Political Correctness

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"Political Correctness" has become a catch-all bogeyman for commentators and observers of every day life in modern Britain. From bans on words or traditional activities to its alleged role in preventing justice being served it is seen by its detractors as an insidious attack on tradition, an attempt to rewrite history to suit modern narratives and - in some ways - a figleaf to cover more sinister agendas.

Exactly what political correctness is or comprises is, however, difficult to pin down. There is no central diktat that defines what is or what isn't 'correct' and its definition and boundaries are therefore set by an unusual nexus of ad-hoc decisions made by individual bodies and spluttering outrage from people who "know it when they see it." The "forces of PC" as they are commonly known are seen as un-British and threatening to traditional liberties to take and give offence, to take risks, speak freely and engage in bawdery.

Against this reading are those who argue that Britain's culture and language is replete with overt and covert symbols of power that serve to denigrate and control minority groups - from the disabled, to immigrants, different races, women and to people of a kaleidoscope of sexual identifications.

The polarity of these competing viewpoints is extreme and often bewildering, but effectively boils down to a clash of (small c) conservatism versus the modern progressive tendency. 

The cultural history of Britain is certainly replete with a certain colourful vulgarity - even in the works of some of its most revered icons. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Miller mistakenly kisses his wife's arse when she sticks it out of the window (her lover fares worse - receiving a red hot poker in his arse when trying to repeat the trick).

Shakespeare himself did not shy from the crudest of puns. Here is Malvolio, talking in Twelfth Night. Substitute the 'and' for the commonplace 'n' sound to get the full effect... 

"By my life, this is my lady's hand these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's."

In the vanguard of historical vulgarism were the great 18th century satirists - Gilray, Cruikshank and Hogarth - who between them used every visual metaphor to satirise the great and the good. Their influence arguably (and depending on your viewpoint) lives on in the scatological screeds of modern stand-up comedians or saucy seaside postcards - unafraid to stick two metaphorical two fingers up at the niceties and conventions of 'polite society.'

Mere vulgarity itself can be enjoyed by almost anyone, but what when the threads of vulgarity are knitted together and read as a unified body? Are "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman" jokes merely good-natured joshing between close cultural neighbours or actually reflective of a near-racist hegemony of the English over their Celtic brethren? Does it matter today that the "thick Mick" stereotype originated during England's colonial 

On such matters do the debates about political correctness hinge. Whether certain groups need protection from jokes... whether jokes are even actually funny... whether something is harmless fun or perpetuating and enabling harmful attitudes.

One thing is certain: In today's world, with its instantaneous communication of ideas a single comment - perhaps meant in jest or cast off in a stream of thought - can be picked up and be used to destroy a public persona in way that has no easy historical precedent. Is this a positive step towards a new, more agreeable public space or a revival of the Puritan strain under a new guise of an acceptable soft Leftism?

The jury remains out.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 4th December 2014 | © Weird Island 2010-2018
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