Many of us on the left are tired of playing a losing game. Too often we are unhorsed by the worst excesses of our own side, in particular the mindless peddling of identity politics as a substitute for rigorous debate. Each week brings with it a fresh litany of petitions, articles and social-media posts, all contributing to the impression that the left has turned into a coterie of preening killjoys, unschooled in the art of self-awareness.
Recent low points include calls for Doctor Who to regenerate as a black woman in an effort better to reflect the diversity of the Time Lord community; Caitlin Moran’s advice to young girls that they should avoid reading books by male authors; and Lincoln University Students’ Union’s banning its conservative society from using its social media account for the crime of highlighting restrictions on free speech. Irony, it seems, is not a strong point among these guardians of social rectitude.
More recently, a British artist has called for the destruction of a painting currently being displayed at the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York because its theme – the murder of an African-American child in Mississippi in 1955 – is not appropriate material to be tackled by a white artist. Apparently, ‘white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights’. Many of us find the destruction of artwork and the curtailing of free expression to be troubling phenomena. The historically illiterate have no such misgivings.
It’s unhelpful to describe this trend as ‘political correctness gone mad’. The phrase has become predictable right-wing boilerplate; one associates it with the screeds of Richard Littlejohn, or the reactionary paranoia of Jon Gaunt, who believes that it ‘will soon be a crime to be a heterosexual married parent’. In any case, ‘political correctness gone mad’ has become a cliché, and all writers worth their salt avoid clichés like the plague.
The sledgehammer tactics of contemporary identity politics have little to do with political correctness as traditionally understood. Tacit social contracts concerning polite forms of discourse in the workplace, schools or public spaces are hardly a controversial notion. We all adhere to such principles in one form or another, albeit with some inevitable sticking points and disagreements along the way. We are facing something far more sinister: a mutated form of political correctness that seeks to police language and thought alike. It’s an authoritarian movement spearheaded by well-intentioned activists who are seemingly blind to their own bigotry.