05 January 2008

Political Correctness v Factual Correctness

Every so often I get embarrassed by people thinking I'm well-read. I've read more than most, sure, and probably forgotten more than many people will ever read, I'm sad to say, but this tends to leave me even more embarrassingly aware of the gaps in my reading; I've more than a handful of dusty books on my shelves, glaring at me and filling me with guilt for having neglected them.

I've been busy, though, and not merely with Bleak House.

But still, the gaps bother me.

Over the last couple of days I've read a few articles about George MacDonald Fraser, who died the other day, and have felt rather ashamed that I've not read one word of the Flashman books, despite having friends who adore them, one having several editions of each volume! I've read some Fraser, I'm glad to say, having picked up the superb The Steel Bonnets when on a trip to Hadrian's Wall a few years ago, but not his most famous work. This needs rectifying, but not till I've fulfilled two or three of my resolutions for this year. Two, probably.

Today's Daily Mail features a curious extract from Fraser's last book, The Light's On At Signpost. It's really little more than a rant against political correctness, which he sees as nothing more than a cowardly and hypocritical dishonesty; honesty was apparently the only virtue of his most notorious creation:
The philosophy of political correctness is now firmly entrenched over here, too, and at its core is a refusal to look the truth squarely in the face, unpalatable as it may be.

Political correctness is about denial, usually in the weasel circumlocutory jargon which distorts and evades and seldom stands up to honest analysis.

It comes in many guises, some of them so effective that the PC can be difficult to detect. The silly euphemisms, apparently harmless, but forever dripping to wear away common sense - the naivete of the phrase "a caring force for the future" on Remembrance poppy trays, which suggests that the army is some kind of peace corps, when in fact its true function is killing.

The continual attempt to soften and sanitise the harsh realities of life in the name of liberalism, in an effort to suppress truths unwelcome to the PC mind; the social engineering which plays down Christianity, demanding equal status for alien religions.

The selective distortions of history, so beloved by New Labour, denigrating Britain's past with such propaganda as hopelessly unbalanced accounts of the slave trade, laying all the blame on the white races, but carefully censoring the truth that not a slave could have come out of Africa without the active assistance of black slavers, and that the trade was only finally suppressed by the Royal Navy virtually single-handed.
I kind of see his point, in that I don't believe political correctness should ever trump factual correctness, but he goes too far: the greater part of what is nowadays called 'political correctness' is really just being polite and being fair. What's it Stewart Lee says, excoriating those who witter about 'political correctness gone mad'? 'Political correctness, that was shit, wasn't it? Being fair to people!'

Granted, our sense of propriety and politeness can at times render certain topics taboo, but the sometimes stifling effects of social convention predate political correctness by quite a way. Chesterton, for example, wrote in his Autobiography that
'The first thing to note, as typical of the modern tone, is a certain effect of toleration which actually results in timidity. Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.'
Just think: Gilbert wrote that in 1936, years before Orwell warned of the rise of newspeak. We don't need a Big Brother to tell what we can't say or think. Fear of a row is enough to rule all sorts of things off limits. Perhaps because, as GKC observes elsewhere, people usually quarrel because they don't know how to argue.

I think they should learn.

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