Andrew Thorpe-Apps stands up for gaffes and golliwogs.
Peter Hitchens notes in The Abolition of Britain that political correctness is the ‘most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation’. One may speak and act only within the confines of a strict set of societal ‘norms’. The imposed orthodoxy of being ‘politically correct’ is an agonising step towards totalitarianism.
Political correctness was around before 1997, but it took on a new level during the Blair years. Those who questioned New Labour’s immigration policies were frequently labelled as racist or bigoted. The Government pushed for legislation to criminalise ‘politically incorrect’ jokes. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is a particularly worrying piece of legislation. It states that a person is guilty of an offence if he uses any insulting words or behaviour, which are likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
The ‘PC’ phenomenon is not unique to Britain. Indeed, it has become vehement in all ‘western’ nations over the past two decades. Yet the UK certainly has its fair share of bizarre cases. There was the woman taken to an employment tribunal for not offering a hairdressing job to a Muslim wearing a headscarf. There was the man who lost his job because he suggested that his customers should learn English. Finally, there was the 65-year-old grandmother charged with racially aggravated harassment for putting a golliwog in the window of her home.
The golliwog has become a potent symbol of the struggle against political correctness. PC-enthusiast and divisive ‘community leader’ Lee Jasper (who maintains that black people ‘cannot be racist’) led a demonstration against a shop in Sutton selling the dolls in October 2011. According to Jasper, golliwogs are ‘dangerous’, promote racism and are an ‘anti-Black political symbol’.
It would be interesting to hear from Mr Jasper how exactly a toy can ‘promote’ any form of discrimination or political repression. Yet that is for another discussion. The point is that Lee Jasper and others have apparently decided that golliwogs are offensive, and have unilaterally declared that shops can no longer sell them. They seek to impose a particular societal orthodoxy, and any who oppose this – for example, by continuing to sell golliwogs or arguing that they are not racist symbols – are in danger of falling foul of a police force that often feel compelled to ‘fall in line’.
Blatant racism, discrimination and abusive behaviour must not be tolerated. It is certainly right that Britain should have strong laws to deal with people who are actively causing harm to others. But this must not come at the expense of free speech and expression. People must not be afraid to express their opinion, even where that opinion does not fit with the ‘majority view’.
Motor racing legend Sir Stirling Moss recently made a public ‘gaffe’ by saying he did not want to be played by a ‘poofter’ in a film. He quickly apologised for any offence caused and stated that he believed the actor would have to be ‘masculine’ since Sir Stirling was apparently quite the ‘ladies man’ in his youth. Some groups had demanded an apology from Moss, with one gay-rights activist saying he ‘shouldn’t have used the word poofter’.
The Moss incident is worthy of comment for a number of reasons. Firstly, Moss is saved by his age and fame. As an 83-year-old, he lived at a time when homosexuality was illegal. His views are inevitably shaped by his experience, and so he cannot reasonably be judged by modern standards. Also, his notoriety means that the police would never bring charges for fear of an inevitable public outcry. However, many others would not enjoy such protection, and as the previous examples show, individuals have come unstuck on far more trivial matters.
Secondly, it simply does not make sense to demand an apology. A forced apology is of no more value than a forced confession. Moss volunteered an apology for any offence caused – although he would have been equally right not to have apologised at all since he merely voiced an opinion. The reality is that Moss apologised not because he thought he had done wrong, but because he did not want his name to be tarnished.
Thirdly, the activist’s comment that Moss should not have used the word ‘poofter’ creates an intriguing parallel with Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. In the novel, the Party relentlessly chips away at the English language in an attempt to restrict people’s ability to express discontent.
There is clearly a balance to be struck between free speech and protection from abuse and discrimination. Yet the scales are currently lopsided, with frivolous accusations being brought against people for expressing an opinion or performing activities which have no actual detriment to the complainant.
We must confront political correctness wherever we find it and never be afraid to speak freely.