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Just what does it mean to be politically correct?

Brannavan Gnanalingam



I often turn on Newstalk ZB during the middle of the night to try and test my tolerance. If I can handle some of the idiots who ring up at that time, I can handle anyone, I reckon. A phrase that keeps on popping up in a number of the mindless and not-so mindless ramblings is political correctness. Tractors not being able to ride on beaches in a parade without a warning light: political correctness. No Transmission Gully: political correctness. Smoking ban: political correctness. The Muslim cartoons: political correctness. Treating prisoners like humans: political correctness. Renowned author Philip Atkinson rails against modern society on an online blog by saying that political correctness is a “communal tyranny[.]…The set of values that are detested are those held by the previous generation (those who fought the Second World War), which is why the terms niggers, coons, dagos, wogs, poofs, spastics and sheilas, have become heresy, for, in an act of infantile rebellion”. Clearly, if you believe these guys, political correctness is the biggest threat to our way of life. So what is political correctness exactly? I had absolutely no idea, so I decided to try and find out.
It seems a lot of people have got an opinion on examples of political correctness. But what most people seem to struggle with is trying to define it. The National Party would surely know, as they’ve set up a position – the “Political Correctness Eradicator” – for Dr. Wayne Mapp. I decide to have a chat with Dr. Mapp, mainly due my bemusement as to the purpose of his position. Mapp strikes me as an intelligent, sincere and reasonable man – certainly not the idiotic, right-winger typically envisaged as an attacker of political correctness. However, when trying to define political correctness, Mapp too, was particularly vague. “Essentially it is a way of limiting people’s freedom of action, freedom of speech and the choices people have. And there’s a notion of social engineering involved as well”. Already this definition has problems. Isn’t the fact we have a government already a limitation on people’s freedom of action? If we had complete freedom of speech and action, why do we have a need for the Bill of Rights, The Human Rights Act, the police, the law etc. etc. You know, Rousseau’s social contract? Surely, you guys know Rousseau? We give up a little bit of our freedom to be protected by a government. Yeah, that Rousseau. Faced with such a general definition, I decided to ask political science lecturer Jon Johansson for some illumination. “I have no more clue of what an official definition of political correctness is because it’s such a subjective term. I think that’s the problem people have with trying to define it. It means vastly different things to different people which is why it’s such an effective political device”.
Political correctness is typically associated with the Left. Mapp, a man armed with a PhD (in international law) and a lot of research into this area, offers two reasons for this. First of all, it was conceived by the Marxists following the Russian Revolution. They used it to make sure people thought about politics in the ‘correct’ way (i.e. theirs). Secondly he traces the roots of modern political correctness to the anti-discrimination movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which was again mainly associated with the Left. He claims a lot of modern political correctness is a hangover from the 1960s, where people of that generation have now decided to take the anti-discrimination movement to “absurd lengths”.
It would therefore seem natural that criticism of the concept of political correctness would be by the Right. But how has the Right managed to use this concept so well– to the point where the term has become one used with disdain in common parlance? Johannson suggests that the Right “have made a concerted effort by way of political strategy to keep pushing the political correctness line. If you look at the last decade of political discourse, the Right have been quite disadvantaged when it comes to political language. I think there’s been a deliberate attempt here, as a political attack, to use the umbrella term of political correctness to really launch an offensive attack against those aspects of Left behaviour and language the Right see as potentially lucrative from a political point of view”. And attack it they have – to the point of creating a spokesperson for the role. What exactly about the Left (specifically Labour who have been in power since 1999) have National been attacking?
National have been quick to attack what they see as patent absurdities. Recently, Air New Zealand and Qantas refused to allow unaccompanied children to sit next to men. Their refusal to actually justify their policy led to strong allegations of “political correctness gone mad”. After all, what were Air New Zealand and Qantas trying to say? That all men are paedophiles? Mapp affirms, “could they actually point to anyone being molested [on a plane]? I mean, they couldn’t. There is a statement that young Maori commit more crime proportionally. Would it be reasonable to say that you can’t sit next to a young Maori? No, that’d be racist towards Maori”. Another example that Mapp uses is the Unitech bus drivers who are told they have to have a knowledge and understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi in order to be employed to drive a bus. Mapp says, “you kinda go hmmm yes it’s important to know about the Treaty, but is it a requirement to be a bus driver?”
National, under Mapp, have decided to focus in on bureaucratic excess. Mapp mentions in a speech that “bureaucratic excess is one of the primary frustrations of New Zealanders, and is often characterised as political correctness. It typically stems from the intent to eliminate all sources of risk, and in doing so limits freedoms people are accustomed to exercising in their lives”. Mapp has a point – one of the key features of modern societies is the large role the bureaucracy plays in everyday life (see pioneering sociologist from the late nineteenth century, Max Weber if you want to quaff quaff) from OSH regulations to sorting out the roads we drive. Johansson agrees. “I do think it’s a phenomenon where bureaucratic language has got further and further removed from common sense language. Perhaps that’s a natural tendency within bureaucracies, but becomes accentuated according to political context as to how bad that tendency tends to get”. Are children really going to be blinded for life by being hit by lollies at a Christmas Parade, for example (something which certain local councils banned last year)?
However, the issue becomes cloudy when we are to decide what is reasonable. Who decides it? Is it similar to the legal concept of reason which learned judges have argued over for years and years and still haven’t been able to figure out? Mapp suggests that it’s “sort of basic common sense, community standards if you will. I use the example in the speech of pornography – generally it will be hard to define, but people will know when they see it”. Do they? National got into all sorts of trouble in last year’s election campaign with their use of mainstream, as Johansson points out. Mapp had originally defined political correctness as going contrary to the “mainstream”. This led to attacks of National on the grounds that “mainstream” justifies racism, sexism and homophobia. Mapp has dropped the whole concept of “majority” and “minorities” as a result.
What about issues of speech? Surely freedom of speech is an issue that National would see as threatened by political correctness? The recent cartoon furore, the South Park menstruation episode and the Paul Holmes cheeky darkie comment all highlight a conflict of freedom of speech with the use of politically incorrect language. You’d think National would support these people’s right to say what they like without worrying about nanny states and social engineering? Not at all. In reference to Paul Holmes, Mapp says, “yes the guy’s got freedom of speech but obviously he’s got to think about what he says. He [Holmes] didn’t apologise because it was unlawful to say it, because clearly it was lawful to say it. He apologised because it was stupid to say it. It offended people completely unnecessarily. And that’s kind of like that cartoon issue at the moment – good illustration, and you also have the thing with South Park. Yes you have freedom, but you’ve also got to exercise common sense”.
Mapp is sincere in his criticism of Holmes and South Park. Yet Mapp displays a fundamental weakness in the political correctness definition. He is bringing his own morality into defining what is politically correct and what is politically incorrect. I have completely different standards on what I consider offensive as to Mapp. An Afghani refugee will have different standards to us all. An elderly-Winston-Peters-loving-tee-totaller from Tauranga will have different standards of morality. Mapp and National refuse to support the Dominion Post over the cartoon because it offended their sense of morality. Basically everyone has their own individual sense of what they believe is wrong and right. I asked Kyle Chapman, former president of ultra-right-wing National Front on whether there should be limits on what people can say. “Obviously there has to be some kind of boundary. You know those woman’s refuge jokes, they’re a bit over the top. Or child molestering jokes and stuff like that, you know? There has to be some kind of limit”. If even the former president of an organisation that would have had no problem with the Muslim cartoons imposes limits, then it hammers home how we all subjectively have a notion of what is politically correct. With New Zealand being a country full of minorities – sorry white men, you’re one too – it will be almost impossible to come up with any notion of mainstream/single morality.
Our own subjective morality will also depend on the time and cultural setting. An 1850s slave owner in the South of America will probably think the abolishment of slavery was political correctness gone mad. So possibly would a person opposing Maori drinking in the same bars as the rest of New Zealand in the 1950s. Political correctness may also be argued when talking about race quotas at university – something which Mapp is actually in favour of. This appears to be in contrast with National’s criticism of political correctness. However this is understandable in Mapp’s context, because his wife was the second female Maori law graduate ever, and that was only 30 years ago.
Johansson even argues that “political correctness” has had some benefits in modern society. “If you look at political correctness and development of the term, it has served a very useful purpose over the years of eliminating some really offensive language out of our vocabulary. Words like nigger and so on. And so it creates a norm of social behaviour where people accept that’s not a term that should be applied.” This maybe could be Johansson applying his own subjective standards to what is offensive, but surely it’s good that words that were used to justify racism and sexism are no longer used in common parlance? Or is this just me using my own subjective standard? Sigh. See the problems of the term?
What both Mapp and Johansson agree on however, is that the term is overused. Mapp says, “a lot of people do [over-use it]. I will agree entirely with you. For example – global warming. People were saying that it’s political correctness but that’s ridiculous. It’s either a factual event or there’s scientific uncertainty at least, but that’s not political correctness”. Political correctness is an easy term to overuse. Johansson points out “it’s a banal term. It is rather meaningless. Someone’s sitting at home scratching their nuts watching TV and told by their wife to stop doing so might say that’s being PC. Likewise, the term could be used more aptly for offense terms”. Mapp even suggests that people are in such a hurry to prove that they’re not politically correct, that they go the other way. “A lot of people make the mistake of thinking there’s something that’s politically correct and so therefore they think they should do the complete opposite”.
New Zealand still has issues with equality – Maori and women are still disproportionately represented in particular areas, such as pay parity, education and health. Isn’t that what a government in a democracy should be trying to address? It is, however, easy to criticise the Labour government – or at least modern bureaucracy – for fostering a sense of political correctness. Johansson points out that “maybe the context has allowed the Right to flourish with this term because of the nature of this particular government which is seen to be politically correct”. Without arguing against these pieces of legislation, all contentious moral issues like smoking in bars, prostitution, civil unions were passed within close succession. This opened the chance for National and others to argue against Labour’s perceived social engineering. Johansson says political correctness can go even further. “The Left hide behind that term. They will frame some of the language on the Right as offensive when it probably isn’t. So they find a certain protective quality under political correctness as well for some of the things they are potentially weak on”.
There is no doubt that certain bureaucratic policies appear ridiculous to most people and there is nothing wrong with pointing things out. Does this however, justify the need for Mapp’s position? Johansson doesn’t seem to think so. “I find the appointment of Mapp to be one of the most absurd developments in National Party policy for a very long time.” He continues, “it’s just a palpable absurdity in my thinking – but it’s all political, it’s just so that the political correctness thing stays in public consciousness and anything that suits National to throw in there, it will”. National have found themselves including certain things and not including other things (the cartoons for one). “It’s pretty hard for him [Mapp] to know what he wants to include in it because he doesn’t want to include anything that’s going to cause the National Party political embarrassment. But he wants to include as much as he can to maintain that political attack”. After all, couldn’t things like the Air New Zealand/Qantas issue simply be seen as discrimination? Having spoken to Mapp, a man who appears to be fair-minded and nice, I’m sure he would have difficulties, like the rest of us, determining what is political correctness and what isn’t, let alone trying to fit it within his party’s policies.
Political correctness is without a doubt a difficult concept to define. It’s a term that means something to different people and in different contexts. As a result, it is almost inevitable – thanks to the efforts of the Right in putting the concept in the public arena – that it would be misused and especially, over-used. That said, their arguments over certain things like bureaucratic over-control are valid. Yet that does not necessarily make the term “political correctness” a particularly relevant one.