Anti-Conservative protesters. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty
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What's wrong with political correctness?

It’s easy to criticise call-out culture. It’s harder to look into your own heart and ask if you can do better.

The year is 1994 and the place is a small suburban kitchen in Sussex. I’m nine years old and I’m sitting at the table, slopping Frosties into my mouth and reading Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. Some friends of my parents bought it for me as a joke. The joke is that I’m an angry, sensitive child whose favourite phrase is “That’s not fair!” and I should lighten up and play with Barbies like a normal kid. I fail to get the joke. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is my favourite book. You can tell from the milk stains.

In these stories, no princess has to wait to be saved. Cinderella organises against low-paid labour. Snow White is an activist for the rights of people of restricted growth. And the wolves are gentle, misunderstood carnivores who sometimes get to win. As I’m nine, I’ve never heard of political correctness before but it sounds good to me.

Fast-forward 20 years. In a freezing-cold flat in Berlin, I’m standing under the shower with the water turned up as high and hot as it will go. I’m trying to boil away the shame of having said something stupid on the internet. The shower is the one place it’s still impossible to check Twitter. This is a mercy. For as long as the hot water lasts I won’t be able to read the new accusations of bigotry, racism and unchecked privilege. I didn’t mean it. I don’t understand what I did wrong but I’m trying to understand. I want to be a good person. It turns out that however hard you try to be politically correct, you can still mess up. I am so, so sorry.

What has come to be called “political correctness” used to be known as “good manners” and was considered part of being a decent human being. The term is now employed to write off any speech that is uncomfortably socially conscious, culturally sensitive or just plain left-wing. The term is employed, too often, to shut down free speech in the name of protecting speech.

Recently, prominent writers from Jon Ronson to Jonathan Chait and Dan ­Hodges have been doubling down on the supposed culture of “political correctness” and “public shaming”. It is no coincidence that most of the loudest voices condemning the “Twitter mafia” are white, male, cisgender, privileged and unused to having to share any sort of public forum with large numbers of people who rarely have to worry about which pair of dad jeans will best conceal a pudding-coloured paunch. I’m really sorry if that image offended anyone, because some of my best friends truly are straight white men. Sometimes we do straight white men things together, like eating undercooked barbecue meat, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and threatening women on Twitter with moderate sexual violence. (Not really. Sorry, Chris and Henry.)

On one level, the pushback against “public shaming” can be read as a reaction from the old guard against the empowerment of previously unheard voices. There is nothing particularly novel about well-paid posh chaps writing off feminists, black activists and trans organisers as “toxic” and demanding that they behave with more decorum if they want to be taken seriously. I think, however, that it’s about more than that. I think it’s about shame and about fear.

On a very profound level, people who occupy positions of social power – and I include myself in that demographic – are worried not just that the unheard masses are coming for them but that they might be right to do so.

Most of us like to think we are good people. I do, although once, in a moment of extreme stress, I did tell a Telegraph journalist to go and die in a fire. When you are faced with a barrage of strangers whose opinions you actually care about yelling at you that you’re hateful and hurtful, that you’re an idiot and a bigot, when all you’ve done is make a mistake – well, the easy option, the option that feels safest and most comfortable, is to wall yourself off, decry your critics as prigs and bullies and make a great many ominous references to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Which is silly, because internet feminists are really not a lot like totalitarian dictators; but if we are I want to know when I’m getting the drone army and the snazzy Hugo Boss outfit.

It’s easy to criticise call-out culture, especially if the people calling you out are mean and less than merciful. It’s far harder to look into your own heart and ask if you can and should do better. Like almost every other human being, I don’t like it when people shout at me, unless I’m at a punk show and have paid good money to have people shout at me. I’m quite a sensitive bunny. I am mortified by the thought of hurting other people, even by accident. I’ve spent very dark days, following social media pile-ons, convinced that I was a horrible person who didn’t deserve to draw breath. I am not afraid of the sexist trolls who send me boring porn gifs on Twitter. I am afraid – frequently legitimately afraid – of letting people down. Of letting my community down. Of making a mistake I can’t move on from. I think everyone with a social conscience and a Facebook profile worries about this.

There is an enormous difference between being brought to task in public for making mistakes and the ritualised shaming of women, queer people and ethnic minorities online. There is a difference, a difference that critics such as Ronson and Chait are keen to smudge over, between marginalised people clamouring against instances of oppression, and everyday cyberbullying and harassment – what Monica Lewinsky, in her phenomenal Ted talk, calls “public shaming as a blood sport”. The difference is all about power: who has it and who doesn’t.

I know this because I’ve experienced both. I’ve been called out for saying thoughtless things online, and I have also been the target of vicious hate campaigns from people who wanted me dead just for who and what I am. Much of the pushback I experience comes from sexists and bigots who simply hate the idea that any young woman, anywhere, has a writing career. Their violence can be very frightening, especially when they send bomb threats to my house. It does not, however, throw me into existential panic. The last time I got a graphic rape threat, I felt awful but the last time I got a furious tweet from a trans woman telling me off for accidentally using appropriative language, I felt worse. I felt shame. Especially because she had a point.

It is terribly difficult to stay in the room – physically, emotionally, politically – with the untempered anger of other people whose opinions you care about. It is harder still to cope with the possibility that the world is changing and you may need to change, too. That good intentions are not enough to stop you hurting others through ignorance or obliviousness. In that poky, unventilated bathroom in Berlin, I laid my head against the tiles and breathed in lungfuls of steam and decided to try to move beyond my own panic and understand that although this wasn’t, ultimately, about me, it was still my responsibility to try not to be a tosspot if I could help it. This is as good a baseline for human decency as any, even when the public parameters of what does and does not constitute tosspottery are shifting faster than a potter can toss.

Moving through guilt to catharsis is a tall order for a Tuesday night. It’s uncomfortable to realise that you’ve messed up in a way that requires apology. But I think moving through that discomfort, in this weird and unsettled age, is part of being an adult. Whoever we are, we have to learn to deal with the discomfort that comes with making mistakes, if we don’t want this moment of social change to produce more fragmentation, more misunderstanding, more dismissal of the concerns of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in ­society – people for whom discomfort is way down the list of daily concerns, somewhere behind homelessness and being shot in the back by police for a parking violation.

The problem is not “outrage”. The problem is rage, pure and simple. This is an anxious time, an age of great and worsening inequality, of structural racism and oppression, and when resistance fails to produce relief, that rage finds outlets wherever it can. Sometimes that rage turns ugly. I’m not going to argue there aren’t people on what I still think of as “my side” who sometimes behave shamefully, targeting individuals with the sort of bullying tactics they claim to oppose. “Some forms of activist rage,” says the sociologist and trans feminist Katherine Cross, “are flat out morally wrong and do real harm. But the problem at the root of it is the dispossession of marginalised people, which makes that rage the only avenue of self-actualisation available to them.”

There is so much to be angry about and precious little relief for that anger within what passes for democracy in most western nations. For those of us who do not happen to own a senator or two, social media is one of the few spaces where we can sometimes, sometimes, see justice being done. The racist comedian forced to apologise for his jokes at the expense of Asian people. The margarine company pressured into withdrawing its homophobic ads. The newspaper that begins, at long last, to treat transsexual people more like human beings.

The world is waking up to new parameters of social decency and it is cranky and confused. The changes are coming too fast for anyone to cope with them without making a few mistakes, and when we do, we have to move beyond our shame and discomfort and try to act with compassion – for ourselves and others. I find putting the internet down and taking a hot shower is good for this. Your mileage, as they say on Twitter, may vary.

Because the truth – the real, unspeakable, awful truth – is that we are all vulnerable, and afraid, and more ignorant than we’d like to be. We are all fumbling to find a place for ourselves in this weird, anxious period of human history, stumbling between the savagery of late capitalism and the rage of the dispossessed. I still believe in new stories, with new heroes, where the wolves sometimes get to win. I still believe that decency, tolerance and free speech are worth fighting for. You might call that political correctness. I call it compassion and I think it’s how we build a better world.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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