The propaganda function of political correctness
Political correctness (PC) arises often in the media and in ordinary discourse. It has permeated the public consciousness and can provoke the most heated reactions from people. Quite often, we hear that it has “gone mad,” or that it is diluting / destroying culture and traditions in order to avoid offence.
I have written on this subject several times myself. However, this has always been in order to challenge a specific idea or story on the subject. Here, I would like to explore the subject of political correctness itself in depth.
My intention is to show that PC, as described by its opponents, does not exist. It is a myth conjured up by the reactionary right. But more importantly, I wish to show that the imaginary malaise of “PC gone mad” is actually just another form of right-wing flak, serving a very specific propaganda function.
A definition of political correctness
The first question that we need to be asking ourselves is what, precisely, political correctness is. Most of the people who invoke PC have no exact idea of what it is, only a vague sense that it is something they should oppose and be outraged by.
If we are to offer an in-depth analysis of the subject, then our understanding needs to be more specific. In addressing the issue, I shall have in mind two set definitions of PC, both of which come from those who believe it exists and who oppose it.
The first definition comes from The Campaign Against Political Correctness;
Political correctness is where people change their words or behaviour to try to avoid causing offence but usually do not consult the people they are trying not to offend before taking this action which often leads to offence and upset in itself.
It leads people to sometimes say or do things which they know to be untrue or unnecessary, or not say or do things which they know to be true or necessary, as they are too afraid or embarrassed to be honest or commonsensical.[sic]
Political correctness tries to make up for past perceived inequalities by replacing meritocracy and equality of opportunity with equality of outcome through discrimination against people with the same physical qualities as those perceived to have been beneficiaries of other systems in the past.
Political correctness encourages offence to be taken where none is intended, encourages the re-writing and re-thinking of history along with the abandonment of pride in country, is a serious threat to free speech and, despite being portrayed to be in the name of tolerance, is completely intolerant of anyone who does not act in a politically correct fashion.
The second, from the website Political Correctness – The Awful Truth;
For the practical purposes of this site, the term political correctness includes:
1) Doing the reverse of what common sense would suggest
2) Inconveniencing the innocent while making life easier for the wrong do-er
3) Not telling the truth in case it offends
4) Changing the language where you perceive it may offend
5) Doing exactly the opposite of what you preach
6) What you do has the effect of making the problem you were trying to cure far worse
7) Doing ridiculous things just for a political reason
8) Favouring a minority just for a political reason
For the moment, we shall leave aside criticisms of the definitions themselves, particularly the inherent ideological bias that they embody. We shall also bypass the extremely ironic outrage felt towards intolerance of the intolerant.
What we have before us is a working definition of PC as a doctrine which uses enforced and self-censorship as a means to promote social cohesion and ward off bigotry against minority groups. It is a threat to traditional values, law and order, and common sense, and offers an institutionalised persecution of minorities.
Again, there are many things we can be critical of in these definitions, not least the excessive use of hyperbole and intangible constructs. However, in using definitions offered by those I am arguing against, at least I cannot be accused of scoring points against a strawman.
Is it really a lie?
In past articles, I have dissected specific examples of “PC gone mad” and shown them up as lies, distortions, and misinformation.
For example, in 1997 and 1998, Birmingham City Council ran a promotion to draw business into the newly regenerated city centre. It ran from November to January, and in December “there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.” However, it was called Winterval, and from it grew the annual media charade condemning a non-existent “War on Christmas.”
And, as I wrote recently, this is one of the more credible stories surrounding political correctness at Christmas;
Late last month, the Daily Mail reported that “David Cameron was facing a backlash from his own party after it emerged the Conservative official cards have the message ‘Season’s Greetings’.” This after “he derided politically-correct Christmas cards which do not mention the word Christmas as ‘insulting tosh’” two years ago. Thus, the paper is given occasion (not that it needs an excuse) to throw out clichés about “pandering to the extremists of the PC brigade” and “white middle-class Guardian-reading left-wing do-gooders with a misguided guilt complex and too much time on their hands.” That the “controversial” cards actually contain a greeting which originated with the Victorians and attained its modern form in 1920 goes unmentioned.
That same day, the Daily Express told us with considerable indignation that “Britain’s biggest Christmas cracker factory has ditched dozens of risque gags in favour of more politically-correct alternatives.” Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never come across anything other than tame, cheesy, and utterly godawful cracker jokes. I’ve certainly never had the pleasure of those “about mother-in-laws, transvestites and animal cruelty,” which we’re to believe have been replaced by “a new selection guaranteed not to offend.”
John Midgely, of the rent-a-quote organ Campaign Against Political Correctness asks us “shouldn’t Christmas be the one time people can be free from PC in their own home?” One might be tempted to answer that we would be, if people like Midgely and the Express would stop rehashing old nonsense as an excuse to moan.
But Christmas is far from the only time when rumors of political correctness gone mad invoke fact-free hysteria.
In March 2006, a pre-school in Oxfordshire had children sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” with “a wide range” of descriptive words replacing “black” because it “encourages the children to extend their vocabulary.” However, it is now common to hear that the song “has again fallen victim to the drive for political correctness,” and represents “a new Stalinist approach to good manners and respect.”
In October 2006, British Airways check-in worker Nadia Eweida was suspended without pay for a breach of company uniform regulations. The airline’s uniform code states that staff must not wear visible jewellery or other ‘adornments’ while on duty without permission from management. The woman’s rant on the subject pretty much sums up the editorial line of the tabloids;
I will not hide my belief in the Lord Jesus. British Airways permits Muslims to wear a headscarf, Sikhs to wear a turban and other faiths religious apparel.
Only Christians are forbidden to express their faith. I am a loyal and conscientious employee of British Airways, but I stand up for the rights of all citizens.
That she could still wear it, as long as it wasn’t on display, and that she could display the crucifix itself if in brooch form, is passed over by a woman whose true goal was demanding religious privilege. But the fact is that British Airways is in a majority amongst employers for the fact that “uniform standards stipulate that adornments of any kind are not to be worn with the uniform.” At work here we see not the “forces of political correctness,” but the same reasoning behind the fact that all those in customer service positions who wear ties wear clip-on ones: health and safety. A turban or a headscarf cannot be used by an irate customer to strangle you. A crucifix the size of a 5p on a gold chain can.
Further examples abound. In some cases, there may be individual incidences whereby well-meaning but out-of-touch liberal officials have displayed genuinely PC sensibilities. These are immediately presented as representing nation-wide policy or as being part of a deliberate and concerted campaign. In other cases, acts undertaken with no PC intent whatsoever are taken the wrong way, perhaps by a lone individual. The press, with the help of the spokespeople of rent-a-quote organisations which seem to exist solely for this purpose, soon spin it out of proportion in terms of both scale and intent.
PC and the propaganda model
But why this obsession with political correctness, if it is only a myth?
In American politics, PC rears its head as part of the “culture wars,” supposedly the struggle of conservatism and traditional values against liberalism and progressive values. To quote ultra conservative Pat Buchanan;
Who is in your face here? Who started this? Who is on the offensive? Who is pushing the envelope? The answer is obvious. A radical Left aided by a cultural elite that detests Christianity and finds Christian moral tenets reactionary and repressive is hell-bent on pushing its amoral values and imposing its ideology on our nation.
The unwisdom of what the Hollywood and the Left are about should be transparent to all.
For Buchanan and his co-thinkers, all that is wrong with America stems from “Hollywood and the Left.” “Middle America” is under attack by those who “no longer inhabit the same moral universe.” Lacking “the majority to prevail in a legislative process,” those whose “agenda is despised” have “succeeded by persuading judges, whom voters cannot remove, to impose its agenda by dictat[sic].”
Such sentiments will be familiar to anybody who has read the diatribes of the Daily Mail or the far-right British National Party on political correctness and “the liberal multicultural agenda.” But such sentiments, though perhaps genuine from those who espouse them, serve a distinct propaganda purpose.
Previously, I have explained how fascism feeds into the corporate propaganda model, as a form of “flak” to drive the agenda rightward. Issues of political correctness and culture wars serve a similar purpose.
As Noam Chomsky explains;
Educated and privileged sectors, reasoning along Ricardo’s lines, see little problem in the fact that policies are executed in “technocratic insulation,” unimpeded by public interests and concerns. But the population has to be controlled somehow. For obvious reasons, one cannot appeal to them on grounds of the intended effects of the policies that are being implemented. So other methods are required. There are standard devices. Many can simply be locked up or confined to urban slums. Others can be entrapped by artificial “creation of wants” or other forms of diversion. They can be left in confusion and despair by corporate and other propaganda, a huge industry in the United States for many years. Or they can be mobilized in fear and hatred – of foreigners, of one another – or by religious fundamentalist appeals.
To mobilize popular forces, the corporate world has been compelled to resort to what are called “cultural issues.” But its troops are now prepared to fight the “culture war,” as Pat Buchanan and others refer to the various forms of fanaticism they are seeking to engender. That process has opened a “culture gap,” … The CEOs are generally liberal in cultural attitudes. They don’t want their children to be forced to pray in schools or taught “creation science.” They want their daughters to have opportunities. They not only tend to be pro-choice, but about 60% of CEOs are “adamantly pro-choice, agreeing with the statement that `a woman should be able to get an abortion if she wants one, no matter what the reason’.” They do not want to live in a society and culture dominated by Christian fundamentalists, people who worship the Enola Gay or run around with assault rifles, or who debate subtle points about Beast 666 from the Book of Revelations and listen to Pat Robertson explaining how Presidents from Wilson to Bush may have been pawns of “a tightly knit cabal” run by Freemasons and “European bankers,” who seek “a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer.” But these are the sectors they are forced to turn to as a popular base for their assault on democracy and human rights.
What we can do about it
The important question, then, is how to challenge this conception. The idea that our society and culture is under threat from political correctness has so permeated public consciousness that it seems impossible to counter it. No matter how many times the myths are debunked, they persist.
Part of the reason for this is that they are continually rehashed by the media, but the internet also has its part to play. The “culture wars” have gone viral, with diatribes such as this [quoted verbatim] reappearing endlessly on internet forums and in chain emails;
“I think this really sums it all up.”
After hearing that many cities did not want to offend other cultures by putting up Christmas lights, so DIDN’T!
After hearing that the Birmingham council changed its opinion and let a Muslim woman have her picture on her driver’s licence with her face covered.
After hearing of a Primary School in Birmingham where a boy was told that for PE they could wear Football League shirts (Aston Villa, Birmingham, West Brom etc) but NOT an England shirt as it could offend others!
This prompted the editorial below written by a UK citizen.
Published in a British tabloid newspaper.
IMMIGRANTS. NOT BRITONS, MUST ADAPT
Take It Or Leave It. I am tired of this nation worrying about whether we are offending some individual or their culture. Since the terrorist attacks on London, we have experienced a surge in patriotism by the majority of Brits.
However, the dust from the attacks has barely settled and the ’politically correct’ crowd begin complaining about the possibility that our patriotism is offending others.
I am not against immigration, nor do I hold a grudge against anyone who is seeking a better life by coming to Britain . However, there are a few things that those who have recently come to our country, and apparently some born here, need to understand.
This idea of England being a multicultural centre for community has served only to dilute our sovereignty and our national identity. As Britons, we have our own culture, our own society, our own language and our own lifestyle. This culture has been developed over centuries of wars, struggles, trials and victories fought by the untold masses of men and women who laid down their lives and of the millions of men and women who have sought freedom.
We speak ENGLISH, not Spanish, Lebanese, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, or any other language. Therefore, if you wish to become part of our society, learn the language!
If God offends you, then I suggest you consider another part of the world as your new home, because God is part of our culture… If St.George’s cross offends you, then you should seriously consider a move to another part of this planet.
We are happy with our culture and have no desire to change, and we really don’t care how you did things where you came from. This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this.
But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our National Motto, or Our Way of Life, I encourage you take advantage of one other great British freedom, ’THE RIGHT TO LEAVE’.
We didn’t force you to come here. If you don’t like it GO HOME!!
You asked to be here.. So accept the country that accepted YOU. Pretty easy really, when you think about it..
If we all keep passing this to our friends (and enemies) it will also, sooner or later get back to the complainers, let’s all try, please.
No matter how many times you receive it… please forward it to all you know.
That the examples cited are all part of the mythology previously debunked should go without saying. Further, the “article” itself derives from an editorial written by a US Air Force veteran, adapted to fit the English version of PC. It was not “written by a UK citizen” and has no correlation whatsoever to events in Britain.
And still it persists.
As with all such urban legends, it is likely to survive indefinitely in one form or another. Ultimately, the only thing that people can do is challenge them when they arise and do our best to educate people.
But at the same time, if we are to successfully draw people away from the nonsense of the culture wars, then a more concerted effort has to be made to engage and organise people on real issues. The ideology of the ruling class is power and profit, and dissent threatens that. That’s why they mobilise it in reactionary, controllable ways. It doesn’t harm their interests to have people rally against political correctness, or an imaginary “left-wing bias,” because those things don’t really exist. As long as we’re dissenting against the irrelevant, that’s fine. We’re controllable. But when we dissent against their hegemony of power, we’re a threat.
The only way to truly decimate the myth of PC is to revive that threat.