Charlton Heston once described political correctness as “tyranny with a happy face”. When the actor turned political activist who played Moses and Ben Hur makes a reference to tyranny, one must consider that statement more closely.
Political Correctness is the modern control on language and policy to ensure that a particular group is not offended or disadvantaged. While the inception of the concept came from a place of compassion and sensitivity, the phrase “political correctness gone mad” has become ridiculously popular. This is not because instead of ‘mad’, political correctness would dictate the usage of the phrase ‘mentally challenged’.
In fact, it is now being used as a tool to curb the freedom of speech and expression. Worse still; we’re applying it wrong!
Why is the focus of ‘political correctness’ on artists, writers and comedians?
For some reason their freedom of expression is viewed as being powerful enough to rupture the fabric of society. It appears that a painting, a song or a joke has the potency to erode the ‘strong’ foundations of both our value systems and the functioning of democracy. Therefore, it is only natural that these ‘sociopaths’ be stopped! [If only there was a font for sarcasm]
The irony is that while our value systems ought to be secure against jokes and paintings, curtailing the freedom of speech and expression is directly destroying the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.
It seems upside down that ‘political correctness’ is applied to social and cultural phenomena and not once considered within the political arena.
When United States of America, the self-entitled promoter and protector of democracy, made its first amendment to its Constitution it laid into law an absolute right to the freedom of speech[i]. The First Amendment ensures the absoluteness of the right i.e. there can be no restriction in any form whatsoever that could impinge on this fundamental right.
However, America does have the facetiously titled concept of “Free Speech Zones”. These zones are designated zones that allow the government to control the time, place and manner of protests but not the content. This concept has been utilised to regulate the protests for a long period of time but over the years its power has been greatly expanded, notably during the Bush administration[ii] and even President Obama signed a bill in 2012 expanding its power[iii]. The US Secret Service has used this power to ensure that designated protest zones are kept “out-of-sight and out-of-earshot”. However, citizens with favourable presidential signs are not treated the same way[iv]. Fortunately, well-minded citizens and organisations within America have been fighting against this abuse of power.
Ironically, one would think that given the value that the First Amendment holds within America and what it stands for, all of America would be a “Free Speech Zone”.
On the other hand, India does not have an absolute right to the freedom of speech. The Indian Constitution under Article 19(1)(a) provides for the fundamental right to the freedom of speech. However, Article 19(2) allows the State to implement reasonable restrictions on the freedom of speech so as to ensure that the freedom is not abused. These restrictions can only be enacted into law when the purpose is to ensure the security of the state, foreign relations, public order, contempt of court as well as [miraculously] decency and morality[v].
One such restriction can be found in the laws governing Sedition in India. The Indian Penal Code under Section 124-A covers the crime of sedition. The British enacted this section when they still governed India[vi]. It was a legal tool utilised to bring a sense of civility to their oppression of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi was jailed under these sedition laws[vii].
So one may wonder why the same law that was used against the ‘Father of the Nation’, the man whose face graces our currency, is still intact and used within India?
The Indian government over the years to stifle dissent in any form has used Section 124-A. It has been used to attack social activists, writers, political cartoonists[viii] [not a joke] and as recently as January 2016 college students. These instances have sparked national debates with accusations of political cowardice against the men in power and accusations of operating on behalf of enemy elements against citizens.
Ironically, when MPs and senior politicians use the tool of ‘hate speech’ and make statements offensive to women, minority communities or students the term ‘political correctness’ may be given a sideways glance.
The rise of Donald Trump as the front runner for the Republican party in the 2016 US Presidential Election race is also noteworthy. Trump has been unabashed in his use of ‘hate speech’ to garner votes. Even scarier, it seems to be working. Now while Trump is clearly exercising his absolute right of the freedom of speech, his supporters seem not to care either about ‘political correctness’ or ‘correctness’.
So What Is Politically Correct?
As stated earlier, political correctness came from a place of compassion and sensitivity aimed to bring communities together. However, it is now a means of judgment based on morality and taste. A distasteful joke by a comedian brings ire and hate but when a politician says something distasteful, members of the public jump on the bandwagon.
The irritating part about this is that the comedian’s intention is to spread laughter and (s)he receives hate while the politician’s intention is that of a professional shit-stirrer and (s)he receives support.
In some countries, an ill-timed or ill-placed statement will be charged as a crime. The weird part is that the statement is taken out of context and charged and the actual intention of individual is disregarded. Legal theory stipulates that for a crime to have been committed the mens rea or the ‘intention’ is crucial but as a polity we are choosing to ignore it.
The reason I have used the word ‘ironically’ so often is that when life gives you irony, embrace it!
Offending and being offended are an individual’s prerogative. But that is the key. The only person that can hurt me psychologically is me.
Again, So What is Politically Correct?
According to sources, everything and nothing.
So What Should Be Politically Correct?
Only ask yourself this question when placing a person in a seat of power that wields influence over the button to a nuclear bomb.