George Orwell presciently warned us about the danger of an omnipotent Big Brother as a threat to free speech. What he failed to warn us about – presumably because he failed to anticipate it – was the threat to free speech from millions of omnipresent Little Brothers, not to mention Little Sisters – the latter being if anything worse than the former.
These authoritarians in miniature do not harangue us from platforms in arenas packed with shrieking brain-washed zombies. Nor are they backed by uniformed patrols of thought-enforcers. No, these linguistic trolls in mufti lie in wait for us at cocktail parties and across dinner tables; in job interviews; in casual exchanges at office water-coolers; at bus stops; in supermarket check-out lines. Every prospective bushwhacker lives in a high and constant state of alert, for an inapt word here or an ill-chosen phrase there, always willing to take offence, ever ready to tar and feather the speaker as the owner of a latent or suppressed bigotry.
Refer in conversation to a ‘coloured person’ and you will be called out immediately as a closet racist. ‘Person of colour’, however, is considered, illogically, quite proper. Call the figure at the head of the table chairman and you will be upbraided for using fossilized terminology. It must now be chairperson, or the even more gratingly absurd, ‘chair’. I heard this reference at a recent meeting, and it was all I could do to refrain from suggesting that remarks would be better directed at a live human being than to an inanimate piece of furniture.
There are mines planted everywhere in this no-man’s land – or should I say no-person’s land. Recently, I referred – accurately in historical terms – to an acquaintance as an Afro-Caribbean. I was corrected without hesitation. “I am British,” she said. “Afro-Caribbean is now, frankly, a bit old-hat. It is true that my grandparents came from the Caribbean, and their ancestors came from Africa, but I have been to neither place, and I myself was born in South London, as you may have divined from my accent.”
“Are you a person of colour?” I enquired, nervously. “Does that fit the bill?”
“I prefer just plain ‘black’,” she said, adding with a smile, “just not one of the ‘Ace of Spades’ variety.”
“Black it is,” I said.
If this writer’s confession of being occasionally confused sounds like a rant from an alt-right zealot pathetically unable to adapt to a more enlightened world, let me point out that I am a dyed-in-the-wool liberal with all the credentials required to fall in line with the new zeitgeist. I would even venture to say that I was advocating a new zeitgeist long before it became fashionable to do so. But I will also admit that we are all to a great extent prisoners of our upbringing, wedded to the careless locutions of an earlier generation, and that I sometimes get things wrong.
I am not asking for an allowance for this fact. I am perfectly happy to accept that those of us of a certain age must try better to move with the times in a fast-changing world. In the present frenetic climate of political correctness no allowance would be given anyway. But I resent being excoriated for occasionally picking the wrong word or phrase and being instantly awarded a label as racist, bigot or misogynist. And labels, once applied, tend to stick.
Enough is enough, I say. We are now approaching a state of affairs in society in which normal civilized discourse is becoming a painful chore. We find ourselves living in an age in which euphemism rules supreme in our daily discourse. No longer is one blind or crippled, only sight-impaired or physically challenged – and even those may be out of date by now for all I know. It is a world in which children must not be encouraged to play cowboys and Indians because the expression recalls an oppressive white regime in nineteenth century America that persecuted the indigenous residents, whom we now refer to as Native Americans. (I refer such parents to a 1950 film called Broken Arrow, my favourite as a child, and the first of its kind in which the ‘Indians’ are the good guys and the white men the baddies.)
Blacks brought to the United States in slave ships must now be called African-Americans. There is of course no equivalency for whites who entered America (admittedly not in chains) as a result of religious intolerance or what we now call ethnic cleansing. There is no such thing as a Euro-American, or a Jewish-American. There are Latin-Americans, who were known until recently as Hispanics or Latinos, although even those appellations are now fading, if not frowned-upon.
Coming up with hyphenated terms for certain people but not others strikes me as patronising. I would say that, you might be thinking, coming as I do from a privileged white society, moreover one that once owned the biggest collection of enslaved colonies in the history of the world. Well, so I did, although ‘privileged’ is not a word I would apply to my roots in a working-class family that spent a century living on the breadline.
Anyway, being born in the country that once owned colonies is no more my fault than it is of those born in one of those colonies. Those of us who claim to have learned from history should be the last to be blamed for history.
That is not the view of certain great universities. They seem happy to go along with all this PC nonsense, presumably for no better reason than a wish for a little peace and quiet. One Oxford College recently bowed to pressure from an African-born student to remove from the campus a statue of the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes. It almost goes without saying – although I will say it anyway – that the protesting student was the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. I dare say that Rhodes was a deeply unpleasant man, and one who undoubtedly wholeheartedly enjoyed all the advantages of white supremacy without a flutter of guilt. But so, I dare say, did Henry the 8th, and for all I know, Florence Nightingale. So, for that matter, did Abraham Lincoln, the so-called Great Emancipator, whose favoured solution to the problem of slavery, after he had restored the Union, was to ship the slaves back to Africa, or at least to some place as far away from America as possible. Some emancipator!
We are now being admonished by many in high places to respect the religion of Islam, lest its followers suffer proxy discrimination for the excesses of Islamic extremists. I am happy to respect Islam, and any other religion, but I also reserve the right to regard it, and the rest, as patently absurd and potentially as great a threat to world peace as any loony politician – Donald Trump included. Atheists have rights, too, foremost among them the right to dismiss deism and theism in all its forms as childish fantasies. Religious people will no doubt take offence at this kind of talk. Well, let them. Organised religions should be given no special privileges, philosophical or fiscal, for peddling belief in ghosts as insurance policies with unaffordable premiums.
I hope that the PC epidemic will soon recede and that we can agree on an harmonious consensus to speak frankly and freely – on any subject – even if the price is the causing of offence. Does anyone remember the time when people used to say, “No offence intended,” and the invariable response was, “None taken”.
Oh happy days.
For my part, I am happy to continue giving offence, and quite prepared to concede the point when I get something horribly wrong – as some may say I have already in the preceding rambling passages.
As my schoolmasters used to write at the bottom of term papers: “Discuss!”