Damian Thompson

The march of the new political correctness

I hoped that the British sense of the ridiculous, our relish in piss-taking, would keep us safe. Now I’m not so sure

The march of the new political correctness
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[/audioplayer]I wonder how many of you know that you’re cis. Not very many, I’m guessing. So let me break this gently. You are almost certainly cis. It is short for ‘cisgendered’, which means that you ‘identify’ with the gender you were assigned at birth. To put it in everyday language, you were born male and are still male, or were born female and are still female.

Roughly 99.7 per cent of human beings — including gays, lesbians and bisexuals — are cisgender. The rest are transgender (‘trans’), which includes transvestites and trans-sexuals. The latter have had a sex-change operation. Incidentally, male-to-female ops greatly outnumber the female-to-male variety. As a distinguished Australian gynaecologist once told me: ‘You can make a hole but you can’t make a pole.’

Fortunately he didn’t say it online or he’d have been sacked the next day. The trans lobby is noisy and thin-skinned even by the standards of Twitter, though its emergence pre-dates social media.

In the 1980s ‘LGB’ replaced ‘gay community’ as the approved term for non-heterosexuals. In the 1990s the T was added and it stuck. Which wasn’t a bad thing. Transsexual people have a hard time and my own attitudes changed after meeting two dazzlingly bright trans women. One was so convincing that my jaw hit the floor when I was told she was born a man. The other, less so. But I think of them both as women and happily refer to them as ‘she’.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, the cause of trans rights has been appropriated by the internet’s language police, who lurk in the slip roads of the digital highway, looking for any excuse to let off their sirens. Although most of the enforcers are themselves simply male or female, they find trans-related arguments irresistible because it’s so easy to catch people out. ‘Gender identity’ is a minefield. Woe betide anyone who — having patiently mastered the racial nomenclature that tripped up Benedict Cumberbatch — mixes up the queer and genderqueer communities.

Sirens go off all the time, as you can imagine — but now they’re all screaming at once, thanks to an article by the journalist Jonathan Chait that appeared in New York magazine the other week. In it, Chait argued that ‘large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness’ — and what he says of America is increasingly true over here, too: ‘At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions”, small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first PC movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviours as full-scale offences.’

This hypersensitivity is now so common, said Chait, that it feels as if we’ve all lurched back to 1991. With one lethal difference: in the social media age, everyday chatter can be policed as sternly as academic discourse.

If Chait had been a conservative, no one would have paid any attention. But he’s a liberal who wants climate sceptics banned from public office. So by attacking political correctness — and even indulging in a little light mockery of ‘mansplaining’, ‘straightsplaining’ and other neologisms — he showed himself a traitor.

The reaction was comedy gold. Accused of hypersensitivity, the gender vigilantes shrieked their tits off. (That’s a figure of speech, by the way, not intended to exclude people without breasts.) ‘First things first,’ wrote Vox magazine’s Amanda Taub. ‘There’s no such thing as “political correctness”.’ She then launched into a virtuoso display of this thing that doesn’t exist. Chait was endangering marginalised groups by ‘shutting down the conversation’ — a ludicrous charge, given that Taub’s ideological soulmates on both sides of the Atlantic have always specialised in shutting down conversations.

In the first wave of political correctness, the word ‘inappropriate’ was enough to shame a speaker into silence. The new, digitally remastered PC draws on an ever-expanding lexicon of victimhood. Terf stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminism — i.e. ‘transphobic’ feminists. Swerfs are sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists who think prostitution oppresses women.

For right-wing pundits, these antics are a gift — fresh ammunition for the culture war. For more thoughtful British and American writers, such as the young conservative journalist Robert Wargas, the revived PC is frustrating and creepy. ‘People must understand that PC works like a conspiracy theory,’ he says. ‘The more vigorously you argue against it, the more its proponents see the need to affirm it. That’s because, under their rules, logic and free speech are tools of oppression, at least when used by non-favoured groups. They’ve created this perfectly circular, perfectly sealed universe, packed with bizarre terms and theories that explain why they’re always good and their opponents always evil. By definition, reason will not work against this. PC is like a church whose only sacrament is excommunication.’

The religious analogy is a good one. American intellectual life owes as much to the Pilgrim Fathers as to Jeffersonian democracy. Early New England is a unique example of an English-speaking theocracy. Towns and villages were ruled by Puritan language police. Anxiety about ‘right thinking’ continued long after the fragmentation of belief: as late as the 1920s, H.L. Mencken complained that American culture couldn’t rid itself of ‘the multiplication of taboos’. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the political correctness which now plagues both Britain and America crept out of Ivy League universities founded by religious zealots.

Outside academia, PC became entangled with identity politics, which in turn influenced the ‘tribes’ created by mass entertainment. Then along came the internet, which provided limitless opportunities for play-acting and offence-taking. These days even the most infantile subcultures pontificate about gender identity. ‘Bronies’ — adult fans of My Little Pony, most of them gay men — argue viciously over the ‘queering’ of their dolls. Last year the depiction of women in computer games provoked an infinitely tedious dispute known as Gamergate, in which feminists were joined by — and swiftly fell out with — trans activists. The gap between Smurfs and terfs is narrowing all the time.

It’s tempting to quote the old line about high-table feuds: passions run high because so little is at stake. That’s unfair to transsexuals and transvestites, who really do get bullied and beaten up. On the other hand, the scale of the rhetorical fury over these issues is out of all proportion to the size of the ‘trans community’ — 0.3 per cent of the population — and it’s worth pointing out that this hysterical finger-pointing has done nothing to address fundamental inequalities.

PC wordplay, computer games and street theatre are more about feeling good about yourself and guilt-tripping your opponents than eradicating poverty; forcing a British actor to grovel because he let slip the word ‘coloured’ does nothing to alter the fact that the United States, headquarters of the language police, remains one of the most racially and economically segregated societies in the world. Jonathan Chait had the temerity to point this out, and as a result the PC mob went online to do one of the things they do best: witch-hunting.

The original political correctness never quite took hold over here, but that was before Twitter and Facebook. This time round Britain has its own language monitors who embrace the notion that you should ‘check your privilege’ — that is, determine whether you have the ‘right’ to comment on a subject — before you say anything. They may not be quite as fluent in PC-speak as Americans, but they have popularised the notion that offence is identical with harm. To quote a young woman friend of mine, ‘Part of the way they do this is to stretch concepts like rape and sexual assault to encompass things we all once thought were minor aggravations — like being winked at or something.’

One hopes that the British sense of the ridiculous, our relish in piss-taking, will keep terms such as swerf out of our vocabulary. But the mindset that created them is slowly becoming more entrenched. Just this week, the feminist comic Kate Smurthwaite was forced to cancel a gig at Goldsmiths, London University, because she’d been threatened by women activists who disagreed with her ‘disrespectful’ views on sex workers. Goldsmiths, with the trademark gutlessness of all London University colleges, supported the cancellation. The irony is that Smurthwaite didn’t plan to mention prostitution: her subject for the evening was to have been free speech.