To a very significant degree political correctness as we are led to believe in it, does not exist. Specifically, anecdotes have been taken, often out of context, and reinforced again and again in the monopoly mass media. They are also often exaggerated to the point of bearing little relation to the reality. Or otherwise examples at the outer-most fringe are taken insincerely as being characteristic of a broader left. The intention is to create an impression of academic and left elites who are totally out of step with mainstream opinion. (That includes working class opinion, the point being to erode the left’s historic working class constituencies).
On the other hand parts of the self-identifying left these days have in many instances distanced themselves from class politics instead embracing identity politics and liberalism. Many of the associated causes are worthwhile. The author has often insisted that small ‘l’ liberalism and socialism should be in sympathy with one another. But recognition of class divisions and stratification have become increasingly taboo. Narratives of industrial peace (and the stigmatisation of any social or class conflict) from the Hawke Labor Government onwards have contributed to this as has the reinforcement of many other themes in the monopoly mass media.
Progressive tax, redistribution, and labour market regulation are dismissed again and again as class warfare. The term ‘cash splash’ is thrown around in response to any plans to expand the social wage, welfare state or public infrastructure. The point is to portray these – and public spending generally - as ‘economically irresponsible’. The term is thrown around with abandon, sometimes even on the ABC and in the Fairfax Press. Assaults on the rights of workers: from labour market deregulation on the one hand, to the falling wage share of the economy, and the rise of what Guy Standing has called ‘the precariat’ (the socially marginal, including those in precarious and often low-paid employment) – barely even register. Where these themes are not even contested by Labor, for many they become entrenched as the predominant common sense.
There is a genuine concern where social class is deprioritised. Where some of the most economically exploited, marginal and disadvantaged are alienated on account of the neglect of their social position by much of the modern cultural left. Or by arguments which overlook their economic position to insist on their privileg. Yes, privilege is more complex than class taken on its own. This used to be a blind spot of some leftists. Even working class men (and sometimes women), and those in the relative underclass have benefited in some ways historically from the exploitation of others. Consider the exploitation of feminised labour – including domestic labour. And consider the global division of labour: the exploitation that goes on in the global economic order. But individuals also experience oppression in unique and diverse ways. The point is to achieve mutual respect and solidarity. Which is why a much more nuanced intersectional approach is necessary, an approach which does not make too many assumptions and judgements based on limited information.
For leftists there can (and should) be no denying historic oppression of millions on the basis of gender, sexuality and race. For years in the monopoly mass media the rising tide of change on these fronts was held off by those usual narratives around political correctness and so-called ‘left elites’. Indeed, the battle rages on. In recent years, though, there has been a decisive change in the political and cultural climate. Equal marriage is generally accepted and solidly entrenched. Wide-ranging debates on gender have been carried into the mainstream. The connections between colonialism, racism and Imperialism are also factoring into some public discussion (though not as widely).
There was a time when were a woman to be raped or sexually assaulted she would be treated as if the ‘shame’ was hers. The police would advise women and their families not to lay charges lest they be ‘dragged through the mud’ in court. Today discussion on the nature of consent largely supposes that clear and vocal consent is necessary lest many forms of contact be considered a form of assault. Though what specifically is considered an assault needs to be established lest we end up with an atmosphere of irrational fear.
Worryingly the traditional presumption of innocence seems to have been widely abandoned as well, if you consider the treatment of associated cases in the media. That also has consequences, and there is the potential for some to wrongly take advantage of this. Presumption of innocence assumes the need for scrutiny of claims in order to protect the innocent. Though of course it can also be highly traumatic for the onus of proof to be placed upon victims. There is no flawless solution to the problems involved here. But historically most societies have erred on the side of caution when it comes to the presumption of innocence and that assumption is preferable even despite the associated flaws.
Further, we should be able to consider whether there is any place for spontaneity anymore – so long as everyone accepts that ‘no means no’ ; and that a person unable to give consent should not be taken advantage of. Sexuality should not be a matter of men’s power over women or women’s power over men. Neither men’s sexuality nor women’s sexuality are essentially bad. Indeed, neither men nor women more generally should be considered essentially bad. It needs to be a matter of mutual consideration and respect. By essential I refer not to matters of social construction, but to characteristics according to peoples’ very nature. These presumptions need to factor into our discourse more generally. We need to bemotivated by ambitions of equality and mutual respect. If we are so-motivated it is more likely that will factor into our language and arguments.
The retreat of racism, patriarchy and sexuality-based hatred has been welcome. Though as always in these circumstances there is inevitably a reaction. And it is well-worth considering whether if at times some of us on the left feed into this reaction with the nature of our language, and the tone of that language. Whereas sometimes we could convince through engagement, at times we instead alienate through personal accusation. This alienation is at times exacerbated by the fact of a long-time neglect of narratives of social class. Ironically, that leaves the field open for the right and even the far-right to claim to speak for ‘battlers’. The traditional left is also left not knowing where to turn when even ostensibly left-wing Labor governments seem to have no hesitation in taking privatisation to previously unknown extremes.
Where it becomes a matter of personal accusation, many respond defensively, and end up embracing right-wing narratives. Given this, although (as already argued) much talk of political correctness is just beaten up, it is nonetheless worth considering whether there is a grain of truth. Specifically, are we sometimes afraid of exploring complexities for fear of ostracism? But the consequent deterrence of debate also contributes to a pressure cooker scenario. And that might in the end leave us with all kinds of unintended consequences with the onset of a political and cultural reaction.
At the end of the day, the cultural left needs to reconcile with the traditional left on the grounds of real engagement, and a tolerance for well-meaning debate as the key to achieving mutual solidarity. Both have important insights to share and that solidarity is often key to success. Generally exploitation and domination should be unacceptable on principle. That needs to be unambiguously common ground. The alternative to this is to leave ourselves open to right-wing strategies of divide and conquer.
But individuals and groups will not always agree on every detail. And if some diversity of opinion is not tolerated, the left will turn in against itself. Politics generally is increasingly brutalised. It is important to reject the politics of personal destruction and what in the end that means for all of us. And it is both women and men who are regularly driven out of politics as a consequence. Democracy is weakened and corrupted as participation is narrowed. Conceivably, the majority who remain at the heights of power are those willing to partake of that brutalisation.
As issues of social equality and an alternative to capitalism recede to the margins – and the Liberal Party tears itself apart - there is even the danger that the traditional contest between social democracy and conservativism will be replaced by one between liberalism and big ‘C’ conservatism. So in the end we have convergence politics where in the mainstream the economically-neo-liberal ideology is basically uncontested. In a sense it is a problem the mainstream cultural left has itself contributed to through its relative neglect of an economic alternative, as well as its neglect of the oppressed classes compared with cultural politics.
Mutual respect can be the precondition of mutual liberation through solidarity. Let’s remember that as we refute lies and exaggerations from the right on political correctness; and not leave ourselves open to strategies of divide and conquer which would crush struggles for human liberation. That means acknowledging the true, nuanced and changing complexity of power relations, oppression, exploitation and privilege. Which is the key to real solidarity and good will between oppressed individuals and groups.