No Laughing Matter

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Like many people – including, it seems, the surviving cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – I was intrigued by the comment of the BBC’s ‘Controller of Comedy Commissioning’ when, referring to Monty Python, he said of comedy writing: ‘If you’re going to assemble a team now, it’s not going to be six Oxbridge white blokes. It’s going to be a diverse range of people who reflect the modern world.’ Sometimes it’s the little things that tell you that things are getting dangerous and sound a warning. Our culture is changing and all of us need to watch where we stand.

It would be very easy to identify this extraordinary statement as another example of ‘Political Correctness Gone Mad’. For a start, here it’s not so much Political Correctness as its clumsy sister, Positive Discrimination. (It’s a sign of the times that having written the phrase clumsy sister I feel a need to both apologise for any offence given to defend myself against sexism and to deny gender stereotyping).

The fact is that I’m actually a great believer in what we can summarise as PC/PD – up to a point. I believe deeply in standing up for people who are discriminated against and for celebrating multiculturalism. I have my reasons for being sympathetic. For a start there is my background. As a Greek Cypriot I am part of a minority in the UK – even if we are a minority with a majority mindset. But I have known prejudice. It’s my job that gives me my main motivation for sympathy. I work for an institution that for nearly two millennia has been involved in sticking up for the little guy (sorry, person) and giving those at the bottom of society a helping hand up the ladder of life. In fact the founder of my organisation took a lot of hostility for getting close to those people his society preferred to keep safely at a distance: women, lepers, prostitutes and those of dubious religious and ethnic backgrounds. I have no doubt that some people found it amusing that, having hung around with the wrong sort of people, he ended up being hung up with them. But that’s enough about the church and Jesus.

Well actually not quite, because you could make a serious case that the origins of both Political Correctness and Positive Discrimination lie in the Christian faith where the phrase ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28 niv) was being preached right at the start.

So I’m not unsympathetic. Yet there are five things with the way PC/PD culture is going that concern me.

First, it seeks to enforce by external rules what should flow from attitudes. There are two ways of changing morality: by external pressure or internal change. It’s not easy to force people into right thinking. You may reduce the amount of open offence but deep down the hate and prejudice may remain. And enforcing morality can quite easily be counter-productive. It’s probably no accident that the rise of PC/PD culture within the establishment has been paralleled by the growth of right-wing anti-establishment views. We need to change lives first not change morality.

Second, although it has long outgrown its roots within Christianity, PC/PD culture has become something of a religion itself. It has become that most dangerous of things: a morality without a deity; an organisation that dispenses guilt without grace and persecutes without pardon. PC/PD views have created what we might call Culture-Crime: an infinite number of shadowy and fluid offences without definitions or rules. Who, or what, says where lines are to be drawn? Who determines the maximum percentage of white male Oxbridge comedians allowed for a TV series? Could that rule be relaxed if one of them was disabled, Jewish or gay? Is what I write today going to be acceptable tomorrow? What punishments should be given out to Culture-Crime offenders? PC/PD culture has become a bandwagon without brakes, a wild juggernaut that crushes all before it. It is probably only the mercy of today’s near universal illiteracy that has stopped mobs from breaking into libraries and burning anything (which is almost everything) written in the past that does not conform to the cultural code of today.

Third, the focus of PC/PD culture is negative rather than positive. It seems to encourage people to see themselves as victims needing compensation rather than those who should strive against the obstacles to make it to the top. It emphasises what has been done to us, not what we should do for ourselves.

Fourth, PC/PD culture lends itself to abuse. There is no surer way of removing someone from office than by the low whisper that they are guilty of Culture-Crime. There’s a chillness in the air, reminiscent of Stalinism at its worst, in which everybody in the public arena constantly frets that they are going to be summoned before some tribunal and asked to account for some careless phrase.

Fifth, PC/PD culture prioritises its values above such vital things as competence and ability. I don’t care about the ethnic make-up of a surgical team about to operate on me; I just want them to be qualified and competent.

Actually, I find one of the most deeply unpleasant aspects about the growing PC/PD culture is the way it is so grimly humourless. Terry Gilliam, one of the Pythons, responded to the comment about ‘six Oxbridge white blokes’ by saying that from now on he wanted to be known as ‘a black lesbian in transition or a BLT’. It’s the sort of quip that today, if you hear it in any sort of public space, you force yourself not to smile. Indeed, if you value your career you should adopt a puritanical frown of sour disapproval. It’s far safer: Big Brother/Sister/Gender-Neutral-Sibling may be watching.

So I understand the Python’s unhappiness. Mind you, they should be grateful. If memory serves me well their comedies majored in jokes about transgendered individuals, men with non-standard locomotive ability and the callous treatment of recently deceased parrots. They should be grateful that they have not yet been charged with Culture-Crime, been asked to apologise for their sins and ordered to seek re-education and sensitivity training. They may yet have to do so!

J.John
Revd Canon

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