Being “PC” was once considered the calling card of civilised social commentary and educated debate. But over the last few years (in fact ever since Pauline Hanson let the racist genie out of the bottle with her maiden speech to parliament in 1996), the act of being “Politically Correct” (or PC) has been systematically assaulted by battlers, shock jocks and right wing pundits as a repressive constraint on free speech.
The mainstream media have effectively rebranded the once lauded virtue as an act of excessive pandering to vocal minorities, and managed to disingenuously package it up as an assault on the mainstream.
But what does actually it mean to be “politically correct”? According to dictionary.com the active component of the term means, “avoiding vocabulary that is considered offensive, discriminatory, or judgmental” (particularly on matters pertaining to race, gender or sexual orientation).
I realise this may sound somewhat old fashioned but to my understanding this would mean that being “politically correct” is simply the act of exercising GOOD MANNERS by not publicly espousing derogatory racist or sexist sentiments, or abusing those that are of an alternate race, gender, orientation or circumstance to ones own.
I admit good manners are somewhat of an old fashioned concept, but for the uninitiated the idea is basically this, you don’t say or do things that are HIGHLY LIKELY to lead to offence, vilification or active discrimination against others.
As a caveat to that, exceptions can be granted for those engaging in activities and speech (that might offend some) if their actions are designed to dismantle blatantly unfair and discriminatory practices, such as slavery, or securing women’s right to vote or drive cars. However exceptions cannot and should not be granted when the aim of the speaker is to vilify, arbitrarily exclude and incite hatred and violence.
Contrary to what some in the government may think, dismantling 18c (our laws against hate speech) and legally enshrining the right to abuse and vilify would not serve our political freedom; it would simply be inviting more ignorance, bigotry and hostility to run rampant in our society. (And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that that may lead to some pretty ugly consequences).
Censorship has always been a thorny issue. A persuasive case can be mounted that the ability (under law) to say whatever we please ought to be one of our fundamental rights and freedoms, but in reality extremes very rarely produce good outcomes. While we clearly do not want the overtly repressive censorship that is exercised by some nations, we don’t want to allow an unchecked stream of hateful, violent,antisocial rhetoric to gain popular traction either.
As a society we must walk the tightrope between and the extremes of the overly repressive and the overly permissive, and it is a difficult balance to strike.
This is where “political correctness” once used to serve us so well. Being PC was the unspoken pact we had with each other that we would refrain from behaving like utterly hateful bigots, (at least in public); and anyone who crossed the line would be met with anything from the shaming disapproval of a sharply raised eyebrow to unemployment or outright social shunning.
It was a good, self-regulating system. We all agreed not to be hateful in public, and those that harboured hateful, antagonistic feelings towards others knew that they needed to keep those thoughts and feelings to themselves, lest they become a social pariah.
Abandoning that pact comes at no small cost. While the likes of Hanson and Abbott have cleared Australia’s way to socially permissible bigotry, one only needs to look to the USA and the phenomena that is Trump to gain an understanding of what it may ultimately cost us if we progress any further down that road.
Watching Trump abandon all sense verbal restraint is an agonising spectre. The ease with which he spews his loathsome bile all over the mainstream news cycle, (who happily devour it like rabid dogs), is horrific.
The unapologetic swagger with which he peels off racist and misogynistic epithets is simply staggering. He does nothing for social cohesion; instead he sets the stage for the hateful to come out loud and proud; and emboldened by the vicious unrestrained political rhetoric the haters are rising to his call. Whether it is advocating the brutal torture of refugees, discriminating against the LGBT community, punishing the disabled and unemployed, assaulting Muslim women on the train, or spraying racist epithets on my local Indian restaurant (or worse), they are out there and they are getting increasingly brazen. (So much so that even some right wingers realise it has gone too far, and are now clamouring for the restraint that “political correctness” once afforded them).
But how do we contain the hate? How can we reinstate the PC pact? Can we actually make back the ground that has been lost? Having thrown off the “PC” shackles of societal shame, the bigots and haters are on the march, and they will not be silenced easily.