The moment you condemn something or someone for being “Politically Correct”, you have transformed yourself from being a billionaire businessman, a media pundit, or the bloke down the street, and have instantly become a champion of the oppressed silent majority against the murky and invisible forces of darkness that are supposedly imposing Political Correctness on us.
“I love this new world. I no longer have to be politically correct”: thus spoke US small town politician Christopher von Keyserling, as he was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a colleague at work in the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States.
The only unusual thing about this story is that it involved an arrest. After all, even in Trump’s America, grabbing someone by the crotch to make your point in the middle of an argument is still assault.
Generally, when people use the PC word as a term of abuse, they do so, not to justify criminal behaviour, but to avoid the trouble of having defend their prejudices and antipathies. “Political Correctness” has become the most overworked, meaningless and pernicious expression in the global political vocabulary – much more insidious than that quaint term “Fascist”, which people on the left used once to apply so readily to anyone they couldn’t be bothered to argue with.
Popularised by the American political right around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the “PC” term has gained extraordinary traction. And, on reflection, it’s easy to see why. It is one of the great labour saving devices of the twentieth century. As Trump himself put it, in a moment of uncanny insight, “I’m not politically correct, because to be politically correct just takes too much time.”
Not only does use of the PC word save the hard work of having to engage in discussion with those you disagree with. It is also one of those magic terms that philosopher J. L. Austin called “performative” words. Just by speaking the phrase you can make something happen. The moment you condemn something or someone for being “Politically Correct”, you have transformed yourself from being a billionaire businessman, a media pundit, or the bloke down the street, and have instantly become a champion of the oppressed silent majority against the murky and invisible forces of darkness that are supposedly imposing Political Correctness on us.
The ultimate absurdity came a few days after von Keyserling’s arrest, not in the US but in Melbourne, when media company QMS removed a billboard advertising an Australia Day festival from public display. Among a range of faces representing the diversity of Australian society, the billboard had included a photo of two smiling girls waving Australian flags and wearing hijabs: Muslim headscarves.
Not face-concealing burquas. Not military uniforms. Headscarves.
Remember those things that our monarch and Princess Anne used to wear in the days when they made frequent appearances at horse shows? (Oddly, the Royals seem to have given up on the headscarf lately – maybe they’re trying avoid the risk of being labelled Politically Correct).
The girl’s headscarves may have covered fractionally more of their hair and neck that Queen Elizabeth’s did, and probably reflected their religious beliefs. But is it therefore also an offense to Australian public sensitivities to show pictures of Jewish Australians wearing kippahs, Anglican clergymen wearing dog-collars or devout Catholics covering their heads with mantillas? I couldn’t help wondering how those two young girls felt about having been firmly told that their faces are too upsetting to their fellow Australian citizens to be on public display.
But showing their faces in public was, of course, “Political Correctness”, and therefore had to be stamped out. Which it promptly was, by a wave of abuse and hostility on Twitter and Facebook and (reportedly) by threatening messages sent to QMS.
In 2017, silencing the free expression of opinion by sending threatening messages to those whose view of Australian identity you disagree with is, apparently, a perfectly acceptable part of political life. But showing the faces of two young Australians wearing their choice of headgear is “Political Correctness”, and we can’t have any of that, particularly not so close to Australia Day.
Yet, while our political leaders remained resoundingly silent on the issue (presumably out of fear that they too might get tarred with the PC brush) another side of Australia made its voice heard. A couple of days after the billboard came down, an online campaign launched by advertising executive Dee Madigan of Campaign Edge raised around $90,000 from ordinary Australians in ten hours to put it back up again. In fact, the campaign raised enough money to multiply the message by putting the two girls’ beautiful smiling faces on billboards across the country.
So, it’s time for a new acronym. I commend it to our leaders who have so far been standing by with limp apathy as Anti-PC-gone-mad is allowed to trample over cultural dialogue and reasoned political debate.
HD stands for Human Decency. It’s still out there alive and well somewhere in the community. The sooner we get a bit of it back into politics at home and around the world, the better for everyone.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki is professor of Japanese History at the ANU.