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Do political correctness and the culture wars make us less tolerant?

16 January 2013

7:58 PM

16 January 2013

7:58 PM

I have a confession. I saw a report on the Suzanne Moore row, and fled immediately for the safety of the sports pages. A lot of self-important people making a lot of noise, I thought to myself, as a glib heterosexual, while gawping at the latest act in the life and times of Mario Balotelli. But, as time passed, the fury of the Moore row made me revisit Culture of Complaint, the late Robert Hughes’ analysis of the culture wars.

It’s sometimes said that we Brits don’t do culture wars; that we are much too sensible to be provoked into believing that trivialities are serious. This view appears to be a hangover from the over-egged claims Victorians made about ‘English exceptionalism’. But England is unexceptional in this regard, as the reaction to a throwaway line in a magazine has proved so clearly.

It does not get much more trivial than a trivial line in a polemic in a magazine; but the reaction to the perceived insult obscured the serious point that Moore was making, with typical verve, about the erosion of the social contract and the exposure of the vulnerable.

Such rage, however, isn’t created ex nihilo. Clearly many transsexuals suffer casual, unthinking prejudice because other people simply cannot empathise with them. (There is, of course, the more obvious problem of open bigotry, although that is easier to confront, at least theoretically, because it is outlawed.)

This row suggests that equal rights do not imply equal acceptance. It is politically correct to see this as an imbalance to which there is a political (ie, legal) solution. But, might it not be the case that strength can be found by simply acknowledging that certain cultural differences should exist within one tolerant society? This prompts a second question: does the attempt to rationalise difference, in order to eradicate its associated difficulties, merely create an obsession with victimhood, a whining obsession with which it is hard to empathise? In short, does political correctness make us less tolerant?

Hughes felt that some left-wing minority groups in 1980s wounded themselves by seeking ‘repressive mechanisms embedded, not in manifest politics, but in language, education, entertainment, the whole structure of social communication.’ Some of Suzanne Moore’s detractors are following the example of the ‘80s. Take this interesting (and heartfelt) open letter to Moore in Diva Magazine, where the writer says:

‘your use of transsexual as a noun was problematic. It’s akin to referring to someone as ‘a black’, ‘a gay’ or ‘a cripple’.’

Transsexual is a noun. It is as simple as that. There is no way around it.

To bicker about plain fact leads, as Hughes wrote, to a ‘dead end’ because it does not address the relevant question, in this case the acceptance of difference. The semantic absurdities that attend so much political correctness merely deepen divisions, particularly between allies. Social liberalism has been damaged by this furore, as a horde of transsexuals and trenchant feminists played the game of ‘Who’s the best feminist?’ across the media. (This latest bout of loathing and waffle has been brilliantly skewered by Rod Liddle in tomorrow’s issue of the magazine, click here to subscribe.)

But what does this mean for social conservatives and the un-PC right? Hughes’ contribution to our understanding of the culture wars was to say that the right needed the left to behave preposterously. He was writing of the Reagan-Thatcher era. The era that followed, the Blair-Clinton era, in which I grew up, saw a different configuration. The (nominal) left required the right to behave preposterously. The creation of the ‘nasty party of the rich’ was a conceit surpassed only by the Conservatives’ ability to mimic a bunch of rich shysters. The memory of that time still clouds the Tory leadership’s judgment, convincing them that there is profit in fighting the party’s base, and indeed in forcing an innocent minister accused of using the word ‘pleb’ from office.

Gay marriage is the all-consuming front in this Conservative civil war; but I’ll wager that there will soon be a huge clash over housing policy (which is fast becoming an extension of family policy, as prices rise and incomes stagnate, making it hard for the young and the low paid to climb the ladder), because it is mired by contradictions inspired, in part, by the legacy of the ‘nasty party’, the right’s age-old concern about upsetting corporate boardrooms and the counter-productive reaction to the Credit Crunch. The Tories ought to be getting worried about this, because it will certainly cost them votes.

I recently failed to buy a new-build flat in south London. The experience was revealing. First, almost all of the 70 non-social housing plots in this development have been bought by buy-to-let landlords, who have the capital to snap up these new-builds the moment they hit the market. As Ross Clark notes in an important pamphlet on the housing market, A Broom Cupboard of One’s Own, there are several reasons for this, chief among which is the government’s refusal to impose restrictive covenants on new developments to give would-be owner-occupiers (AKA the property owning democracy) greater access to the market.

The present system inflates prices (and by extension rents), which pushes aspiring homeowners further away from their place of work. The government appears to be supporting an exodus to the shires and suburbs by trying to develop sites in places like true blue rural Berkshire. The houses that will be built there, assuming that the formerly Conservative-voting locals and the courts approve them, are aimed exactly at people like me; but, notwithstanding Berkshire’s beauty and the benefits of fresh air, I need to live in central London in order to hold down a time-consuming but relatively poorly paid job. I imagine that I’m not alone in this situation.

I’ve been unable to obtain a clear answer as to why restrictive covenants have not been widely introduced. I find this strange because governments, both local and national, have not been shy of imposing other restrictions on new-builds. Provisions for social housing – indubitably another front in the culture wars, no matter how great the need for social housing in this country – are often a condition of planning permission. Also, unless the developer builds an off-street car park, residents in certain parts of London cannot purchase permits on grounds of overcrowding and pollution – a restriction inspired by the numerous ecological movements in the culture wars.

Another problem is the total failure to reform mortgages to accomodate those on middling incomes who face with high house prices. I secured a mortgage four years ago thanks to a guarantee against my parents’ foremost asset, namely a reasonably sized and unmortgaged house in southern England. Second time round, asking to borrow a slightly smaller sum than before but against a larger deposit, with the added bonus of a much healthier salary and on the back of an immaculate loan repayment history, no agreement could be reached because no guarantee could be made against exactly the same asset, the value of which can be assumed to have risen in the intervening years in line with local trends. The reason for this impasse is that the rules have changed so that the sum owed is repaid before the guarantor’s 70th birthday; this is because guaranteed mortgages are now secured against income rather than other assets, and it is judged that income decreases significantly after the age of 70.

Might some of those assets be reconfigured in the form of a modest gift allowance to facilitate the purchase? No, such arrangements are now invalid for reasons that they are not binding (blood apparently does not run thicker than water). A similar arrangement provided by the state through benefit payments is valid; but, sadly, substantial benefits are not available to those on middling incomes who do not have children.

The upshot is that the state can assist, but the family cannot – unless of course the Bank of Mum and Dad buy the property outright or dramatically increase the deposit lump sum, which prompts the question, both legal and moral: is it really the child’s?

This is an awkward position for an allegedly pro-family Conservative government to have struck. That is not all: still yet more printed money disappears into the banks’s coffers, further devaluing the few quid that those on middle incomes have in their pockets. The cycle widens.

The right is unlikely to capitalise on the frequent idiocies of the left while it is so obviously at variance with itself. Worse than that, though, there are no votes in making life harder when it ought to be getting easier. I’d advise the Tory leadership to read Robert Hughes’ Culture of Complaint and draw the right lesson from it. This is not the time to be playing silly games.

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