to it that seeks to limit freedom of speech, seeks to standardise opinion, and results in the sort of mob rule you describe as happening on social media, as people queue up to signal their supposed virtue by attacking a perceived transgressor, that I find so distressing. Perhaps we should have a further discussion about the need to stop using Twitter, which seems to exist principally for the unsound of mind and can have no place in civilised or intelligent discourse. I deplore the acts of offensiveness to which you have been subjected; such things have been known to happen to white gentlemen too, and they relate back to the imperfect-ability of the human condition. But when Germaine Greer expresses her view about the difference between those born women and those who have decided to identify as one, is that on the same level of vileness, and does it deserve the same condemnation? Of course not. I am far from sure that the unfairness and unkindness of the world have been ameliorated by PC: they will only be solved by better education and a society that regards opportunity as something that is not restricted according to age, class, gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. We have made enormous progress towards that in your and my lifetime, and it is not because of political correctness, but because of a fundamental sense of the need for a just society. Men make lewd remarks towards women, or spit on people, because they are uncouth and ignorant. We need to rescue those who share such afflictions: which is down not just to better education, but to an ideal of better parenting. And—by the way—I didn’t interview any black people about Enoch’s views on immigration because I had plenty of written evidence of how offensive some of them, and many white people, had found it; I wasn’t writing a work of reportage, but one of historical biography.
YES: I agree that better education and parenting make a good, civil society. But I fear you underestimate the level of “educated” xenophobia and sexism. Perhaps you missed that moment when a Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant tweeted that he wanted to punch me “in the throat.” Or when the Labour MP Owen Smith promised to “smash [Theresa May] back on her heels.” Such comments by the influential middle classes are more common than you care to admit. And they are not acceptable. Especially not in a civilised nation.
Secondly, yes, trolls are verbal extremists, but their brutishness has now moved to real public discourse and exchanges. This is why students want to create safe spaces. Greer stirs things up—her latest book on rape is an example. She can write what she wants. But not everyone is obliged to listen to her or debate with her. Free speech is not a free pass to cause offence and hurt.
Finally, the progress we have made on equality and human rights came after tough struggles. Those continue. Political correctness existed before the term did. When James Baldwin and Martin Luther King demanded equality and dignity, that was PC. When feminists and people of colour asked for their histories and stories to be included in national narratives and educational curricular, that was PC. When immigrants in the UK objected to demeaning words and programmes such as Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour, that was PC. Gain came after much pain. Traditionalists always fought against progressive changes. Until they couldn’t.
Earlier this year, responding to yet another offensive Boris Johnson column, Theresa May said: “I do think that we all have to be very careful about the language and terms we use.” The PM turned PC. Join us, Simon. We, who want Britain to be fairer and less nasty, could do with a polite, white gent. Or two.
NO: I think your use of the adjective “educated” is flattering to those to whom you apply it. No truly educated person would behave in the way you describe, because he or she would be educated to the point where he or she would feel ashamed at having done so. You neglect to mention the disgusting remark by George Osborne about chopping up May and putting her in the freezer, which is in the same category: people who make such remarks should be shunned and despised, not made subject to systematic regulation by some sort of thought police.
We are dealing with uneducated, badly-brought up people whom we should simply ignore or, if their behaviour becomes genuinely threatening, report to the police. We all have to accept—even middle-aged white men such as me—that we live in danger of being offended and of having our feelings hurt. Free speech is a free pass to cause offence and hurt, but it is not a free pass for such offence and hurt to be ignored. Foul ideas are best buried by having them debated in the open, and knocked down. Who now would be taken seriously for saying women are inferior to men, or black people less intelligent than white ones? Look at the obloquy that is now, quite rightly, being poured on Labour for the anti-Semitic expressions by some of its members. Johnson has been near-universally derided for his remarks about burqas and suicide bombers. He had every right to make them; he took his chances in doing so; the court of public opinion has decided against him. He proves my point: that we are a mostly civilised society and we spontaneously regulate ourselves. We know what is unacceptable and ignorant and we treat those who behave badly accordingly. That is a strength of our way of life, and not one of its weaknesses.