A recent report by More in Common, an organisation based in the United States, began a large research project into the polarisation of American society – something being experienced by most western democracies. In Australia, the progressive left and conservative right seem intent on conflict over ever political point: climate change, refugees, taxation, and so on. In the United States, we see similar splits between the Democrats and Republicans, and in the UK, Brexit has created divisions that may never be overcome.
One area that has further cemented divisions is the common accusation from specific sections of the conservative media that, “PC (or political correctness) gone mad”. In fact, the More in Common report found that many progressives also feel that we are increasingly living in a ‘politically correct’ culture, in which even the smallest offense can cause outrage.
This was raised on one of my regular appearances on ABC News Breakfast, in relation to the 2019 Melbourne Comedy Festival’s decision to rename the “Barry” award – historically given to Australia’s most outstanding comedy act. The Barry award was named after one of Australia’s most significant comedians, Barry Humphries.
The decision to drop the name was made following an interview in which Barry Humphries was asked about the transgender community’s response to his most famous character, Dame Edna. Humphries described transgender people as a “fashion” and has previously stated that gender re-assignment results in a “mutilated man.”
As a sociologist and cultural theorist, I was asked if it was correct for the Festival to change the name of the Award, or is it indeed “PC” gone mad?
A secondary question that followed was whether we can you separate the artist from their beliefs: that is, should we separate the work of Barry Humphries from his rather appalling comments?
It is a hard one to unpack.
Cultures of outrage
Humphrey’s comments indeed cause some outrage amongst many commentators – and rightfully so. We should remember that young people confronting issues with their sexual and biological identity are incredibly vulnerable and experience high levels of suicide and self-harm.
Barry Humphries could have shared his opinion in other ways – ‘I am not concerned about the opinion of transgender people’ – could have been sufficient. Rather, he appeared to make a conscious effort to offend – something that he should rightfully be criticised for.
However, Humphries and his supporters, claimed that this was an attack on ‘free speech’ and an example of ‘political correctness gone mad’.
This is a favourite topic of contention for many conservative commentators. Other examples include Miranda Divine’s rant against gender neutral language in the Australian Defence Force, and Andrew Bolt’s concerns about ‘political correctness’ taking over fairy tales. Such commentators often deride their political opponents as being driven by a ‘culture of outrage’ but are quick to be outraged themselves. When former SBS sports commentator, Stuart McIntyre wrote some ill-conceived tweets about ANZAC soldiers, the response from commentators, including Andrew Bolt, was quick and ruthless.
Likewise, when Yassmin Abdel-Magied, former Queensland Young Australian of the Year, referred to the suffering of refugees on ANZAC Day, her comments were met with outrage by conservative commentators. One even stating that she was tempted to ‘run her over’. Abdel-Magied was so hounded by the conservative media that she felt forced to leave the country and has since settled in the United Kingdom.
The consequences of events like these have been profound, with many commentators and journalists self-censoring for fear of setting off similar controversies: as someone who works at the ABC said to me in confidence, “you always end up asking yourself about the opinion you are about to share and if you will be ‘Yasmined’ for it?”
Political correctness gone mad?
In many ways, the term ‘political correctness’ has lost its meaning. It seems that both progressives (with who I identify) and reactionary conservatives have their own understanding of what is acceptable, and are willing respond when those standards are breached. In other words, what is politically correct comes from where you stand politically.
It is unfortunate because the original concept of ‘politically correct’ was one to ensure language helps instead of harms: that is, language that includes rather than excludes.
Saying it has gone too far creates a false dichotomy. It suggests that there is a magic marker that we cross, but there is not, as our society changes we must decide what is ok and what is not. Openly racist and sexist jokes were considered socially acceptable 30 years ago, today our society has evolved in such a way that they are not – this is a good thing!
If someone is offended about something, they should be able to point it out and we need to weigh it up. This does not freeze free speech; it simply makes us think – and it is for this reason I agreed with the Festival and its decision to rename their premier award: by attacking vulnerable people Humphries has lost the privilege he earnt as a comedian.
But it does not end there…
As commentator, researcher and academic, this perception is increasingly concerning to me. This is because some of the people who we should be communicating with – the general public and our students – will ignore what we have to say as we are branded part of the ‘PC’ crowd. Or worse still, those same folks may never speak honestly to us, because they feel that they cannot say the things they want to, for fear of not saying it just right.
In writing for The Atlantic , Yascha Mounk, an Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins University noted that, for “the millions upon millions of Americans of all ages and all races who do not follow politics…”, the outrage that is seen to accompany those that do not meet the ‘political correct’ standards of progressives “merely looks like an excuse to mock the values or ignorance of others”. Mounk quotes a 57- year-old woman from Mississippi:
The way you have to term everything just right. And if you don’t term it right you discriminate them. It’s like everybody is going to be in the know of what people call themselves now and some of us just don’t know. But if you don’t know then there is something seriously wrong with you.
Such a statement is heartbreaking and means that we miss out on connecting with the very people we should be.
I saw this when I was a PhD student and a lecturer mocked a student for her clumsy framing of a complex question about the complexities of contemporary Aboriginal Australian politics. Rather than unpacking the question, the lecturer attacked the student for the way she framed her query. To my regret, I felt too junior to intervene – and will never make that mistake again.
Returning to Mounk’s point, which is that there is a growing gap between those who identify as ‘progressive’ (commentators, academics, policy makers, scientists and so on) and the perception of the public. This gap is damaging the institutions that we represent because we are seen to be more focused on saying things the right way than solving bigger problems, like the cost of living or growing inequalities. Further, it is a gap that is increasingly being inflamed by the commentary of the likes of Andrew Bolt.
In a democracy, it is difficult to find a middle ground with our fellow citizens when we fail to understand how they see the world. If people feel that they are being dismissed or ignored, they will stop sharing their views with us – and the spiral of polarisation will simply continue.