Condemnations of ‘political correctness’ typically follow the lines of opposition to conformity, with veiled undertones of disapproval for not only left-wing social politics but any explicit political activism whatsoever. An article recently published by The Daily Mail makes the completely invalid comparison between political correctness and fascism, deeming it ‘censorship’ of challenging ideas by a generation of conformists. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the motivations behind recent student-led movements in support of tolerance and the politically correct.
The article claims that demands from students at the University of Cambridge to ban historian David Starkey from promotional videos, along with recent actions at other UK universities, demonstrates students’ “tyrannical arrogance to think they should be the arbiters of which voices should and should not be heard”.Such an estimation presents the issue as one of censorship, relying on the assumption that confronting a view one finds harmful is always motivated by selfish and undirected aggression of fascistic proportions.
The students at Cambridge, Warwick, Cardiff, Goldsmiths and even here in Edinburgh have taken direct action against individuals and views that represent the politically incorrect on the behalf of those who are oppressed or who have been long gone unnoticed by our society’s dominant ideology. They are not on the side of the majority; it is the majority that they are fighting to change.
While the concept of ‘correctness’ is flawed, implying an agreement among the majority regarding what is acceptable and what is considered wrong, the idea of sensitivity is an uncomplicated one. Yet critics of PC restrictions consistently decry and underestimate the degree of seriousness non-PC views hold for their opponents and victims.
The issue goes beyond what the Mail calls ‘inappropriate’ views and actions. Racist, transphobic, misogynistic or otherwise offensive views that consistently cause people to be killed are not simply ‘harmful’ or ‘challenging’. Speech may be free, but we do not have to accept all views unconditionally.
Challenging hate speech and individuals who exploit the sensationalism that it seems to inspire among critics of political correctness is not conformity. In a society in which celebrity is so often based on provoking outrage celebrated as honesty or the courage to say what one truly believes, it is deeply hypocritical to target those who protest offensive views as part of their own system of beliefs.
It is critical to recognise that student protests against the appearance of controversial figures like David Starkey, Katie Price, or Germaine Greer are fundamentally different in intention and method than acts of censorship. Cases of book-burning and fascistic oppression of dissent are certainly dangerous and unacceptable, but unlike recent protests and cases of student activism, they are enacted to maintain the status quo. A response inspired by blind hatred, which does not propose any alternative policy to the one it opposes is not reform. But critics of student protestors must recognise that that is not what is happening here.
Organised counter-movements in response to politically incorrect views are not random acts of alarmism, ‘hissy fits’ or the hot-headed products of unrealistic naïveté. Students who push for increased tolerance are motivated by the desire to change the dominant ideology of the past through an exercise of their rights as citizens of democratic states. Adding consideration to our beliefs and public declarations is an infinitely smaller price to pay in comparison to the well-being of those who have experienced real discrimination.