Minding their Language

Issue section: 

The attack on "political correctness" likes to masquerade as a defence of free speech. In reality it is an attempt to maintain elite privileges.

A few months ago I took part in a Question Time debate organised by the BBC at a school in Beckton, east London. That this school was in the top ten of a contest organised by the BBC was itself a remarkable achievement, since it was the only state school in the ten. Beckton is a poor area, whose population has benefited little from the regeneration of the Docklands area, and which stands to benefit little from the nearby Olympics.

All the students, many of whom were black or Asian, were excellent at putting challenging questions to the panel. However, I wasn't surprised to hear later that they had not won the contest. Public schools use all the advantages that the class system gives them to make it easier for privileged children to do well - and they encourage formal debates much more than the state sector.

I remembered that school recently when I debated at the Cambridge Union. I was one of those speaking against a motion which said, "This house believes that political correctness has gone too far." Unsurprisingly, we lost heavily.

The Cambridge Union is an elite debating society, modelled on the chamber of the House of Commons. The dress code is "black tie" (for men of course), and some of the women wear evening dresses. A working class student (of which there are few at Cambridge) would likely struggle to see the relevance of the event, let alone pay for the dress.

So the debate had an otherworldly quality. However, it wasn't so much the arguments of my opponents as their sense of being the underdog which really struck me. Novelist Lynette Burrows had been questioned by police after making allegedly homophobic remarks on the radio, while journalist Ann Atkins had a joke she wanted to make "censored" by the BBC. Well, whatever next?

It is claimed that "political correctness" is denying free speech. What this really means is that there are many people in positions of power who resent the very small steps taken towards greater equality over the past decades.

Small steps indeed. Women still take home 80 percent of male earnings, black and Asian people tend to have the worst education and employment prospects, and gays and lesbians are discriminated against. And let's remember people are still murdered for being women, gay, black or Asian.

That's before you even talk about the class inequalities which ensure that black and white workers - male and female - do the hardest and most difficult work with the least reward, even though it is their labour upon which society rests, and which enables groups as diverse as Cambridge undergraduates and BBC commentators to exist in their privileged bubbles.

Weapon of oppression

We should remember the way in which ruling elites supported apartheid South Africa (Young Conservatives ran a "Hang Nelson Mandela" campaign), white minority rule in Rhodesia, and segregation in the southern states of the US. Today few dare attack Mandela or Martin Luther King, but many people opposed the great movements for equality of the 1960s. Their political successors are now determined to fight a rearguard action to ensure that their privileges are protected.

So the argument isn't about free speech, or about whether there's a thought police stopping people from saying things that are "politically incorrect". It's about women, gays, black people and other ethnic minorities demanding not just the right to exist, but the right to be treated with equality and respect. It's about not using free speech as a cover for vile and inflammatory remarks and images, as was the case with the Danish cartoons controversy. It's about minding language which can be used as a weapon of oppression.

And it's about recognising that a world exists outside the rarefied world of the elite universities and the stockbroker belt, where the top 1 percent of earners are not an oppressed minority but the beneficiaries of an ever more unequal society.