Yesterday, I took the time to read the UK government’s report on the Rotherham rape scandal (and here too). It makes for grim reading. Intimidation, fear and wilful blindness, all the usual things that perpetuate child abuse went on in Rotherham, right up to the highest levels of the local government and police. That’s the really scary thing; the people who were paid by the public to protect them and their children from such horror were too afraid themselves to confront it head on.
It reveals something rotten in the political culture; a widespread paranoia that prevented people from speaking their mind for fear of being socially ostracised and labelled a “bigot”.
Political Correctness is often derided as something only racists worry about, and that really it’s just about being polite to other people. At one time, I think that might have been true, but now it has developed into something far more pernicious, a mechanism which silences people and stifles public discourse, reaching its dreadful apogee in Rotherham.
It is completely illogical to think that by going after a group of criminals who are Muslim that you would then, by extension, be criminalising all Muslims. That should be obvious to anyone in possession of a cerebral cortex. It is the most egregious distortion of truth and logic. It also treats Muslims as one big humungous blob who can’t be differentiated from one another. In fact, it was a Muslim prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, who went after grooming gangs in Rochdale.
So how did this happen? From where did this irrationality arise? It is from the terrible fear that something you say can be seized upon by spiteful schemers, a scandal-hungry media and the silly social media mob to defame and destroy you. It doesn’t matter if you had the best of intentions or were telling the truth. As a result, people begin to radically self-censor, to the point of absurdity.
In “Political correctness: How censorship defeats itself”,The Spectator’s Nick Cohen wrote after the Benedict Cumberbatch “coloured” scandal that:
After the battering he has received, I doubt if Cumberbatch will take the trouble to argue for fairer treatment for ethnic minority and working class actors again. Pursed lipped prudes, who damn others for their sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language, while doing nothing to confront real injustice, are characteristic figures of our time. As characteristic are well-meaning people abandoning good causes because they cannot take the prudes’ condemnations.
On its own terms, political correctness is self-defeating. It drives away potential supporters, and substitutes linguistic change for social change. It replaces the desire to reform society with the desire to reform manners, and fails to understand that practised hypocrites and seasoned manipulators can meet the demand to observe correct form with ease. Indeed, they will welcome political correctness because it gives them new opportunities to intimidate and control.
This was the case with the rape gangs in Rotherham. They were off committing unspeakable crimes while everyone else trembled in fear of political correctness.
I had my own run in with the social media mob a couple of years ago, after I wrote an article for the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader about inner city Johannesburg.
My intention in writing the piece had been to change people’s perceptions about the inner city, particularly people from the surrounding suburbs who are very fearful of venturing into the centre. I wanted people to know that it’s not as terrifying as they might think (at least in the daytime, I have never walked around at night). At first, I received only positive feedback, and I felt good about it. But then a couple of days later I received a slew of aggressive comments on Twitter from total strangers (one of whom I later found out writes for The Daily Maverick and another for the Mail and Guardian) calling my article “lame” and “execrable”. I was shocked and very confused. I couldn’t understand where they were coming from. At first, I thought, “Oh, I’ve been too blasé about Johannesburg. I’m being irresponsible encouraging people to go there.” What did not occur to me was that my article would be construed as racist, which, after searching on Twitter (a humiliating experience, like finding out what the Mean Girls said about you in their “burn book”) I quickly discovered it was.
One woman had written about me in a tweet: “Someone should have told her before she published. Talk about revealing yourself.” Revealing myself as what, precisely? The piece didn’t mention race once and when I wrote it, I hadn’t even been thinking about race. Maybe I didn’t express myself clearly enough? Perhaps the headline was misleading? Who knows? What was truly surreal though was that I was being accused of the absolute opposite of what my intention was. It was bizarre. What was meant to be a blog about improving perceptions of Johannesburg was being portrayed on social media as an attempt to denigrate it. I felt as if I were Alice in Wonderland where up was down and down was up.
I had to stop myself from trying to “prove” I wasn’t a racist because a) I realised it would be futile, I had already been convicted in a kangaroo court and b) I didn’t have to prove myself, I hadn’t done anything wrong. They were the ones who were wrong.
I now regret not defending myself more robustly, but at the time, my family was going through an incredibly difficult period and I just didn’t have the strength.
After that experience, I never spoke about Johannesburg again and certainly didn’t make any more efforts to change minds about it. It was ruined for me, which, in hindsight, was a real pity because I was born there. It was my city too.
This is what happens. Well-intentioned people remove themselves from the conversation, and the hysterical, and in some cases, vindictive ones run amok, smearing and falsely accusing others with impunity. With people like that directing public discourse it becomes nonsensical and enters the realm of total insanity.
My trivial experience cannot in any way be compared to what happened in Rotherham, but it gave me a small taste of how a culture of finger pointing, browbeating and eventual self-censorship allowed it to happen.
Know that a decent, democratic society cannot be built on such shaky foundations. We have to come together in a free culture of open debate and contestation. Stand your ground. Voice your opinions.
“We cannot have a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians, and spectators.” – Liz Coleman
Featured Image Credit: The Salem Witch Trial of George Jacobs by Thompkins H Matteson (1692). Source: Wiki Art