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 right-wing 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 seeks 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.
Frank Furedi is the author of Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane, The Penguin Press)