Once upon a time, “political correctness” was, more or less, a matter of manners, politeness. Government policies pursued by both Labour and Conservative governments meant that there were many more of our brown-skinned brothers and sisters from overseas living among us than we had ever before been used to, and this could be an unsettling experience – especially as the costs of the changes were, of course, imposed without consultation on the white working class, a section of society that was once honoured, it seems strange to remember now. Given this new reality, it was a simple matter of common decency to begin to insist that we treat our new neighbours with the kindness and respect we might hope to be treated with ourselves and address them as they might wish to be addressed. Our society was, at least in the letter, once based on this great moral teaching – again, it seems strange to remember that now.
People who resented being reminded of the basics of ethical behaviour, or who had built up an identity for themselves, and hence got their own self-respect, out of their hatred for others, put up a fight against this. Before long, not only were they expected not to use hateful terms of abuse against humans with different skin colours to them, but also to extend similar courtesies to those who had chosen different lifestyles, or expressed their sexuality in different ways, or who demanded equal treatment before the law, equal opportunity in the social and political structure, and so on. This was “political correctness gone mad”. There was of course nothing particularly mad about it, and the howls of protest said more about those protesting than those protested against.
Now, however, political correctness really has gone mad. If you’re old enough, you might remember that one of the visible figureheads of “political correctness gone mad” was “Red Ken” Livingstone – a dangerous fanatic who has over his career proved reasonably adept at seizing power from those it truly belongs to by the despicable political manoeuvring known as winning elections. Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to deny that he has always been a politician who speaks his mind, often without tact, and is therefore ill at ease in the modern political environment where politicians’ interviews and commentary are expected to be about as enlightening as those of Premier League footballers. Ken Livingstone has always been “off message”. From his days as leader of the Greater London Council, right up to his return as mayor of London, controversy has never been far away. Given all this, it may surprise you to have learnt, if you are unwise enough as we sometimes are to follow media commentary, that Red Ken is not a veteran of the struggle for political correctness after all, but a secret fascist who empathised with the Nazi’s aim of mass extermination of the Jewish people.
If this is a surprise to you, and you think that on first principles there must be some kind of mistake, then don’t worry – turn to that very same media commentary and you will find plenty of people who have been so highly educated that they will believe and try to convince you of just about anything. Ken said something that is, in broad terms, true. But truths can be inconvenient, even painful. Those who are committed, therefore, not to truth, but to narrow political advantage, turn to a modern-day political weapon: political correctness gone mad. This is where you launch mob violence, or the threat of it, or legal violence, or the threat of it, against anyone who says something you don’t like. The current war against Ken, and against the supposed anti-Semitism in the Labour party, is nothing other than a vile slander used as a weapon in the ongoing battle for control of the Labour Party. The Blairites have still not come to terms with the Corbyn leadership with which Ken Livingstone is associated, and this is how they attack. It ain’t pretty. As Norman Finkelstein says in the interview linked to previously, suggesting that Ken’s comments are an apology for the Nazi genocide is an insult of a far greater magnitude than anything that can be drawn from Ken’s own comments.
One of the arguments often advanced against Ken is that it is absolutely illegitimate to compare what modern democratic states think and do (particularly that of Israel) with what Hitler thought and did. Why? Simply because it is a painful and inconvenient truth that we in the West tend to agree with Hitler on many issues, and we would like to deny it. We agree that it’s right to invade countries and murder the populations, if some kind of political or economic justification can be found. We agree that some human beings are worth more than others, and that the rest can for all we care be rounded up into concentration camps (though we don’t call them that anymore). We agree that some expressions of religious belief are so troublesome that to kill those that hold them would be the best policy. We often agree that democracy is an inefficient and corrupt business, and a strong leader would be preferable. We agree with all this, but don’t want to be reminded that they are the views of one of the greatest monsters of recent historical time. If the principles applied at the Nuremburg trials were applied consistently, then every post-war American president would be hanged, as Chomsky points out. But when people hear Chomsky’s arguments, particularly those educated types before referred to whose job is to convince the public that Ken is a Nazi, what do they do? Listen carefully then worry about what it means for those of us who bear the responsibility, who are a part of Western political life? Or attack Chomsky for defending Hitler? Do some Googling and you’ll find the answer.
In the case of Chomsky and Ken, political correctness as a tool of mob violence is in the hands of the right against the left, and it is despicable. But it is no less despicable when the boot is on the other foot, as it has been so often in recent times. We can’t talk about the wearing of the veil in societies with liberal values without being called Islamophobic. We can’t wonder whether patriarchy might not have gone mad when men dictate to women and feminists what it means to be a woman, and shut down the debate when they don’t like what is said. We can’t wonder about how to manage the difficulties that come with open borders, or how to challenge the racist fear and loathing our society directs against the white working class, without being called racist. We can’t oppose the idea of quotas for women on boards and committees in social institutions without being screamed at for being women-hating fascists.
It may seem very silly, and for the most part, it just is. But it reflects something more serious. Our society is fragmenting. We can’t talk to each other any more. We can’t have serious debates about serious issues because we lack the patience to listen to views we disagree with, find hateful even. This is more than just a crisis for the Labour party. It is a crisis of our civilisation. It is a spiritual crisis. We are at once the victims and the perpetrators. We are also the solution.