Back in the early 1990s, the British trade union, the National Association of Probation Officers, developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed not to be in line with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.
Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, an d before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one of these displays of Orwellian censorship.
The National Association of Probation Officers was an organisation highly committed to the maintenance of politically sanitised speech at all times. It did this without the intervention of any even minor amount of humour or self-awareness. And so it was typically representative of the onward rush of political correctness at that time. The political left, in the English speaking world at least, became hugely attracted to the idea that all language should avoid references that were judgemental or discriminatory.
The term ‘political correctness’ actually has a long pedigree. It is hard to be sure where it originated, though we know that Adam Smith used the term (in a critical sense) in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It was used in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, and then by European radicals in the 1960s – but at that point, gradually, it began to be used ironically rather than approvingly. The term became famous from the 1980s, by which point it was adopted by conservatives to pour scorn on the perceived political purity of the dogmatic left; and as there were plenty of examples of the latter, the term stuck.
There seems to me to be little doubt that the NAPO approach to speech and discourse in the 1990s was quite simply stupid. I was also regularly dismayed at that time by the apparent need of progressive radicals to sugar-coat everything, so that nobody would ever be offended or challenged. The humorous lists circulating at the time of euphemisms for everything negative or unfortunate (a criminal was ‘ethically challenged’, a disabled person was ‘otherwise enabled’, and so on) were funny because they were also in part true – people did use such terms. And like many other people, I could feel a strong sense of relief when people rebelled against that and produced highly politically incorrect contributions to public debate.
It is sometimes argued that the adoption of the expression by the political right as a term of abuse for those on the left was extraordinarily successful, in the sense that it made it politically incorrect to be politically correct. But not everything about the movement to become more inclusive in public speech was bad. I for one welcome the fact that we almost never allow anyone to use the pronoun ‘he’ as a reference to humanity in general, and that we have stopped using insensitive terms for people with various handicaps. As in many things in life, it is best to observe a healthy and tolerant balance.
Universities in particular need on the one hand to support and protect free speech, but also to ensure that public discourse does not become a vehicle for judgement and discrimination. So while I am glad that the old political correctness is not what we aspire to, I hope we will not lose the benefits which, at least in some respects and contexts, it produced for us.