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1 June 2015

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.

By Laurie Penny

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.

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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.