The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate
We are all fed up with political correctness. With tentacles that threaten to reach into every area of life, the leviathan of PC controls our politicians, biases our media and defines the limits and terms of public debate.
While it is easy to see how PC is wreaking havoc on our nation, still easier to laugh at its absurd excesses, few people actually understand what it is and where it comes from.
That is why Anthony Browne’s book The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain is so useful.
Published in 2006, this 94-page booklet not merely exposes the PC culture, but attempts to understand the psychology behind it and explain why otherwise intelligent people so easily come under its sway.
Browne suggests that PC is a kind of cultural Marxism. In its classical form, Marxism used economics as a single factor explanation for all history, suggesting that society is determined by ownership of means of production. Marxism thus sought to redistribute wealth. Political correctness does this, not with economics, but with culture, arguing that history and society are determined by which groups have power over other groups. These groups are defined in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, etc. PC then tries to distribute power from the powerful to the powerless.
The ideology of political correctness – which, unlike Marxism, is rarely thought through in any systematized form but is usually only felt – enables its advocates to categorize certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism. For example, homosexuals, Muslims, ethnic minorities and the developing world are all victims and must therefore be protected from criticism. Moreover, power must be redistributed so as to fall on the side of these groups.
To achieve the unspoken goal of redistributing power and making certain groups immune to criticism, Browne shows that political correctness needs to distort the facts and vilify opponents. As a journalist, Browne has witnessed this first hand. (He has been an economics correspondent for the BBC and the Observer, health editor and environment correspondent for the Observer, environment editor for The Times and, currently, Europe correspondent for The Times.) Drawing on his wide range of experience, Browne shows how PC
“Believing that their opponents are not just wrong but bad,” Browne notes, “the politically correct feel free to resort to personal attacks on them. If there is no explicit bad motive, then the PC can accuse their opponents of a sinister ulterior motive – the unanswerable accusation of ‘isms’. It is this self-righteous sense of virtue that makes the PC believe they are justified in suppressing freedom of speech. Political correctness is the dictatorship of virtue.”
One of the most interesting things in The Retreat of Reason was the numerous anecdotes of PC in practice. This includes examples of what happens when one group inconveniently falls on both sides of the PC divide. For example, PC doesn’t know what to do with Jamaican ‘homophobics’ who are simultaneously PC (because of being Jamaican) and un-PC (because of being anti-homosexuality). Perpetrators of halal slaughter have an implicit ‘victim status’ because of their ethnicity, though their practice is far worse than fox hunters, who have been given ‘oppressor status’ by the establishment.
The section I most enjoyed was chapter 8, titled ‘Discrimination.’ Browne laments the fact that, as a result of PC, it is no longer possible to have a rational discussion about discrimination. ‘Anyone who supports discrimination, either explicit or implicit, is vilified,’ he writes. However, Browne shows that the anti-discrimination lobby is guilty of a gross double standard, since many forms of discrimination are widely accept and unquestioned even by those who claim to advocate a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards discrimination. For example, age discrimination is standard practice in driver licensing in order to keep the roads safe. Pension companies practice sex discrimination by having men pay smaller pension contributions than women, for the simple fact that on average men live shorter lives. The issue, Browne suggests, is not whether discrimination is good or bad, but whether the particular form of discrimination in question is rational or irrational. It is the content of the discrimination that ought to be assessed in each specific case. However, the PC establishment refuses to recognize this simple fact since the war on discrimination would become meaningless if there were general public awareness that some forms of discrimination are actually needed and even taken for granted.
One of the areas where the book could have been improved was the chapter on the origins of PC. Browne believes that PC arose out of the mid 20th century and is a betrayal of ‘the Enlightenment.’ While it is true that the ‘soft totalitarianism’ and irrationalism of PC is, on the surface, contrary to the values of classical liberalism, Browne fails to see how PC is also the product of the Enlightenment. This is because those who championed human rights and liberty as free-standing values unhinged from any transcendent ethical framework, necessarily planted a self-destruct mechanism on the very values they sought to uphold. Within a man-centered worldview, human rights inevitably deteriorates into competition for rights; liberty unlooses itself from responsibility; morality is reduced to utilitarianism; Christian charity is replaced by its empty parody, tolerance, and tolerance itself becomes little more than licence. The result is a moral vacuum which the neo-morality of PC has sought to fill.
This way of viewing things (which is mine, not Browne’s) is reinforced with the observation that PC has become a substitute form of salvation for so many people. In an ultimate parody of the gospel, PC is a totalizing system that seeks to bring all reality under its grasp and will not rest content until all the kingdoms of this world have come under its dominion. This helps to explain the fixation PC has with policing our vocabulary. It is no coincidence that just as God created the earth through speech and began the work of recreation through the incarnate Word, so PC is trying to create a new world through the power of language. Browne quotes one scholar, apparently sympathetic of PC, saying that ‘Political correctness, for all its awfulness, is an effort to save souls through language.’
It is interesting that Browne does acknowledge that PC ‘is a belief system that echoes religion in…providing a gratifying sense of righteousness absent in our otherwise secular society.’ His solution, however, is not to fill the secular vacuum with true righteousness, but to recover the primacy of human reason.
Despite these qualms, I have no hesitation in heartily recommending this very readable little booklet. It is, quite simply, one of the most penetrating critiques of modern Britain that has ever been produced