While he was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Tony Judt found the breath to educate those who believe they could ameliorate pain with soft words and bans on ‘inappropriate’ language.
“You describe everyone as having the same chances when actually some people have more chances than others. And with this cheating language of equality deep inequality is allowed to happen much more easily.”
Worry about whether you, or more pertinently anyone you wish to boss about, should say ‘person with special needs’ instead of ‘disabled’ or ‘challenged’ instead of ‘mentally handicapped’ and you will enjoy a righteous glow. You will not do anything, however, to provide health care and support to the mentally and physically handicapped, the old or the sick. Indeed, your insistence that you can change the world by changing language, and deal with racism or homophobia merely by not offending the feelings of interest groups, is likely to allow real racism and homophobia to flourish unchallenged, and the sick and disadvantaged to continue to suffer from polite neglect. An obsession with politeness for its own sake drives the modern woman, who deplores the working class habit of using ‘luv’ or ‘duck’, but ignores the oppression of women from ethnic minorities. A Victorian concern for form rather than substance motivates the modern man, who blushes if he says ‘coloured’ instead of ‘African-American’ but never gives a second’s thought to the hundreds of thousands of blacks needlessly incarcerated in the US prison system.
As the late and much-missed Robert Hughes said, ‘We want to create a sort of linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism’.
You do not have to listen to it for long to believe that the defining features of contemporary debate are:
• a willingness to take offence at the smallest slight that would make a Prussian aristocrat blink;
• a determination to ban and punish speech that breaks taboos;
• a resolve to lump disparate individuals into blocs – “the gays,” “the Muslims,” “the Jews” etc – and to treat real and perceived insults to one as group defamations that insult all;
• a self-pitying eagerness to cast yourself as a victim;
• and an accompanying narcissism, which allows you to tell others just how much you have suffered.
To which you could reply, what’s new? Not so long ago the cult of the House of Windsor was so fervent the BBC banned John Grigg (Lord Altrincham) for saying , truthfully, of the Queen, ‘The personality conveyed by the utterances which are put into her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for Confirmation’. In the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, no one dared name new railways stations. If the line mangers gave a station a German name, they would insult the Hungarians and Slavs; if they gave it a Hungarian name they would insult the Germans and Slavs, and so on. All societies have their prigs, tribalists and book burners. The fight against them is eternal.
One of the many pleasures of reading Richard King’s On Offence is it allows you to sift the old from the new. It appears to be an attack on political correctness. But King, an Australian author, who deserves to be better read here, is from the Left and understands that the great issues of any time are as likely to be fought out within the Left and the Right as between the Left and the Right.
This account he quotes of the failure of identity politics from George Kateb of Princeton University illustrates how hopeless traditional labels are.
‘If a person thinks of himself or herself as first a member of a group, that person has defined identity as affiliation, and not as first being oneself. To…welcome docility, is to to endorse the thought that one’s possibilities are exhausted, perhaps from birth, and that one cannot change or be changed.’
All true. As I have often observed, the supposed leftists who lump people together as ‘the blacks’ and ‘the Muslims’ go along with a denial of personal choice and individual autonomy they would never accept if others treated them as mere atoms in the homogenous lump of ‘the whites’. The BBC proved my point when it asked in apparent seriousness ‘Who speaks for Muslims?’ It would never ask, ‘Who speaks for whites?’ because it assumes that whites can speak for themselves.
Although they pretend otherwise, today’s right-wingers are just as crude and lachrymose. They subsume their individuality in a nostalgic patriotism, and respond to criticism by claiming that they are the victims of discrimination and prejudice as well. They are also as likely as the post-1968 left to claim that they are fighting ‘the elite’ – although this time the enemy is the ‘liberal’/ ‘cultural Marxist’ elite.
In the Observer recently I noted how British conservatives aped liberals by claiming to be the innocent victims – in their case of a ‘war on the motorist’, a campaign of state persecution against innocent drivers.
‘They did not stop to consider the mewling vacuity of their self-pitying slogan. Conservatives complain about others playing the victim card but, without a blush of shame, talk about ‘the motorist’ as if he were a victim of Bashar al-Assad and imagine a ‘war’ in which the enemy is a child who runs into a street. They follow that dismal reasoning by transferring the generalisations of identity politics to road safety. It never occurs to them that there is no such thing as ‘the motorist’: the man or woman who only drives. Everyone walks. And, unless they’re on the fells, everyone crosses roads.’
Indeed, in the 20th century, the right was more likely than the left to verge towards hysteria. You might think that the, always false, stories about public authorities abolishing Christmas are new. Not so. In the 1920s Henry Ford declared Christmas under attack from diabolically powerful Jews, who stopped images of the infant Christ appearing on Christmas cards. In the 1950s the far-right John Birch Society warned of an ‘assault on Christmas’ carried out by ‘UN fanatics…What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.’
What distinguishes our times is the fanaticism about the power language. Starting on the post-1968 left and moving rightwards ever since, is a belief that slips in language reveal your opponent’s hidden meanings and unquestioned assumptions. The wised-up need only decode, and everyone will see the oppressiveness of the elite. A few weeks ago the middle-class left in Britain hugged itself with delight when the Conservative Party issued an advert which announced that it was ‘Cutting the Bingo Tax & Beer Duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy.’
Once political tacticians would have said it was mad for an opposition to repeat incessantly that a government was cutting tax. But the British left republished the ad thousands of times. It thought the right had damned itself by saying it wanted to help to help ‘hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy’. You see the Conservatives had said ‘they’ rather than ‘we’, and to the left’s mind that slip of a pronoun revealed a whole worldview. Conservatives were patronising the working class. And by saying ‘they enjoy’ Tories revealed that they were not working class themselves – as if anyone had ever thought Conservative leaders were.
In our world, a word or phrase defines everything about an individual. We have just seen the CEO of a Web company resign because he had once given money to a campaign against gay marriage. Even though his views on gay marriage had nothing to do with his professional duties, he had to go because his enemies insisted that his one belief polluted everything else about him.
The second distinguishing feature of our times is governments’ willingness to use the law against ‘hate speech’. I have rehearsed arguments against the sinister trend to take criminal sanctions beyond prohibitions against incitement to violence many times, and was therefore to delighted to find King supply a new one.
Words can of course hurt more than blows, he says. But that does not mean that psychic wounds are the same as real wounds. If I deliver a blow, the broken bones can be seen; the damage measured. If I incite violence, the court can again measure the consequences. The same applies if I steal money. But if I deliver insults, one target may be delighted to have provoked me, another may not care what I say, a third may be offended. In other words, governments are asking the law to assess the psychological states of insulted parties, and introducing a vast element of subjectivity into a legal process where it has no place.
The best case against our snarling willingness to ban was put by Tom Paine 200-years ago, when he emphasised how censorship demeans the censor as much as the censored. In the introduction to his Age of Reason, whose freethinking scandalised Christian America, he said in words worth learning by heart.
‘TO MY FELLOW-CITIZENS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA:
I PUT the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.’