The origins of political correctness, which now inhibits the national discourse in Australia and other Western countries, were innocent enough: concern for minorities and the vulnerable spawned self-imposed limitations on spoken language, media and officialese. Obligatory politeness, decency and a reluctance to offend were heralds of what was said to be a dawning era of universal kindness. Recognising PC as an opportunity for yet another experiment in social engineering, the Left soon muscled its way in.
It started slow and easy. I remember, for example, when “black” and “negro” were just words, no more and no less, that designated skin colour and had no other meanings. These words cannot now be uttered. "Afro-American" and, in the Australian context, "Indigenous Australian", are the terms everyone must use if not to be accused of racism, xenophobia and the like. Since words can be interpreted (or subjectively misinterpreted), it has been deemed better that irony, malice, sarcasm, even expressions of well-intentioned concern and kindness not be used at all.
The creeping introduction of politically correct speech and language into everyday use was loaded with ostensibly good intentions. The fact that good intentions often pave a road straight to hell was deemed irrelevant. Probably, possibly, PC’s introduction was not meant to stifle freedom of speech or crimp the ability to tell the truth as one sees it, nor to curtail the freedom to critique and debate. Before long, however, as has been the case with so many other social experiments taken to their logical conclusions, PC morphed into a tool of oppression and totalitarianism, becoming the fulfilment of George Orwell’s “newspeak” and "doublethink". PC has made possible a denial of Western civilisation’s most precious liberty, the right to be speak freely, give offence and be offended in return.
The public face of PC is its declared distaste for upsetting people, regardless of topic. Its prohibition of an expanding lexicon of words and concepts has turned out to be something very different from the high-minded concept originally presented.
Slowly and gradually, PC has developed into a system of self-censorship, automatically limiting one’s ability to adequately express thoughts without fear of rebuke and consequence. Soon, it was revealed for what it really is – another creeping experiment in social engineering, and all in the hope of a bright future and changing human nature for the better.
When I was young and studying in the USSR we were obliged to immerse ourselves in “Scientific Communism”. Looking back, I am astonished that nobody had the presence of mind to ask our teachers simple questions about the many and glaring inconsistencies, every one incompatible with the Soviet slogans of freedom and equality. We studied works by Sir Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella and Hegel, all regarded as Marxism’s utopian precursors. Even these morally upright thinkers had their malicious tinge, considering their acceptance of slavery, totalitarianism, male supremacy and the closed nature of the ideal societies they advocated. Those outraged by this statement should take up the originals and read them closely.
The biggest social-engineering experiments were staged in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and in Mao’s China. These experiments were directed towards the creation of the New Soviet Man and, in other locales, the improved societies their architects saw as just a few edicts and a little coercion down the road of inevitability. Nazis laboured to promote their Almighty Aryan, while Pol Pot’s social engineers began with massacres and made no further gains. In China, Mao starved millions in the name of a better world. All of these ideological acrobatics were so amateurishly ad hoc they would have been funny, if not for those rivers of blood.
The most active proponent of the cultivation of the New Soviet Man was Nikolai Bukharin – the intellectual darling of the Communist Party. His recipe for achieving the ideal of the New Soviet Man adopted mass shootings as its primary ingredient. Later, he fell victim of his own theories and was executed by Stalin. Another Communist intellectual, Grigory Zinoviev, was even more explicit, proclaiming, “Only those structures under which the blood flows are inherently stable”. Being the head of the murderous Cheka, he had plenty of opportunity to apply his theories.
Nazis used similar techniques in attempting to breed their Master Race. The ultimately and insignificant difference between the Nazis and Soviets was their differing criteria in regard to the utility of extermination. Communists shot people according to class; Nazis shot (and gassed) according to race. The Khmer Rouge, devoted advocates of universal betterment in strict compliance with the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin, exterminated one Cambodian in five. Mao inflicted millions of deaths, every single corpse added to the pile in the name of human betterment.
Western countries also have seen their futile attempts at social engineering. While not as devastating or bloodthirsty as the great leaps forward attempted by the Soviets, Nazis and Khmer Rouge, the hardships inflicted were real enough.
The very first example which comes to mind is the United States’ prohibition of alcohol early in the twentieth century, a measure adopted in response to the intense lobbying of moral zealots. Prohibition’s ban on the production, sale, distribution and consumption of alcohol came draped in the prettiest of moral reasoning as preached from the high pulpit of its advocates’ certainty that they knew best. Not surprisingly, this program of misguided courage and fearless confrontation ended in disaster. Human weakness, it emerged, is a fungible commodity — squeezed in one place, it bulges elsewhere and erupts with a toxic virulence. As a case study in the treachery of good intentions, Prohibition takes some beating. Gangsterism, violence and corruption surged to levels never before seen, while the actual consumption of alcohol soared to all-time highs. When Prohibition was repealed, apart from America’s many small brewers, vintners and distillers forced out of business, the chief casualty was an eroded faith in civic institutions. Not surprisingly, no proponent of the Prohibition, to my knowledge, was ever asked to apologise, let alone prosecuted.
A resurgence of the impulse to prohibit alcohol was recently demonstrated in Australia, where a no doubt well meaning and morally outstanding advocate of temperance publicly demanded ANZAC veterans refrain from drinking beer when toasting the memory of their fallen comrades. There has never been a shortage of moral teachers on this planet, nor of idiots, although it is often hard to tell the difference.
A homegrown example of the misguided good deed is the famous attempt to introduce Aboriginal mothers to the alleged benefits of bottle feeding in the early Seventies. The baby formula was a hit until babies died from gastroenteritis. In the virtual absence of sanitary conditions, the unwashed bottles used for baby feeding were a disaster waiting to happen. And happen it did.
Still in Australia, the famous Franklin Dam campaign, which did so much to spawn today’s green stranglehold on development, was a precursor of the politically correct pattern, not to mention serving as a launching pad for the political careers of activists who, upon reflection, would have better served the common good by remaining in their former obscurity. I could list many more examples of social engineering, all attempted, no doubt, with the best of intentions. Regardless of their philosophies and intentions, without exception all ended in disaster.
Suffice it to say that Aboriginal babies’ mortality rates skyrocketed as a result of the amateurish attempt at charity which saw bottle-feeding introduced in the Northern Territory, and we are still paying for the gold-plated desalination plants that were built instead of far cheaper and more useful dams. The negative impact of such tinkering, so often fuelled by political ambition and the lust for power, must surely be obvious. Obvious and scary.
The connection between the horrors of the utopian totalitarianism and the Western liberal democracies’ still-reversible follies may appear tenuous, to say the least, especially when political correctness is used as the yardstick, but I beg to differ. The slow and gradual removal of one of the most cherished and fundamental freedoms — freedom of speech, won and defended in countless battles and at an horrendous cost in life and treasure, represents an alarming slide into the impossibility of speaking one’s mind, however distasteful the content of speech might be and, in fact, often is. An inability to publicly differ and dispute the prevailing point of view leads to a totalitarian-inspired prohibition on dissent.
Worse, gradual removal of the right to free speech also forces distasteful and hate-filled views to go underground, where they become abscesses destined to grow until they burst or are lanced. Niether prospect is a pleasant one. Denying freedom of speech is, ultimately, harmful to any liberal democracy and, eventually, leads to the costly necessity re-fighting battles already won.
The right to dissent — the right to ruffle the dominant worldview, to speak one’s mind without fear of being shouted down or branded a racist or being taken to court, the freedom to publish an uncomfortable truth as one sees it — is the West’s most precious gift. It is a freedom to think and speak that continues to be slowly, gradually, and insidiously denied by the gag of political correctness.
Dr Michael Galak, a frequent Quadrant contributor, came to Australia with his family as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978