Watching What You Say

I once read a book composed of articles about “political correctness”. One contributor complained that PC meant always having to watch what he said. Another, I think it might have been Christopher Hitchens, retorted that this was actually a good thing, for watching what you say so as not to cause offence was simple consideration and good manners. This exchange indeed encapsulates the whole issue, for both men are quite right in their own terms. But it all depends on why one has to watch what one says.

Hitchens, if it was indeed he, seems to be opposing the “Let it all hang out” school of thought, which in his youth and mine maintained that in the name of “honesty” we were supposed to blurt out whatever entered our befuddled little heads. He is probably also thinking about the people who have some unpleasant attitudes and emotions that just spray out of them, to the distress of all civilised persons in the vicinity. It would be better if the unpleasant attitudes and emotions did not exist in the first place, of course, but that is not remotely achievable; the next-best thing is for racists and sexists and whatnot to watch what they say. That way, they can still stew in their own rancid juices, but at least unsuspecting passers-by are not obliged to taste the soup.

I do not, however, read the other participant as a defender of the “Fuck you, I can say anything I want” school. In the light of my own experience, what I think he meant is this: political correctness is a game that people play. Human beings compete by fighting, by making money, by being beautiful, or creating art. Some people also compete by cultivating arbitrary rules about what may and what may not be said. Since they themselves have made the rules, and can change them at any time, it is hardly surprising that they win the game. The rules are as follows: Able goes first, and says something; if Baker cannot fault it but Charlie can, then Charlie wins a lot of points, Baker loses some and Able loses even more. When this game was played in Stalinist countries, the loser won a free ticket to the labour camp.

If the canon of correctness is an actual written Party Line, the game is fairly simple; if the canon is unwritten, complex and fluid, the games become far more complex. The tyro then imagines that it is possible to make a remark that is “politically correct” – that is, innocent, unexceptionable, inoffensive. In this he is quite mistaken, because the skilful player knows that there is no such thing. This in turn is because the skilful player has made it her business to ensure that there is no such thing. Such a player is an expert in damning people both ways: for example, the mark thinks he can avoid being accused of oppression of a particular victim group, only to find himself reproached for “condescending” to them. After all, anyone can always be accused of condescension at any time; it is not as if anything in the way of evidence is required.

When dealing with the politically correct, therefore, you do always have to watch what you say, not because what you want to say is going to be offensive to any reasonable person, but because you are playing games with unreasonable people. Or rather, they are reasonable people with a quite different aim to yourself; you imagine that you are having a conversation, whereas they are inveigling you into a game of Find The Lady. The politically correct position is always going to be under one of the two walnuts you did not choose.

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