Saturday, November 05, 2005

PC Or Not PC?

The National Party's nomination of Wayne Mapp as its "spokesperson on the Eradication of Political Correctness" has been well and truly lampooned and picked apart thoughout the New Zealand blogosphere and mainstream media. But I still feel the need to say my tuppence worth (or should that be my $0.02 NZD worth).

Some of the hilarity has been directed at Don Brash's stumbling inability in a radio interview to specify any of the the "politically correct" practices that would be eradicated--he fell back on saying "look, I last read (Wayne Mapp's) speech four months ago". Others have pointed out that if "political correctness" is supposed to stand for some kind of totalitarian suppression of dissenting viewpoints, the idea of "eradicating" it sounds even more scarily totalitarian.

Still others have jumped on the the comedic hypocrisy of Brash saying that one of the reasons Mapp is qualified for the job is that he is "married to a Maori person" (not even "has a Maori wife").

"Political correctness" has come to stand for any number of perceived evils, and is now a banner under which to bash pretty much any vaguely progressive cause. Mapp himself admits this tendency, noting that "even global warming has been described as politically correct".

But his attempt to actually define political correctness has also drawn justified criticism from all corners of the political spectrum. Speaking on democracy and liberalism, Mapp says that
"democracy is not just about choice, it is also about majorities. The ideas and values of the majority are able to prevail over other choices". According to Mapp, political correctness is when "a person, an institution or a government..cease[s] to represent the interests of the majority".

Hello? According to my limited understanding, democracy means government by and for the people, not "the majority of the people". What Mapp describes is best called by another name--"mob rule". The protection and empowerment of minorities is absolutely fundamental to democracy; surely, that's part of what the tortuous process to try and put together an Iraqi constitution is about?

And who is "the" majority anyway? Given that most people are in some sense members of both majorities and minorities, the expression is almost meaningless. Unless, that is, there really is some hidden agenda to drive us back to a monolithic, 1950s-esque world where the blokes are back in charge and the sheilas and Maoris do what they're told.

But it's a little too easy to mock the Chaplinesque, self-contradictory efforts by National politicians to get their message across. It's clear that they feel they are picking up on a genuine popular groundswell. And, rather than just deflating the rhetoric, maybe it's worth trying to reconstruct what they might be getting at, to see whether it's worthy of serious consideration.

So, is there a consistent thing called political correctness, and has it "gone too far"? To answer that, we need to peer back into history a bit. The thread which links the many disparate minority rights movements (feminism, ethnic identity movements, gay rights, etc) which have sprung up since World War II, is that they developed in response to the limitations of enlightenment liberalism.

The latter promoted the originally revolutionary idea that all people should be equal under the law. But nominal equality under "one law for all" failed to deliver real equality, since in the cultural arena certain "dominant" perspectives defined what was self-evident, good, normal and natural. These values determined the customs and practices of society and drove its institutions of law, politics, education, science and medicine.

The post-war period saw the first systematic challenges to the cultural order, as women and ethnic minorities demanded equal status on their own terms, the right to define their own identities, and positive steps to end discrimination. Meanwhile, from the 1960s on, postmodernism in sociology and literary theory provided the tools to critique the dominant societal values and assumptions and their inherent cultural, ethnic, gender and sexual biases.

Anybody who thinks that this was tiresome extremism from the beginning might consider that, just to cite a couple of examples, as recently as the 1970s homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder under the DSM classification system, while in Britain a married woman who worked had to pay secondary tax and Inland Revenue would only correspond with her husband. We know that the civil rights movement in the US only succeeded in ending segregation in the 1960s, but to cite that great postmodernist critic, Bruce Hornsby of Bruce Hornsby and the Range:

...the law don't change another's mind / when all he sees at the hiring time
Is a line on the colour bar

As struggles were fought out in the key cultural spheres of education, employment, health and reproductive issues, language was a vital battlefield. Those who supported or sympathised with these movements learned to recognise the ways in which language could reinforce unspoken assumptions and marginalise or degrade other groups. If there is one characteristic which is at the core of what is now considered "political correctness", it is this tendency to use inclusive or neutral language.

The phrase may have originally been coined by supporters of progressive movements; if so, it was a silly move. With its implication of enforced conformity, opponents were already using the expression in a pejorative way by the early 1980s.

But even some of those deeply involved in these struggles think that they became one-dimensional and limited. In her anti-coporate tract No Logo, Naomi Klein describes the obsession with what she calls "identity politics" of herself and fellow student activists during the 80s and 90s. This distracted attention, she says, from critiquing the wider power structures of late capitalism.

It also proved too easy for corporations to co-apt; demands for diversity and "a voice" for marginalised groups were met simply by carving out new market niches and making them the beneficiaries of edgy new advertising campaigns.

I also recall this time well. While understanding and sympathizing with the various movements, I was made uneasy by what seemed to be the practical fetishisation of being "marginalised", and by the systematic disempowerment of the individual, which postmodernism had deliberately deconstructed and cast aside.

There were frequent debates with Simon Doherty. I said I felt cut adrift; as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I seemed to be reduced to a vehicle for oppressive discourses and couldn't identify a context for acting ethically. He said I should get over it and support the causes.

I said I thought the various minority rights movements should be seen as fleshing out more fully the universal human rights established by the Enlightenment. He said that the concept of universal human rights had delivered very little until oppressed groups started sticking up for themselves; there had been more advances in the last 50 years than in the previous 200.

The debates have rolled on, and led to some unpredicted outcomes. As Norman Levitt points out in an amusing article on the current state of American academia, the elevation of "diversity" above every other value has backfired somewhat on progressives-- hardline conservatives who share with cultural theory radicals a loathing of John Sutart Mill and Charles Darwin now also demand "representation". Postmodernism's attacks on objectivity have given inintended succour to the reinvention of creationism under the Intelligent Design label--witness President Bush's view that "both sides of the debate should be taught".

We're now also left with a good deal of confusion. Desperate not to be considered sexist or racist, people tiptoe around issues of gender, colour, ethnicity or sexuality until these identities gain disproportionate importance and become an elephant in the room.

While originally the idea was to be open to other cultural perspectives, now "culture" is seen as something static and inherited, and becomes a millstone weighing down individuals. I hear of cases in the health sector where people, who happen to be Maori, find themselves assumed to be "representing Maori", effectively being lumped with an extra job, one that they don't necessarily feel they're at all qualified for.

Elsewhere, an increasingly common comment from individual gay men is that they don't want to be "represented" by any movement, and resent being lumped in with demonstrative types parading along in feathers. The personal might be political, but there is a strong contrary belief that the personal should be allowed to remain personal.

So, does this all add up to some blight on society, which needs to be "eradicated". Hardly. There perhaps needs to be a trend back towards treating people as people (I would have been scoffed at for saying that at Canterbury University in 1992), and a preparedness to argue about the principles behind actions, rather than assuming someone who has reservations about them is a reactionary.

But there are still serious debates to be had about inequality, discrimination, and marginalisation. Those who view particular causes as frivolous, or in fact believe that certain groups *should* be marginalised or not accorded certain rights, should be prepared to defend their views on a case-by-case basis.

Trying to shut down progressive movements by attacking "political correctness" across the board is far more oppressive than the perceived conformity imposed (more like gently suggested) by the movements themselves. The lashing out at PC-ness by the likes of Alan Duff just seems like a desire to head back to a different kind of conformity.

For me the great achievement of Michael King's History of New Zealand was to produce a relatively short, readable book which presents the country's history as quirkier, more happy-go-lucky, and considerably less monolithic and boring than the prevalent cultural myths would have it. And while covering the span of the nation's history, he managed to throw in a few choice incidents and anecdotes which are more illuminating than great screeds of dates and events.

My favourite is his recounting of an incident that occurred on a Wellington tram in the 1950s. Standing in the aisle, a young Hungarian New Zealander was carrying on a conversation with his father, in Hungarian. Suddenly, a man leapt up from one of the seats, punched him to the ground, and shouted "speak English, damn you!".

This is a great story because it exemplifies the strong distrust of difference which has long lurked darkly beneath New Zealand's celebrated egalitarianism. Whether Wayne Mapp is aware of it or not, this remains a strong element in the popular groundswell feels he is picking up on.

Categories: ,

No comments: