By Frank Ellis

Vol. 7, Academic Questions, 09-01-1994, pp 77.

Frank Ellis is professor of Slavic studies at the University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, Great Britain.

Ideology offers freedom from doubt, a focal point for the disaffected, a refuge from reason. Thus, political correctness (PC) is not a complete stranger in the history of ideas. Behind the rainbow-colored mask lurks a familiar and deformed face. Orwell did not use the appellation "political correctness" in his analysis of language and ideology, yet the principles of Newspeak clearly anticipate some of the main trends and consequences of the PC platform. Likewise, Leslie Hartley's grim parable of compulsory egalitarianism, Facial Justice,[1] points to the dangers for freedom of expression in the leveling of language. So, in theory we British should be well-equipped to resist this less-than-desirable export from North America.

Publicity surrounding the trial by media of Clarence Thomas (referred to by one British paper as a "PC lynching party"[2]), the unexpected commercial success of Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf's The Official Politically Correct Dictionary & Handbook,[3] a steady stream of articles in the national and local press, not to mention lengthy reviews of Robert Hughes's Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America,[4] and, most recently, David Mamet's play Oleanna[5] all have raised the profile of PC in Britain.

Reactions to PC vary from wholehearted support to contempt and horror. Dismissed as "last month's flavour"[6] by Dr. John Casey, a history lecturer at Cambridge University, PC has nevertheless struck a chord at some of Britain's newer universities. The University of Middlesex has drawn up a paper calling for the banning of "unsound" words. Similarly, students attending teachers' training courses at Nottingham Polytechnic have been instructed to use words such as "cave-person," not "caveman." Tame by comparison with the American experience of PC, such proposals are seen by some as the thin end of the wedge. In the words of Giles Auty, art critic of The Spectator, "Within the next five years I fully expect to see the full horrors of political correctness imported lock, stock, and barrel from American academic institutions to our own."[7]

Students of American culture in Britain are divided on the question of PC's origins: has it grown from predominantly American soil, or have larger historical forces played a role? Sixties radicalism and the civil- rights movement offer some clues but fail to account for PC's self-projection as the only humane and coherent alternative to economic liberalism. This vision stems from radical Marxism and the American Left's well-documented infatuation with things Soviet, an infatuation shared by many British fellow-travelers. Here lies, I believe, the main reason for the emergence of PC from academic obscurity into the limelight of public awareness. With its grand design of collectivism, multiculturalism, and hostility to individual achievement, PC offers a custom-made palliative to the traumatized utopians who have watched the Potemkin villages of socialism collapse before their eyes.

Yet, in Britain as in America, the apostles of freedom cannot claim total victory, and the resulting failure to render the decline of collectivist ideology terminal has greatly facilitated the spread of PC. Two additional factors promote PC: concern over educational standards, and a deeply held belief among many British public-sector employers and employees that radically egalitarian policies are self-evidently a good thing.

Nothing is better designed to expose the fault lines of British society than the debate over educational standards. Central to this debate have been the arguments over the methods used in teaching and the content of English-language and English-literature courses. A good education, argue traditionalists, is synonymous with self-discipline and the pursuit of specific levels of attainment. Standards torment progressive educationalists. They highlight disparities between individuals and groups, hence must be either reduced to the lowest common denominator, and as a result discredited in the public mind, or, preferably, abolished altogether. Nobody is permitted to lose, but nobody is permitted to win, either.

Arguments about race, ethnicity, sex, the attack on the canon of literature, and the supposed evils of Eurocentrism are increasingly germane to Britain, whose cultural homogeneity is under threat from various single-issue groups. Amid this cultural fragmentation British English cannot remain unscathed.

Words are harbingers of change, and much of today's rapid change reflects the stunning success of American-led technological innovation. But, where progress is nurtured by the wider grasp and usage of new scientific and technical language, the vocabulary of PC freezes debate, criticism, and constructive change. Sheltered from the buffeting of intellectual intercourse, a radical elite foists its loaded terminology into the language and, in the name of socio-economic justice, denies to others the right to challenge it. This unquestioned imposition of PC jargon and linguistic restrictions stands in marked contrast to the traditional and gradual development of proper English, now reviled as "logocentric" or a "patriarchal conspiracy." In a typically Marxist sleight-of-hand, PC demarcates the boundaries of truth and falsehood before they have been established. Agreement is all that is permitted. For, to oppose or to criticize PC is to expose oneself to charges of racism, sexism, or any of the complex formulations (e.g., ableism) that the PC cohorts have cooked up to banish insensitivity. Fallacies exist in all political and philosophical systems. For the most part they are unintentional. PC, however, uses fallacy and jargon as a weapon. It is this insidious inversion of traditional intellectual discourse that makes PC so damaging.

The general decline in British educational standards (adapting them to the needs of the "intellectually challenged," if you will) has expedited the PC agenda. Western liberal education has traditionally sought to develop clear and precise thinking. Reading and writing are considered essential to this training. Houston Baker's views, quoted in Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, that "reading and writing are merely technologies of control, "[8] are probably too extreme to find much support in Britain, at least publicly, but accuracy in reading and writing in a person's education is no longer insisted upon and cannot be taken for granted.

The casting out of traditional measures for reading and writing has serious consequences for both students and the whole process of informed, democratic decision-making. In the words of John Rae, an outspoken critic of progressive educational theory, "A good grounding in correct English is not just an essential tool in a world dominated by communication. It is a filter through which half-truths and misleading generalizations cannot pass. "[9] Undermining the disciplines of grammar has had a further, unintended effect. Encouraged by ideologically motivated teachers of English to accept that English grammar is irrelevant, American and British students are being denied the preparation essential for the mastery of any inflected language.

At stake is nothing less than the serious study of literature in the British university, with its emphasis on reflection and intellectual independence. If present trends continue, one can foresee a time when Shakespeare and Swift will simply be beyond the reach of most students. Unable to read (or discouraged from reading) these great authors, let alone able to analyze them, they will lack the intellectual experience and confidence to challenge the orthodoxy of the Rainbow Coalition.

The Soviet experience is instructive. Soviet ideology sought to harness nineteenth-century Russian writers to the task of building socialism. But there was a basic and irreconcilable contradiction between the love of freedom expressed by these writers and their would-be appropriators, which became clearer with every twist of the totalitarian screw. The ideologues of PC have learned an important lesson from the failure of Communist indoctrination: it is not enough to deconstruct or to appropriate potentially hostile writers; ideally, they must not be read at all. Academic fashion and inertia are proving markedly hostile to the canon of English literature. A survey conducted by Dr. Tim Cook, of Kingston Polytechnic, for example, of 31 institutions in Britain brought to light some alarming facts about the changing nature of the literature curriculum. Half the institutions examined did not require Shakespeare to be studied; at two universities it was possible to obtain a degree in English literature without reading Shakespeare at all. The outlook for Chaucer and Milton was equally gloomy. Yet in two-thirds of the institutions all students read feminist writers such as Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and Angela Carter. Devotees of Atwood et al. are certainly entitled to claim a place for them in the curriculum. However, a question they seem reluctant to confront is whether the resulting university "degree in English literature" will be able to retain its status as an emblem of familiarity with England's rich literary and cultural landscape.

American supporters of PC's program would, one feels, unstintingly approve of the language, style, and sentiments expressed in an increasing number of documents issued by public-sector bodies in Britain. The National Health Service, the National Union of Teachers, the Open University, the Equal opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Central Council for the Education and Training in Social Work (CCETSW) have embraced the new linguistic codes with exemplary zeal. CCETSW would have us believe that "racism is endemic in the values, attitudes and structures of British society."[10] Those hoping to acquire a diploma in social work must "demonstrate a commitment to anti-oppressive practice."[11] "Anti- oppressive practice" makes all the assumptions of the PC agenda: gender is a social construct, women are oppressed by systematic stereotyping, non-fluency in English should not be a handicap to employment (even, presumably, in jobs where fluency is clearly vital, e.g., interpreter or air traffic controller). To this standard inventory must be added what CCETSW refers to as "clientism"--"the philosophy of seeing some clients of the social services as less equal than others."[12] As Barbara Amiel observes, "It is unlikely that council will designate white, male, middle class or Conservatives as approved victims of 'clientism.'"[13] Were it confined to the sociology department of a fashionably radical university, such posturing might be harmless. Unfortunately, CCETSW has an annual budget of some twenty million pounds, and its edicts are slavishly supported by government bureaucrats who have no stomach for confrontation. Thus, with their wide terms of reference, with substantial funding from the public purse, and armed with considerable powers backed by legislation, social workers are well placed to pursue a brand of social engineering that will have a major impact on British academic life. The fundamental flaw in the psychology of PC is the belief that social and economic justice can be purchased by denying or hiding unpleasant facts. This policy brings short-term gain--politicians can be frightened into providing ever more money--but in the long term it is a recipe for disaster.

The American experience of PC provides a grim warning for Britain. PC's brand of censorship and social engineering is highly dysfunctional: intellectual excellence--so vital to a country's prosperity--is despised and persecuted; incompetence goes unpunished, and is even rewarded; universities are corrupted; social stability is grievously undermined. These are not the birth-pains of a new, more equitable society. Taken together, they herald regression into violent mediocrity, and even, possibly, into permanent decline.


1. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1960.
2. Editorial, The Sunday Times, 20 October 1991, 5.
3. New York: Villard Books, 1992.
4. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
5. New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 1992.
6. Fran Abrams, "Varsity Masters a New Language," The Sunday Telegraph, 28 June 1992, 1.
7. Giles Auty, "The Enemy Within," The Spectator, 31 July 1993, 34.
8. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 6.
9. Too Little, Too Late? The Challenges That Still Face British Education (London: Fontana, 1989), 92.
10. Quoted in Barbara Amiel, "Lady Bountiful's Lethal Little Society List," The Sunday Times, 11 October 1992, 4.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.

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