The Politics of the Forked Tongue: authoritarian liberalism
by Aidan Rankin, New European Publications
As the reaction to Prince Charles's recently leaked private missives
to government ministers shows, the term "politically correct"
remains a subject of deep controversy. The term probably originated
as a light-hearted joke. Later, conservatives transformed it into
a term of abuse with which to caricature the actions and behaviour
of American liberals and leftists. But, as with all successful caricatures,
it touches a raw nerve: namely, widespread, if inarticulate, public
resentment against the growing tendency to regulate and restrict
the sphere of personal relationships.
The controversy surrounding political correctness has been a confused
one. Many of the early attacks on PC had the character of a passionate
rant by rightwing ideologues who were uncomfortable with developments
in a changing world. In turn, denial of the existence of PC, or
dismissal of it as a right-wing fabrication, still characterises
the response of some liberal and left-wing academics.
This confusing state of discussion is not helped by the rhetorical
flourishes that surround it. The focus on its most extreme and ludicrous
manifestations detracts from grasping the key features of its development.
What is interesting about PC is not its well-rehearsed condemnation
of middle-class, white, male power or its embrace of identity politics:
the campus variety of PC may turn out to be its least significant
manifestation. What is important about PC is that it offers a new
etiquette - a moralising project - for the policing and regulation
of individual conduct and interpersonal relationships.
The Politics of the Forked Tongue represents a serious
attempt to account for the formidable influence of PC. According
to Aidan Rankin, the decline of left-wing politics and its retreat
from economics led to a reorientation towards the issue of identity.
This development in effect marked a shift in focus from the "macro"
to the "micro" - "from broader concerns with the
economy and society towards far more trivial issues involving the
way people lead their lives".
Unfortunately, Rankin is distracted from elaborating these important
insights by his own preoccupation with the divisive consequence
of PC identity politics. He presents the PC agenda as consisting
of the celebration of inclusion through the promotion of "difference",
leading to the Balkanisation of "the population along racial
or sexual lines". But his analysis of the way PC politicises
the "trivial issues" of everyday life remains underdeveloped.
Rankin's conservative critique has sensitised him to what he calls
the "liberal surrender" to PC. But he is less forthcoming
on the conservative embrace of PC. At a time when the Countryside
Alliance routinely plays the victim card, and when Prince Charles
uses the language of diversity to refer to the rural population
as a minority, it is evident that liberals and leftists do not have
a monopoly of harnessing the influence of PC. Instead of blaming
the influence of the rise of "permissive society", Rankin
would do better to explore the collapse of traditional conservatism
and its incapacity to evolve a moral vision appropriate to a changing
world. The disintegration of conservatism was as much responsible
for the rise of PC as the transformation of the left as the preserve
of personal and micro politics.
The success of PC has been underwritten by its ability to reflect
and relate to the contemporary experience of individuation. Its
solution is to offer a guide to conduct based on the experience
of the isolated individual. Instead of attempting to reintegrate
the individual into a wider community, it seek to "empower"
people through subjecting them to enlightened monitoring. Its intrusive
regulation of individual life is often couched in rhetoric that
is commonly associated with the left, even if, in truth, its success
owes more to the consummation of traditional morality. Many of the
key features of this new etiquette-its puritanical zealousness,
its obsessive concern with the appropriate use of language, the
worship of safety, the emphasis on restraint and limitation-- are
consistent with the basic tenets of traditional conservatism. The
paternalist instinct of Victorian times has simply been liberated
from its traditional baggage and recycled in an individualised,
relativistic and maternalist form.
Rankin believes that the days of PC are numbered-"a reaction
against it is already beginning". If only it were so! Unfortunately,
this "reaction" seldom offers any convincing alternatives.
That is why, in this period of intellectual confusion and moral
illiteracy, the forces backing PC are likely to gain greater momentum.
Politics are likely to become more micro. Personal affairs will
become less private. And society will probably be dominated by the
discussion of issues hitherto regarded as not fit for public deliberation.
published in the New Statesman 14 October 2002