Does ‘Right-wing political correctness’ exist?

From Telegraph blogs, March 19, 2013

Is British public life being suffocated by Right-wing political correctness? Laurie Penny of the New Statesman wrote an interesting piece last week in which she argued that “the left has no monopoly on political correctness”, and warns: “A chill wind of cultural conservatism is blowing across Britain and censorship is at its heart”.

A fence of taboos is being constructed around those in this society who least deserve our deference and that fence is alive with the electricity of public outrage. The royal family, the aristocracy and members of the political establishment skulk behind a perimeter of privilege where they don’t have to answer any difficult questions.

The term “political correctness” is commonly used to reframe racist or reactionary ideas as somehow rebellious. It is used to silence the anger of people who complain about injustice and hate speech by recasting them as bloodless censors. When I’m accused of political correctness, it’s almost always by somebody who is frantically hanging on to their deep-seated prejudices about people who look, live or sound slightly different to them.

Possibly. But “political correctness” is also one of the most misunderstood concepts of recent times; in the popular mind people associate it with euphemisms about race, sexuality, disability or any other perceived disadvantage, and as a consequence they began to see being “politically incorrect” as the same as rudeness.

By that definition, comedians who make outrageous jokes about the disabled or women are being “un-PC”: but actually, they’re just being rude or tasteless, which is a different thing altogether. John O’Farrell was not told off because of “Right-wing political correctness” but because of taste; whatever the context, making a joke about murdering elected politicians is tasteless. The same goes for ribald jokes about the Queen who is, after all, an 86-year-old great-grandmother as well as being the head of state.

Political correctness is about suppressing bad opinions, not bad taste. One of the best explanations of the phenomenon can be found in chapter 6 of Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism, where he explained how PC had its origins in the moralistic atmosphere of American academia stretching right back to the 19th century:

Political correctness is not a new phenomenon in American academe. As all histories attest, private higher education largely began in church-affiliated schools. Most of these insisted that their faculty be denominationally correct, by members of the church which paid for the institution. Faculty who deviated from religious doctrine could be forced out. When particular institutions changed, and became less orthodox, the churches’ right wings set up new schools. Yale came into existence to counterbalance Harvard, which had moved towards Unitarianism. Abolitionists lost jobs in southern schools, and sometimes in northern ones as well.

After the Second World War, however, this moralistic mindset became far more radical, and heavily influenced by Soviet politics, the Soviet Union having won a great moral victory in the war (how, exactly, you might wonder?) in the eyes of American intellectuals. One of the major characteristics of that politics was the exclusion of bad-thinkers. As Lipset wrote: “This moralistic stance led them to try to prevent supporters of the [Vietnam] war from speaking on campuses, to end all forms of collaboration by universities with the warmaking government, and to politicize discipline organisations like the Modern Language Association and the American Sociological Association.”

He noted that in the 1950s, at the height of the McCarthyite “terror”, conservatives were still more likely to be ostracised on American campuses than Trotskyites. And in the 1960s “a broad coteries of anti-establishment causes was added to the movement” and “they led to the politicisation of many academic organisations, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. Election to offices that had previously been perceived as honours to be given for contributions to scholarship, much like prizes, became vigorously contested elections, with the left winning out in a number of associations. Major scholars were defeated because of their alleged conservatism.”

And although America became less radical in the 1970s and 1980s academia became more so, especially when the students of 1968 returned as professors, and this political correctness, as it became known, fanned out into the wider culture of media and politics of the late 1980s and 1990s. It has, if anything, got worse since.

Political correctness comes from a moralistic, sectarian tradition of American religious thinking applied to the Left-wing battles of the 20th century. The aim is not to pressure its opponents into being polite, but to stop them expressing their ideas.

It doesn’t matter what a Left-wing journalist or academic says, what violent language they employ or what murderous regime they defend, he or she will not get her barred from the BBC, banned from speaking on campus, sacked from her job. In contrast many academics have been intimidated, attacked, made unemployed or harassed just for expressing opinions that offended the orthodoxy – Richard Herrnstein, E O Wilson, Lawrence Summers, James Watson, to name just a few – to such an extent that American campuses have become less free-thinking than society as a whole. And these are institutions that have a huge impact on British as well as American life.

John O’Farrell was criticised for a tasteless joke he made a while back, but nothing’s going to happen to him. He won’t lose his Guardian work; he won’t be forced out of the school where he’s a governor; he wouldn’t be barred by his local union from joining a protest, or (if he wanted) adopting children; he’ll still appear on those hilarious Radio 4 comedy shows where they make jokes about the Daily Mail. No one is demanding that he’s shunted out of life – rightly so, I should add. But it’s maybe because so many of us think that way that the Right always loses.

As one of the characters from Ride With The Devil explains of why the Yankees will win the Civil War: “Because they believe everyone should live and think just like them. And we shall lose because we don’t care one way or another how they live.”

What do you think?