Gary Oldman showed how far ‘anti-PC brigade’ sentiment has come
The view of political correctness as humourless language policing is so normalised, it can be used as a cover for bigoted language
• Hugh Muir: in defence of political correctness
theguardian.com, Thursday 26 June 2014 23.00 AEST
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‘Gary Oldman has since apologised but his outburst reveals just how far resistance to PC has gone.’ Photograph: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
“Our world has gone to hell,” declared Gary Oldman in a recent interview with Playboy magazine. These days people won’t take a simple joke about being a “nigger” or a “fucking Jew”, according to Oldman; it’s considered bad form to name women, especially those in positions of power, “fucking useless cunts”, and, when in a rage, you can’t even call gay men “faggots”. What or who can we blame for this awful state of affairs, Gary? Political correctness and the liberal dictatorship, of course.
Oldman has since apologised, but his outburst reveals just how far resistance to political correctness has gone. Whereas once condemning sexist and racist language and behaviour was a commendable endeavour, it is now a pejorative shorthand for oversensitivity and nonsense.
PC language is widely viewed as an encroachment on individual freedom. In this sense, the persistent rightwing offensive on the concept has won out. The argument goes that offensive language is so because those taking offence choose to; equality, therefore, is the right to demean and abuse minorities if the fancy takes you. Political correctness as humourless language policing is an idea so normalised that blatantly racist, sexist, ableist and homophobic slurs can be protected under the rubric of free speech. It has become banal and even tyrannical to try to argue for language and behaviour that respects women and minorities.
Last week MP Michael Fabricant joked about punching the commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. The following night on Channel 4 News, the journalist James Delingpole, referring to a woman well into her sixties as a girl, found it “astonishing” that Alibhai-Brown had turned a tweet that was “mildly unflattering” into “a threat”. Indeed, to view such comments as condoning violence against women was “beyond the pale”. The premise is the same: “political correctness has gone mad” and no one can say anything any more.
Yet these public gaffes continue to come along like buses after an age of queuing; there is the wait and then a sudden flurry of activity. Funny that, despite constant vigilance from the PC brigade, many in positions of wealth, power and influence continue to say whatever they damn well please.
What is needed is a rejection of the anodyne compromise that political correctness has become. Once it was about recognising that language has the power to construct reality, as do social structures. Believing in equality and the fundamental changes that are required to realise it means working on ourselves as individuals at the level of language, and the institutions that sustain our unequal society. Simply minding your words isn’t enough and when we say it is, we leave the values of the term open to lip service.
The right has consistently trounced political correctness but many adept rightwing politicians regularly use it to their advantage. Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage, at least in public, utilise the language of political correctness to appear measured and reasonable. Yet this does not mean that their politics are progressive.
Moments where the veneer of tolerance and respect are unmasked should be viewed as useful instances for reflection. They mark the points at which we can openly discuss how far we have yet to go. What often happens is an eye-rolling harrumph about the PC police. Recalcitrant resistance to what it is really about – a wish to root civility and fairness in society – will only continue to sound as worn-out as Oldman’s rehashed antisemitic stereotypes.
The tide is turning; greater equality is not a sufferance but a human right. Quite why this should leave so many seething and feeling victimised is a conundrum.
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