Free speech is never really free—it's all about who's got powerby Afua Hirsch / February 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Political correctness has gone mad, but not in the way that you think.
Our language has finally cast out most of its demons, and words that once promoted hate towards minority groups have—rightly—been relegated from everyday discourse. The ancient lexicon of hate speech—which, as Simon Lancaster explains in our March issue, has so often gone hand-in-hand with physical violence—is today heard less often.
Travellers and transgender people have finally earned the right to hear others describe them in the same way that they describe themselves. Even language that isn’t obviously nasty has been tidied up. “Housewives” are no more: they have become stay-at-home mothers. The revolution might seem complete.
But listen a little more closely, and you will find that among those fluent in the new more polite language are those for whom the traditional spirit of hate is alive and well. Across the UK, Europe and America, mainstream pundits, instead of labelling others “savages,” as they might have a hundred years ago, now speak of protecting “our civilisation.” They “defend secular culture from the threat of immigration,” whereas their counterparts 40 years ago would have warned of having a “nigger for a neighbour.”
Outrage is a currency
This is the real political correctness gone mad: sanitised language being used to dress up vicious attitudes. Newly-polite preachers of hate are, they claim, interested in putting newcomers in their place not because they enjoy it, but in order to protect native workers from globalisation. The co-option of progressive language for exclusionary and reactionary ends has duped and confused us, leading many to conclude that the politics in western democracies is no longer about policy, only culture.
Whereas policy differences can be debated with facts, culture wars are fought by volume. Outrage has, in the UK as elsewhere, become as real a currency as Bitcoin. Right-wing media moguls invest in it, and reap the rewards—cultural anger harnessed as a tool to persuade voters to operate against their own economic interests.