Here’s another stock joke for your collection: Pembroke College, Cambridge, has cancelled a fancy dress party themed on Around the World in Eighty Days to ‘avoid the potential for offence’. One college has objected to the serving of sushi as ‘cultural appropriation’; another cancelled yoga lessons for the same reason.
There is an inevitable backlash to this kind of puritanism — to ‘political correctness gone mad’. And it’s true: prissily expressed PC attitudes do often look silly.
The problem is that, broadly speaking, they’re also right. I know this with immense certainty. Without the prevailing wind of political correctness my life would be very different. The life of my son would be unrecognisable.
Eddie is 14 and has Down’s syndrome. It’s politically correct to say ‘Down’s syndrome’, but in earlier times it was wholly acceptable to use rather different terms. They cropped up in the playground in what we thought were jokes.
I have just tried an experiment. I wondered whether I could write down some of these terms, but I found myself more or less physically incapable of doing so. The thought that the keyboard at my fingers could utter those words made me feel slightly sick.
That’s because words are powerful things. There was a time when I advocated the total freedom of usage of any word in existence in pursuit of truth and meaning. The freedoms won by Joyce and Lawrence were not to be tossed away on the whims of the prudish, the squeamish and the hypersensitive.
Eddie has changed my mind. When I was a boy, 50 years and more back, people with Down’s syndrome were usually hidden away from us. It was acceptable to keep them locked up. Physical and mental disabilities were too distressing for the sensitivities of us normal people.
If you were presented with a disabled child you would have been within your rights to turn your back, walk away and feel distaste to the point of disgust… and perhaps a genuine anger at those who allowed unacceptable people to be on view, walking your streets and breathing your air.
We all went to London for half-term. One day Eddie and I got the bus and the tube and then walked to the Natural History Museum. We marvelled at the model of the blue whale, met a man showing off some fabulous insect specimens, went for a meal — Eddie did the ordering — and then caught the train and a taxi home to Norfolk.
Every step of the way Eddie received courtesy and consideration. From the tail of my eye I caught little approving smiles. Sometimes these were aimed conspiratorially at me and at Eddie: wanting us to feel approved of. Welcomed. Sharing a good half-term.
I sometimes notice a momentary dismay in people in shops or pubs or casual encounters, but it’s soon conquered. People know they’re not allowed to feel distaste any more. There’s an obligation to get over it and behave as one human being to another. More or less — though not quite — invariably, that’s what people do. They walk away surprised at themselves, and I think enriched.
They do so because society has changed in Eddie’s favour. Because it would be politically incorrect to treat Eddie badly, it has become inexorably clear that treating Eddie badly is also morally incorrect.
It’s natural to resent the bullying of the self-righteous. It’s also natural to feel that students — people forever seeking to make a better job of the world than their parents did — are mistaken to the point of lunacy. When I was a student I was crazy enough to believe that what the world needed was love and peace; one look at today’s newspaper will show you how wrong I was.
Correct terms change with bewildering frequency. Felix Leiter tells James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever: ‘People are so dam’ sensitive about colour around here that you can’t even ask a barman for a jigger of rum. You have to ask for a jegro.’ That was published in 1956: perhaps the first recorded joke about political correctness.
But at heart, political correctness and its attendant language are about inclusivity: race, religion, sexual orientation, age, gender, physical and mental capacity. Non-PC views, however jovially expressed, are about exclusion, generally exclusion of the weak by the strong. And if you go to the pub with Eddie, you do rather tend to think that an inclusive society is better than the other kind.
If you went to Salisbury Theatre last week you’d have caught Up Down Man, a play written and directed by the brilliant Brendan Murray and starring Nathan Bessell, who has Down’s syndrome and dances like Nureyev: a fine symptom of a more inclusive society.
The business of inclusivity reached a peak of all-conquering triumph at the London Paralympic Games of 2012, not just in the competitors but also in the audience. Many had difficulties or challenges; the walk to the train was like Ben-Hur with wheelchairs.
But many others had tried and failed to get tickets for the Olympics, gone to the Paras as a second best — and found themselves part of something bigger than they bargained for. It felt briefly like a utopian dream of the future come to life: and that’s precisely what the student radicals are trying, however ineptly, to bring about.
It was summed up in the film version of A Bear Called Paddington. Paddington says the final words: ‘Mrs Brown says that in London everyone is different, but that means anyone can fit in. I think she must be right, because although I don’t look like anyone else, I really do feel at home. I will never be like other people but that’s all right, because I’m a bear.’
That may seem to be simplifying things rather — but then at heart it’s a very simple business. Eddie loved that film. Afterwards we went out for a meal and Eddie was treated with kindness, generosity and respect. Political correctness gone sane.