Mark Greene seeks to free up speech in our politically correct world

I’m not terribly fond of political correctness.

You may, of course, conclude that it’s because I am an unreconstructed, anti-Semitic, racist, sexist pig. However, since I am Jewish by birth, English by birthplace, Celtic-Pict/Russo- Polish by gene pool and ceased chauvinistically careering down corridors to open doors for women within ten seconds of reading chapter one of The Female Eunuch I’d like to see some concrete evidence of my pathology.

Actually, there is plenty of evidence. I confess that I have, on several occasions, remarked on the appearance of women who’ve worked for me, complimenting them on their new hairstyle or some particularly elegant ensemble. You need to know that I have also done this with the men I’ve worked with, though less frequently because:

Men tend to restyle their hair less frequently than women and Men don’t do ‘particularly elegant’ as often.

Of course, the original motivation for much PC culture was positive. Discrimination has been rampant for centuries – against women, homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, gypsies, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, Asians, African- Caribbeans, the French... And there’s no place for it in the gospel of the one in whom there is no Jew or Greek, male or female. Similarly, power has long been abused to pressurise others to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do: to respond to a boss’ sexual advances for fear of losing a promotion; to accept a demeaning nickname for fear of the consequences of challenging authority; to agree to crash a racing car on lap 15 of the Singapore Grand Prix for fear of losing your job. Every context of power creates opportunity for abuse. PC’s goal, then, is essentially to create ‘right relationships’ – another way of expressing love for neighbour. Amen to that.

But PC culture often goes too far.

So here’s an example. My son was five. He falls over in the playground. There’s blood and a big bruise and a bit of a shock. What do I want his 25-year-old female teacher to do? I want her to pick him up, clean him up and give him a hug. But she can’t. Or doesn’t feel she can. She can pick him up, locate another adult and help supervise the application of a plaster.

But actually a five-year-old needs a hug. In fact, a five-yearold instinctively knows that a hug is what the doctor would have ordered. As far as the child is concerned the adult has actually behaved inappropriately by not giving him a hug. Similarly, you may recall the news story of a kiddies’ summer trip to the beach when the teachers would not put sun cream on the children’s legs for fear of suspension. The children got burnt.

A Culture of Fear

PC culture ends up hurting those it was designed to protect. PC culture ends up turning carers into spectators of pain. We overcome evil with bad.

Like the Pharisees, zeal for the cause can take PC culture to destructive extremes. Just as Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for tithing mint and rue and neglecting to love their father and mother, so political correctness often shrinks relationships on the skewer of tiny behaviours rather than enhancing them. So, I meet the head of science at a major comprehensive. For years he’d taken teens on a summer trip but PC culture has made it all too dangerous. All it could take would be a hand on a shoulder and he’d risk instant suspension.

The result is that PC culture has created an atmosphere of fear – a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing that often works to diminish the quality of our relationships. We become so sensitised to the possibility that we might do or say something wrong that we don’t do or say what we know is really the right thing. I’m all for CRB checks, I’m all for vigilance, I’m all for weeding out the ingrained sexism of so much of our culture but I’m not for a system that distances people more effectively than it draws them together. And in PC world, fear casts a chill shadow on even the most innocent interactions.

So, for example, I work with a number of women. Most people do. Last week we put on a special event and the women in the team dressed up rather splendidly. Now, in any normal human relationship, if someone makes a particular effort with their appearance, it is actually somewhat rude to ignore it. To say nothing, implies indifference or disapproval. Nevertheless, in our PC world, I found myself wondering whether I, as their older, male boss, could compliment them on their appearance. And if I did, what kind of a compliment would be appropriate? Should I couch it in professional terms? Say, “I appreciate you dressing in a manner that is so well aligned with our corporate goals and brand identity?” Or should I just say, “You look gorgeous.” Actually, what I said to one of them was: “May I give you a compliment?” And then, “You look gorgeous.”

Still, what, you might well ask, happens in a year’s time when their performance slips and I have to put them on probation? How then will the interaction be remembered? What charges might emerge when the relationship has changed?

And here is the nub of the issue: PC culture lacks any reliable mechanism to assess the quality of the relationship that exists between people and which actually determines whether what we say is racist or prejudiced or harassing – spiritually or sexually – or just fun or affirming.

Communication theory tells us that only seven per cent of the significance of a verbal communication is carried by the words – there are a lot of ways to say “Bless you” – the rest is voice tone, body language and the quality of the relationship that underpins the communication. So my brother calls me “Big Nose”. When we meet he often lifts his arm up to his face in imitation of an elephant’s trunk. He does this because he loves me. Apparently.

It is the quality of the relationship that determines the significance of the communication. So, soldiers who are training to fight for each other’s lives often coin nicknames which celebrate and value differences and idiosyncrasies and the particular things that make them “them” but which are often decidedly politically incorrect. However, far from being derogatory, I suspect that such naming can sometimes be a celebration of the trust that has rendered such taboo terms innocuous. Indeed, a nickname can be a badge of acceptance by the group. Still, outside that context, a nickname like ‘Taffy’ simply sounds racist. PC culture, however, can only censor. It cannot allow the term to be redeemed. PC world may seek to liberate people from being stereotyped but it can simultaneously deny the particularity of who they are or stifle the possibility of changing the associations of particular words. In seeking the good, it can become the enemy of the best.

Nevertheless, both the gospel and PC culture share a common desire for right relationships. So the key to freedom in speech and to the negotiating the PC culture minefield is the ability to develop dynamic, trusting relationships where we do not seek power over others, where we serve their interests and where they trust us to do so. The antidote to PC culture is to exercise the central tenet of JC world. Love: “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). But this love must be expressed, as one diversity exercise underlines, by seeking to communicate, not merely in ways that we would like, but in ways that those we relate to would like. The more that we genuinely love others, the more trust grows, and the more freedom we have. The less we love, the less trust exists. And when love and trust recede, rules rush in to imprison us all. When love and trust erode, legalism grows.

It’s a tragedy that power is abused but it will be a greater tragedy if we cannot find ways to build the kind of trusting, liberated relationships with co-workers and neighbours that allow us to celebrate difference and distinction with good-natured humour, as well as to stand against the corrosive racism and sexism that still characterises our society.

But you don’t get to call me “Big Nose”.

I’m very sensitive about that kind of thing.

Unless of course you are also prepared to lift your arm to your face in imitation of an elephant’s trunk. Then you will look ridiculous. And you know someone’s on your side when they are prepared to look ridiculous for you.