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Monday 17 December 2007

Munira Mirza

Christmas is banned! Or is it?


Many of the 'PC gone mad!' stories about Christmas cards and cribs being outlawed are little more than rumours. So why do people believe them?

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In Britain, news headlines about official ‘bans’ on Christmas are becoming as much part of the festive season as mince pies. Pre-empting the tabloid rage about ‘political correctness gone mad’, Trevor Phillips, chairman of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, recently urged everyone to ‘stop being daft’ and put the Christ back into Christmastime: ‘It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be the star of the show.’

However, some people have begun to notice that many of the outrageous stories about PC officials banning Christmas are either made up or overblown. Writing in the Guardian last year, Oliver Burkeman asserted that he was unable to find much veracity in them (1). It was not true that Christmas cards sold on the high street had stopped displaying religious images. Sure Start childcare centres did not have a policy to rename Christmas ‘winter celebrations’. Schools were not replacing traditional nativity plays with secular shows. And local authorities around the country were not rebranding Christmas ‘Winterfest’. Also, where they do occur, many campaigns to ‘ban Christmas’ are driven as much by fears for health-and-safety as they are about offending minority groups.

Smelling a rat, the blogger Sunny Hundal argued last week that the scare about banning Christmas and other ‘political correctness’ stories is not triggered by multicultural lefties but rather by ‘typical right-wing paranoia and insecurity’ (1). He accused newspapers like the Daily Mail and right-wing commentators like Iain Dale and Melanie Phillips of dreaming up a liberal conspiracy which everyone can love to hate. Trevor Phillips hinted at the same thing when he said: ‘I can’t help feeling there’s sometimes an underlying agenda to use this great holiday to fuel community tension.’ So, is there a conspiracy to ban Christmas, or is there a conspiracy to make everyone think that there is a conspiracy to ban Christmas?

The truth is that there is no conspiracy, but both sides have picked up on something very real. Plenty of stories about ‘political correctness gone mad’ are certainly made up or exaggerated, but many of them are not. Very few people in positions of power are actually banning Christmas, but there is often ambivalence about how to handle it. Where a decade ago Christmas was just a regular (and if we’re honest, largely secularised) event in the calendar, now it is treated as a potent expression of religious identity.

In 2003, the local council in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire refused to show an A4 poster for a Christmas carol service in the local library, because it might constitute a political or religious message. The same year, the Red Cross banned nativity decorations from its British shops because it stated that an alignment to a particular religion could ‘compromise our ability to work in conflict situations around the world’. In 2006, a survey of 428 firms in Manchester found that 77 per cent of employers said they were banning decorations because they were worried about offending other faiths (2). In all these cases, the ban was about preventing possible harm, rather than responding to actual complaints.

It is stories like these that create suspicion that things are being heavily regulated. Of course, in reality, people in authority today rarely have the luxury to monitor everything they encounter. Most decisions are made defensively and in a knee-jerk fashion, rather than according to some sinister conspiracy plan. But the end result is a surge in urban myths which feed upon existing reality.

While the stories I have mentioned so far (and there are many more) were all reported in reputable papers, there are also plenty of emails circulating from ‘unofficial sources’. These are less reliable, but they feed our suspicion that this is ‘what you don’t hear from those in charge’. The other day I received an email about how Royal Mail staff have been told only to offer their Christmas stamps (showing religious images of angels and the Madonna and Child) to those who asked explicitly for them over the counter. While a quick scan of the Royal Mail website shows that these stamps do indeed exist, there is probably no other way to test this story than to walk into a post office and see what happens.

The point about rumours is that they feed off a broader suspicion and distrust of ‘official sources’. We don’t have to experience things firsthand to believe them. When I was conducting interviews with residents in the town of Oldham in the north-west of England last year, I kept hearing a claim that the council had banned the St George’s flag (the flag of England). I casually asked various council staff about it but none of them could tell me for certain whether it had actually happened or not. One of them suggested that it might have been for ‘health-and-safety reasons’. Another guessed it might have been out of sensitivity to local ethnic groups and concerns about the presence in the area of the far-right British National Party (BNP). When I asked local people about it – Asian and white – many felt that this sort of decision was ‘typical’ of the council. Crucially, it was not important whether the flag was actually banned or not, but that it was seen as entirely believable.

Official anti-racism has made cultural symbols and language so politicised that the public is bound to think that festivals, flags and images are being ‘managed’ on their behalf. In March 2002, Oldham council publicised its decision to fly the Union Jack flag from the Civic Centre, as a way to reclaim it as a symbol from the extreme right. It also stated it would fly the Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi flags for the duration of official visits from those countries. The authorities were paying attention to cultural images and using them to engineer attitudes.

The corollary to that, of course, is that language and images are not only promoted but also banned if they are seen to be a threat to community relations. We believe that official sources aren’t telling us the truth because, ultimately, we feel that they don’t trust us to make our own minds up about what see and hear.

In the 2001 local elections in Oldham, when the BNP gained its strongest electoral result in the UK in over a decade, the council censored all political parties from speaking on election night in order to prevent the BNP from talking to the electorate. In September 2001, the home secretary banned all public marches in Oldham for two months on grounds of ‘safety’. Likewise, Ted Cantle, in his report into the 2001 riots in the north-west, pointed out that there were complaints from the public about the police’s over-zealous restrictions on political marches in the town against racism, and festivals to celebrate cultural diversity. Returning to the town in 2006, Cantle noted that despite all the diversity training and race equality guidelines, people in Oldham ‘wanted to ask questions around faith and culture, but were afraid to do so because it might be thought “politically incorrect”’ (3).

In such a climate, where people are not expressing their views openly, rumours surge. In a 2001 US-based study, Fine and Turner argue that race rumours emerge as an expression of angst and suspicion when more public channels are censored or closed to certain opinions: ‘What happens when we dare not speak these beliefs? What happens when we deny - to ourselves and to others – that we hold them because we have come to accept that they are morally illegitimate? We believe that two responses are common. First, we become ashamed; we withdraw from dialogue… Second, following from this, we become too willing to accept claims of “actual happenings” that support these hidden beliefs.’ (4)

The most recent high-profile example of a race rumour in Britain was in Lozells, Birmingham in 2006, when local Asian and black youths clashed on the streets. The riot was triggered by a story of a black girl having been gangraped by a group of Asian men. While the allegation lacked substance, and no witnesses or victim ever officially came forward, the story gained a life of its own on the airwaves of local community radio stations, like Hot FM and Sting FM, whose djs called for large-scale protests.

These unofficial channels picked up on local suspicions that the authorities always treated one group better than another and some people always got their way – a feeling probably compounded by the competitive dynamic of local community politics and the stress on difference in official local policies. Likewise, in his study of south-east London, the sociologist Roger Hewitt described how the media demonisation of white residents in the area following the murder of the young black youth Stephen Lawrence led to a ‘white backlash’. He describes how racism was ‘tucked away’ amongst the politically powerless white working classes, who could not publicly object to the way in which they were being depicted. Suspicion grew through neighbourhood talk, rumour, narrative and counter-narrative. The authorities’ tactics to silence these views by ‘scary and oblique references’ to the BNP ended up reinforcing the sense of shame people felt, and further driving these views underground without proper scrutiny.

All of this suggests that the backlash against ‘political correctness gone mad’ is not simply about a surge in racism or bigotry amongst the public against other groups (although it certainly doesn’t help community relations in places like Lozells). There is also another factor at work here: a large number of people quite rightly resent the feeling that they are being ‘managed’. We indulge in the collective rolling of the eyeballs at political correctness gone mad because it allows us to momentarily express our irritation with officious policies. Perhaps next year, when junior officials think about how not to cause offence, they would be wise to think a bit more carefully about not insulting the public first.

Munira Mirza is a writer and researcher based in London and a founding member of the Manifesto Club.

Previously on spiked

Lee Jones said that many ‘Christmas bans’ are now motivated by environmentalism. According to Frank Furedi, today’s religious zealots and secular crusaders lack a moral compass. Nathalie Rothschild said PC attitudes have become mainstream. Brendan O’Neill urged readers to include spiked in their Christmas gift lists. Or read more at spiked issue Modern Life.

(1) Mulled whine, The Guardian, 12 December 2006

(2) A festival gathering to avoid, The Guardian, 10 December 2007

(3) Workplace ban on Christmas, The Bolton News, 27 November 2006

(4) ‘Review of Community Cohesion in Oldham’, Institute of Community Cohesion, 2006:

(5) Whispers on the Color Line. Rumours and Race in America, Gary Alan Fine and Patricia A. Turner, University of California Press (Berkley), 2001

 

 


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