Friday, 14 September 2012

Shouting Fire.

The recent explosion of outrage in the Middle East over an anti-Islamic cartoon produced in America has raised the debate over freedom of expression and speech once again. Here's some food for thought on this complicated matter. As Slavoj Žižek argues there is a point at which censorship can function as the measure of cultural standards. He suggests we shouldn't fear censorship for this reason. It's been commonplace for European countries to ban explicit Fascist propaganda, swastikas and so on, yet in Hungary the restriction has been altered to outlaw Communist and Nazi propaganda. This new change leaves the door open for other Fascist propaganda - it's the rehabilitation of Fascism other than the Hitlerian variety. We wouldn't like to live in a society where you argue against rape. Instead Žižek argues that the ideal situation would be where anyone who argues for rape to be legal is immediately disqualified by virtue of their position. It's certain that the sanctions of regard are already in place to some extent across the West.

Consider the following: If I came into your home and put up a poster which declares that the Holocaust was a 'hoax' it would not be a violation of my right to free-speech and free-expression if you were to rip down the poster and throw me out of your home. It would be utterly absurd for me to claim that this is a fundamental violation of free-speech, as well as a concerted effort by the Left to subvert our society and undermine the unremitting greatness of the white man. Even the most strident advocate of the right to free-speech would shudder at the thought of defending this case. So there is a distinction between private and public space, which is relevant to free-speech as there is a difference between expression in the home and expression on Speakers' Corner. Really freedom of speech is not supposed to be applied consistently as a universal principle justifying every statement in any situation. The complex question regards the specifics of the particular situation.

The conflict between private space and free-speech becomes increasingly ambiguous when it comes to the media, in which debates can be held in a space which is at once public and private in a way. The extent to which the broadcasting is a form of involvement of your private space is blurred. Significantly the popular anger about political correctness has emerged with the decline of the public space in recent decades. It has become a means of political mobilisation for the Right in the post-political era. The only struggle worth fighting is to preserve the permissive society of racists, sexists, homophobes and so on. After all, we're led to believe that the Left are working to undermine our civil liberties with this totalitarian notion of political correctness. Even though political correctness can be found on the most conservative of university campuses in the US. It's primary focus is the phraseology deployed in statements regarding race, gender, sexuality etc. 

Political correctness is not as much a matter of what can be said as much as about how it can be said. Nevertheless it is viewed with suspicion by many, we are told it must be combated for it is an imposition on our wholesome society from the lair of cultural Marxists. You can tell it's a concocted panic as it is endorsed by the mainstream media and commentariat. No one ever stands up to promote political correctness. It is only railed against by the brave journalists who are paid by Rupert Murdoch. At the same time there is little concern for the evacuation of meaningful political language and discourse. You can see this when the use of the word 'profits' is replaced with 'jobs' whenever a politician talks about a deal involving government and business. It's more blunt when the mass-killing of foreign civilians becomes 'collateral damage' while kidnapping and torture by governments becomes a 'rendition'. As Gore Vidal observed, you can now 'liberate' a country by bombing it - this is true decadence! The death of 1789 may not be far off the emptying out of the language of politics.

It was politically correct for conservatives to accuse Ken Livingstone of 'homophobia' when he said that the Conservative Party is 'riddled' with closet homosexuals. He was accused of racism when he said that he looked forward to seeing the Saudi Royal Family 'swinging from lampposts'. Yet at the same time Ken Livingstone is constantly accused of being a rabid anti-Semite with a sympathy for Muslim extremism. An honest observer can see that Ken Livingstone has used provocative language in picking fun at the opponents of his worldview: whether it's Tories or the King of Saudi Arabia. As for the allegations of anti-Semitism Ken Livingstone is an outspoken critic of Israel and has been vilified as a Judeophobe for over three decades because of his position on the conflict. With all of this in mind it has to be acknowledged that these accusations are forms of political correctness expressed by the Right. It seems that the phenomenon has transcended left and right.

As Stewart Lee once said political correctness is little more than a clumsily institutionalised form of politeness, which has downsides too but it's a lot better than the time when people could make all kinds of obscene comments. Before political correctness, in Britain, we lived in a country where people like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson were allowed on television to spout jokes that pick fun at gays, women, ethnic minorities and the disabled. That was a time when we could watch shows like The Black and White Minstrel Show, in which white actors "blacked up" for the sake of 20 years of "family entertainment". And it has to be acknowledged that very often the stories of political correctness going mad are exaggerated. Lee has pointed this out that the infamous example of Birmingham Council banning Christmas. Actually Birmingham Council decided to use the word Winterval as an umbrella term to cover Christmas and other religious celebrations around the same time.

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