Principles and political correctness


One of the dilemmas in life is how to challenge bigotry without reinforcing it (by pushing people away from us and our viewpoint) . 

And it’s made even more difficult in an environment where PC is a pariah.

Given PC is a handy button which seems to release jeers every time bigots press it, we’re clearly in a difficult environment when we try to influence people towards social justice and equalities.

Wikipedia’s definition of of PC suggests it gained strength because our challenges overdid it:  “Political correctness (adjectivally, politically correct; both forms commonly abbreviated to PC) is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behaviour seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, and, as purported by the term, doing so to an excessive extent.”  (my italics)

In fact, Wikipedia outlines how the phrase was actually revived by the New Left in the 70’s to guard against the tendency to overdo it: “The New Left later re-appropriated the term political correctness as satirical self-criticism; per Debra Shultz: "Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the New Left, feminists, and progressives . . . used their term politically correct ironically, as a guard against their own orthodoxy in social change efforts".

So far so good,  but in the 90s the New Right seized it as a stick to beat progressive education in universities and schools, as part of their intentional rolling- back of the modern world, seemingly towards the dubious comforting visions found in parts of the Old Testament.

But it caught on beyond the right wing ideologues as PC became the popular  buzzword to deflate any attempts to challenge oppressive language or behaviour: and ridicule is powerful stuff.   Try reading ‘The Modern Parents’ in Viz , lampooning a stereotype of self-deluding excess.

As the New Left realised in 70s, it works as a stereotype because sometimes we are crass and pompous and self-righteous  like that – I remember an article in The Observer from someone who happily joined a Woodcraft Folk event and came away reeling from encounters with “some of the most judgmental people on this planet”.  Did they forget to hide their Cola can?   

This negative reaction against attempts to promote social justice and equality are partly caused by the huge focus we place on language – it can come across as a middle class hobby-horse, rooted in bookishness. If it appears elitist and pretentious,  it is further rejected because it feels threatening: challenges can humiliate anyone who isn’t privileged with this access to alternative information. That’s how the scoffers triumph – they paint the image of an Interfering Elitist to drown any thinking about the real bedrocks of our society – racism, patriarchy, capitalism.  


How to tackle this ? Can we gird ourselves with a bit of anger first ?  PC as a concept was grabbed by the New Right as a way to silence any view deemed unconservative;  it’s a stranglehold on us all, reinforcing ideas which promote the status quo or even reversion to the past which serves the interests of WASP wealthy males ( a women’s place in the home, children seen and not heard, gay people in the closet, etc etc – all pushed onto the back-foot and on the receiving end) .

So let’s find ways to raise the issues without confirming the stereotype. Our own jokes about the New Right can help to convey our disgust but laced with humour (Bill Hicks anyone? Yes, dodgy on a number of liberal fronts but he took on the many of the New Right’s gods in their faces. Jo Brand ?). Because the bigots are ridiculous and we have to laugh.

And I’ve found that mocking of bigotry can also be helped along by stories which express how the status quo is wrecking  life for everyone and how bigotry helps this unequal world to promote itself as if it's natural, setting us up by dividing and ruling. And that could be a strong card; people understand Divide and Rule - it's another popular notion which we can use to counter-act jibes of PC.  I’d love to hear everyone’s ideas on how we can be effective in challenging bigotry  – let’s share what works and boldly go...

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Comment by Lorna Prescott on October 18, 2011 at 7:03
Thanks all
This is a really helpful discussion and has given me some thoughts on approaches to use in my office, which is where I hear prejudice against all sorts of groups of people.
Comment by Nick Beddow on October 9, 2011 at 8:54

hi Kate, most of the list is my summarised version of Alison's book, without her much more considered writing - and the bit you didn't like was one of mine :)

Here's a thought - Freire taught us to support learning from people's own experiences and interests, so that they develop their own critical analysis of the world, starting from their place within it. One experience I had was with a leader of a Tenants Group who clearly seemed to believe that racist jokes were a way of easing the tension in any room. So when we had some private time to talk, I asked him about his favourite music. We talked about Elvis and Shake Rattle & Roll. Next time I brought him a book to read about Big Joe Turner and we discussed why the white imitators made all the money while the black creators struggled. Capitalism and racism were immediately grasped and connected - and intrigued the activist to read more on similar lines.


Last thought - I think you're right about that last but one line - it should have read "encourage others to speak about their own experiences of being discriminated against" as this gives the opening to discuss how other discriminations operate similarly or differently

Comment by Kate Gordon on October 8, 2011 at 20:58

Ruminating eh?  - I hope it doesn't breach board rules!  ;-)


I like that list (which I presume is quoted from Alison Gilchrist's book?)  apart from the last but one bullet point:  I've never found it that helpful to bring in personal experience in as it's a distraction, and makes no difference at the policy level.   Personal experience obviously shapes ideas and opinions, but I think the other points are much more useful for channelling them towards policy development.   

Comment by Nick Beddow on October 8, 2011 at 19:56

Hi Kate,

thanks ! 


I've been ruminating (oo-er)

Dilemmas, problems...


If any of us wants to challenge Inequality, then a number of questions might help (many drawn from Alison Gilchrist's book mentioned earlier):

What do you focus on so that you aren’t prioritising one equality over another (reflecting your personal bias?)

Here’s a few thoughts about how we approach Equalities work in a practical way:

Can we start by defining “equitable” ? and win-win / mutual benefit (The Spirit Level book explores how inequality damages even the so-called winners in an unequal world) ? And Solidarity?

Then get specific in any setting:

Can we prioritise making time for 121 informal discussions about inequalities (as it sets the basis for group discussions later?)

Can we avoid blaming the person and keep focus on behaviour? (see the Video  on NatCAN site: “How to tell someone about racism”?

Can we focus on rights for all and who has rights now?

Can we discuss Access  for all? Who has it and who doesn’t and why?

Can we discuss Choice and who can exercise it and who faces barriers which constrain choice?

Can we discuss Respect – whose views and cultures are respected now and whose are disrespected?

Can we discuss Resources? Who has them and who hasn’t, and why?

Can we discuss Opportunities – who has them? Whose are limited? And why?

Can we discuss Power?  Who has it? who doesn’t? Why?

Can we discuss Decision-making, and how decisions are reached, and who makes the decisions now? And who gets left out?

Can we discuss Perceptions? What positive images exist of each community? What negatives ? where do they come from ? with what impact on the receiving end?

Can we discuss our own experiences of being discriminated against? How did it feel? What motivated it?

From the above discussion, can we discuss, with empathy, how others face discrimination, why and how it affects their lives?



Then can we move towards agreeing new standards or guidelines or policies or strategies to make a real difference to tackling inequalities ?

To do this, can we invite speakers from specific Equalities groups?

Can we organise joint meetings between communities who have different cultures ?

Can we counter any attacks on the right of groups who face discrimination to organise separately ?

Can we look at our own communities from existing profiles and see how our membership reflects or doesn’t reflect the diversity ?

Can we gather stories about inequalities to demonstrate the impact on people’s lives? And stories about struggles against inequalities, to develop empathy and solidarity? ?

And can we find support from others who want to make a stand, because it can get very lonely ? Can we find someone to help us reflect on what works and doesn’t work in challenging inequalities? (timing? Information? Self-revelation and sharing experiences? )

Comment by Kate Gordon on October 8, 2011 at 17:18
I find mockery works best, and is so much more satifying. On a serious note, mockery is great when you're dealing with people who should know better - people who are supposed to be intelligent, have got themselves into decent positions where they are able to influence others. It's in the interests of policy makers, managers, etc, to perpetuate stereotyped images and/or fuel bigotry to get policies through that keep people fighting amongst themselves so they can stay in their positions of power.
I think you need to separate out the individual from the organisational (institutional), and use different approaches, not necessarily one approach or another.
If you can show people how they're being used in someone else's game, that's a good start. The 'Prevent' strategy was a great example of manipulation.. unfortunately, some VCOs got sucked in as it had ££ attached :-(
Comment by Nick Beddow on October 7, 2011 at 10:53
And very highly recommended is Alison Gilchrist's 2007 guide, "Equalities & Communities" (co-published by CDF and CDX) :) Looks at the dilemmas and complications and gives some ideas on how to boldly go...
Comment by Nick Beddow on October 6, 2011 at 20:50

I'm a young whipper-snapper myself, thankyou kindly :)

It's chicken and egg I guess Joe -to my mind,  if we don't challenge bigotry we may find it continues to deflect people from tackling the root causes and keeps them trapped in a false mindset and divided from each other. And bigotry can have a life of its own, gathering its own momentum - for example, the continued divide between working class catholics and working class protestants long after the economic and social advantages of protestants tieing themselves to the protestant bosses had waned. Peace and love, anyone?

Comment by joe taylor on October 6, 2011 at 20:33
>Right, I'm talking to myself (it's a Birmingham thing)
You'll find yourself doing more of that as you get older mate. It's easier to talk things through with the person who knows best rather than explain life to young whippersnappers. 
You ask how to challenge bigotry without reinforcing it?
I remember a woman in New Zealand who used to shake her head then say 'You miss so much that is wonderful in life simply by being a bigot.' Then she used to smile and walk away. I can't remember anyone coming back with an adequate response to that one.
In a way, isn't trying to counter to the language of bigotry a bit of a sticking-plaster job? 
Aren't bigotry, intolerance and racism outcomes emerging from social and financial inequality?  If we could deal with the root causes of inequality, might there not be as much bigotry around to deal with?
Comment by Nick Beddow on October 6, 2011 at 18:42
Right, I'm talking to myself (it's a Birmingham thing). One really effective way of challenging bigotry is through empathy; supporting people to explore their own experiences of oppression (how it feels; what assumptions are being made about them; where these assumptions come from in our society); and then exploring how other oppressions come about and how they keep everyone down. More later - very tired today but looking forward to hearing from you

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