Speaker by Various Artists

Mummy, what’s a feminazi?

by Andrew Heal

It could have been any number of things, but in the end it was a recent television ad for a magazine story investigating that hoary old woman’s journal staple, political correctness in the workplace. Two people with nooses around their necks: one a murderer, one as violator of the PC laws (gasp!) Asked A Female Co-worker If She Had A Nice Weekend. Shock horror! In one’s mind, questions scramble for answers: Has it really come to this? If you are arrested by the PC Police for some mild extra-curricular probing – an honestly, officer, that’s all it was – are you now condemned to a spot of gallows-swinging with a homicidal maniac? And, what with all these lenient jail terms being passed down for rapists and killers and everything, will your well-intentioned faux pas mean more time in the Big House for you than for those twisted perverts?

The answer to these posers is, in order: No, it hasn’t, whatever they’d have you believe: No, of course you’re not, and Don’t be so precious. (The biggest criticism of PC dredged up in the article in question, by the way, is: “the fact that it has become something of a straitjacket occasionally offends my sense of humour mightily”. Quelle horreur!) But we can now safely say that the practice of political correctness is a Class A crime tantamount to social suicide, because to transgress it is punishable, so the Clemengers ad agency would have you believe anyway, by death.

Another question then: Could it be that the only thing we know for sure about political correctness is that nobody knows for sure what it means any more? English writer Christopher Hitchens once described PC as “a sort of mutation of the 60s, in which all the crappy aspects of that decade have been fused. The idealism and élan are defunct, while in hybrid form all the sectarian hysteria, all the juvenile intolerance and all the paranoia and solipsism have been retained.” This I understand. The fact that these attributes also seem to have been devoured by the very people who would call themselves anti-Pcs, I don’t.

“PC” certainly seemed to mean something back in 1990, anyway, when then Metro deputy editor Stephen Stratford wrote his seminal cover story Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, which suggested that the trouble with this breed of creature was that they were all actually conservatives – conservative in the uniformity of their thought, offensive with their reverse discrimination, drearily dogmatic in their insistence that to be a true PC you had tobuy “the whole package”: pro-abortion, pro-gay rights, a feminist, probably a Labour voter (the Alliance had yet to congeal), ad nauseam. If you weren’t all of them, you weren’t really any of them at all. Despite the noblest of intentions, PC at its worst ended up seeking something vaguely termed “diversity”, to paraphrase Hitchens again, by demanding something definitely recognisable as conformity.

Stratford’s most interesting argument, however, arrived towards the end of his opus. The worst excesses of PC, he lamented, could trigger a knee-jerk response from neoconservatives, to whom any concession to diversity would come to be seen as the work of some hydr-headed, Waikato University-domiciled devil. Truly, the words of a prophet. The practisers of political correctitude were once accused of ostracising those who didn’t buy the whole touchy-feely package. The anti-PCs, as it turned out, were always going to dump the whole lot on you anyway.

And yet now, you can’t help feel that political correctness – whatever, indeed, it is, if it was ever anything of substance – is as much a preserve of the people who railed against this insidious disease back when we were told it would spill out of American universities into the Pacific and wash up on our previously free and untainted shores, as it is of those beared, jerseyed, bone-pendant-wearers we’re always hearing about. Everybody’s anti-{C. Indeed, being anti-PC is about as PC as you can get. So what say we demand a moratorium on this cliché without a cause before the self-appointed guardians of morality render us ideologically impotent with their anti-PC ennui?

“The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited,” John Stuart Mill demanded. “He must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” The trouble is, he is. He knows he’s right and he won’t leave us alone. If being anti-PC means anything in 1996, it means that you can do whatever the heck you want – as long as it doesn’t stop me getting what I want.

That we’re still talking about political correctness is a travesty in itself. There was a point – it must have been a couple of years ago now – when “PC” looked set to die a well-earned death. If it has remained part of the wider vernacular, it is surely because: a) its employers are so damned unhip they don’t know when a catchphrase stops being funny and begins to bark like a dead dog; and b) because it’s a damn convenient whipping boy. What better than a shadowy, unseen enemy, rich in parody-prone stereotypes which nobody claims to be part of an never fights back? God knows, with the death of communism we needed another one.

PC gave rise to the “silent majority”. (Another phrase which, on both counts, may be as mythical as the one under scrutiny. Who would dare accuse working-class anti-PC heroes like John Banks, Leighton Smith and Arch Tambakis or their middle-class counterparts Rosemary McLeod, Frank Haden and Lindsay Perigo of being backward in coming forward?) In the process, it appears to have given everybody the right to exhume the spirit of Genghis Khan. Listen to talkback radio (an easy target, admittedly) and you’ll hear people justify their reactionary nonsense with the qualifier, “Of course, it’s not very PC to say this …” What does this actually mean, other than “I’m about to bombard you with the scariest conspiracy theory since Mein Kampf”?

They say travel narrows the mind, but lazy catch-alls must come a close second. Here are some phrases which have withered on the reactionary vine: feminazi; niconazi; bearded lady; tree-hugger. Once, their employers lampooned a dreadfully precious breed of person who desperately needed to laugh at themselves. But now the anti-PC industry is an industry like any other, designed to sell books, massage egos, rationalise prejudices, resuscitate careers. They sued to terrorise the establishment. Now they are the establishment. More criminally, could they have become bores?

It could have been any number of things, but in the end it was a phone call from a newspaper columnist unhappy that she should have had a statement about paedophiles – that she’d be relaxed if they all topped themselves – described as “knee-jerk nonsense” in this magazine. The quote adorns the back of Deborah Coddington’s Paedophile And Sex Offender Index. Did the columnist not write it? Yes, she explained, but you see, it’s a column, not a treatise. It has a context all of its own: it’s designed to provoke people.

Fine. One is suitably provoked. If it is a joke, I am not finding it all that funny. And she is evidently happy for the quote to be used on the back of the index? Yes, she says, but she laughed when asked for permission to reproduce her words.

So, here we have a quote from a columnist suggesting that paedophiles do everyone a favour and hang. It is being used to sell a book, even though its author considers it little more than a humorous dig. But presumably Coddington, as the author of the index, subscribes to the concept? Well, no, she doesn’t agree with it at all, but, as she explained in September’s Metro, “it’s a good quote to put on the back cover.”

It’s a good quote to put on the back cover. Why? Because it will help sell the book and it will get people talking about the topic. In other words, it is now acceptable, when you’re taking on a faceless, do-gooding wall of social workers, psychologists, academics and like-minded interfering busybodies, to say something you don’t necessarily believe, for the simple reason that you are Right and they are Wrong. This, if one is not mistaken, is the sort of We Know What’s Best For You wowserism for which we’ve spent years lambasting the PCs.

It is typical, however, of the anti-PC movement, rife as it is with a virulent anti-intellectualism which it deludes itself into thinking is common sense. Anything to emerge from a university – and Waikato University in particular – is to be treated with suspicion. Yes, matriculating in a place where one must be biculturally appropriate about everything must be a crashing bore, particularly if it supplants academic reason as the priority of choice, but surely not as tiresome as being biculturally inappropriate about everything has become.

Too harsh? A moment before you lob the “bleeding heart liberal” grenade over the trenches: I come to bury PC, not to praise it. Metro has always challenged accepted wisdom and doublespeak. The thing is, it’s now coming at us from all sides. So much bilge is being peddled that it’s hard to know who the enemy is any more. Yes, there are dullards out there who would have you believe that being differently abled is somehow less of a hardship than being disabled (though, let’s face it, that whole thing about how short people were going to end up being called “vertically challenged” never happened, did it?)

But while we’re excising sweet nothings from the vernacular, why stop with those hawked by the so-called liverals? What say we cremate: “downsizing”, “flexible labour market”, “the open economy”, “the Decent Society”, “turning back the clock”, “the politics of envy”, “the chattering classes” (Roger Kerr’s vague explanation of this mysterious phrase in last month’s Metro surely confirms that nobody knows who comprises this subspecies other than the people who refer to it), “crown health enterprises” who save the lives (presuming such an act doesn’t hinder their profit-driven nature) of “clients”, “ordinary Kiwis”, “accountability”, “direct democracy”, “family values”, “morality”, “New Zealand’s Big Game”, “New Zealand for New Zealanders”, “New Zealand’s News Leader”, “Watch Your World With Us”, “The Best Things In Life Are 3”, “the global economy”, “Generation X”, “market-friendly”, “the information superhighway” and any phrase used to sell City Life.

There, that feels better, doesn’t it? When you consider this wearisome abundance of gunk, it’s becoming very hard to believe that political correctness, in its original liberal Left incarnation at least, ever had any greater designs on our way of life that anything else.

It could have been any number of things, but in the end it was North & South freelancer David Cohen (a contributor to Lindsay Perigo’s Free Radical organ) pressing Waikato University vice-chancellor and former British MP Bryan Gould on the sins of political correctness. PC, Gould suggested, “is very often a norm of civilised behaviour that you would take for granted in a family or group of friends. And we’re just saying that that’s the way we’d like to behave as an institution.” Despite the assertion that these people are everywhere, this is the closest I can remember to anybody actually coming out and declaring themselves to be a practising political corrector.

But, while Gould’s admission og guilt was a start, PC remained elusive. It was time to stop prevaricating, put down the pen and to go out and find it. As it turned out, Whitcoulls was selling a book composed by one Phillip Jackson called Fighting Political Correctness. I hot-footed it down to Queen Street and eureka! There it was in a special section reserved for, erm, enthusiastic authors, shall we say, alongside Stuart C Scott’s Travesty of Waitangi and the Paedophile And Sex Offender Index. Within these pages, one learns that political correctness is “a subset of left-wing philosophy”. Aha! It all becomes clear. It’s those goddam lefties. Political correctness, Mr Jackson illuminates, is about “redefining the lower levels of stupidity”, which, by sweet coincidence, makes his 104-page attempt to justify his own prejudices one of the most politically correct works of the late 20th century.

Still the foreword was a bit of a hoot. “It you are weary of [the] tree-hugging, save-the-gay-whales brigade,” Avondale College principal, born-again Christian and future prime minister (his predition) Phil Raffills writes, “then this book is for you!” Love that gay-whales jibe – has any gag matured so gracefully over time? Sock it to me some more, sir. What about those “government-supported PC institutions wearing our patience thin”, viz, the Human Rights Commission, Youth Law, Family Planning. What about, he goes on, those cursed Civil Libertarians?

Well, what about them? Raffills’ is the worst sort of anti-PC behaviour: that which accuses various organizations of paternalistic prejudices and then demands that they be replaced by another brand of paternalistic prejudice. “The next time you hear a truly funny, nonoffensive joke about the Irishman, Scotsman, Englishman,” he exhorts, “laugh out aloud.” I would, but that joke isn’t funny any more. Ah, I hear you say, but not everybody who considers political correctness to be the root of all evil is as committed to the cause as Mr Raffills. Yet that’s the very tactic the neoconservatives have been employing for years: they conned us into thinking that the exceptions proved the rule, when they just made it easier to attack.

A short PC hysteria quiz:
* Is it true that somebody complained to TVNZ that one of CoverStory’s fictional characters was violating the Smokefree Environments Act by smoking on the set of the equally fictional current affairs show she works for? Yes. Isn’t that rather barmy? It’s bonkers. But isn’t it also true that it’s rather nice not having to be smoked on when you go to a restaurant, should you not wish to be, thanks to the very same act?
* Is it true that some people in the Labour Party are lesbians? Yes. Isn’t it also true that if it wasn’t for these people, homosexual acts might still be a criminal offence?
* Is it true that the Human Rights Commission forbade the playing of a married couples’ golf tournament on the grounds that it excluded the single competitor? Yes. Isn’t it also true that such silliness merely highlights anomalies in the Human Rights Act, rather than offering incontestable proof that the act isn’t working?
* Is it true that teachers went out on strike again this year, disrupting hundreds of classes while demanding better wages? Yes. Isn’t it also true that they’re some of the poorest-paid teachers in the Western world?
* Is it true that the Wellington-based Office of Film and Literature Classification finds K Road’s sex-industry signs objectionable? Yes. Could it also be that these self-appointed censors give the words “progressive” and “liberal” a bad name?
* Is it true that the Advertising Standards Complaints Board upheld a complaint alleging that an advertisement featuring a scantily clad male being ogled by two women was sexist? Yes. But given that it was such a boof-headed piece of lowest-common-denominator advertising in the first place (“we can treat men’s bodies like meat too, y’know – not just women’s!”),

who really cares?

The scare stories are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule, one suspects, is probably too mundane to warrant coverage. It probably involves doing dreadfully uninteresting things like righting wrongs and addressing inequalities. That’s why the exceptions are pounced on by the doom-sayers, feeding on the scraps like stray cats at a banquet, as proof that we’re mutating into a nation of victims, moaners and do-gooders. But why think the world is as simple as it appears to them?

Let’s look at some of those accepted anti-PC truisms. What does “the politics of envy” mean, for example, other than that some people don’t like being poor? Are the one-in-six New Zealanders below the poverty line suffering from the politics of envy, and if not, what on earth is their problem? The answer is this – unless you want tobe accused of being PC, and be honest, you’d rather not – is that many poor aren’t suffering from bad luck but are devoid of initiative and under the delusion that they’re owed a living. (This, as we have come to witness over the past few years, is certainly a forlorn hope.)

Of course, if you don’t want people feeling that you owe them a living, maybe you shouldn’t rather cynically offer them one and then pretend that breaking your promises is somehow more righteous than keeping them. If, in 1990, the soon-to-be government has been courageous enough to admit its plans to cut social spending, then voters could only be said to have got what they asked for. But this is where a particular brand of political correctness came into play. When you’re trying to win widespread support, you don’t want to offend anyone, so you promise to halve unemployment. Once you’ve made such a promise and been elected, in part on the back of it, do you not have an obligation to deliver or repent?

Not if you’ve got the Business Roundtable financing visits from British “experts” (one a journalist, one a former politician) who are considered qualified enough to tell us how to run our country. (Gentlemen, look at the problems in your own backyard!) Come on in Spectator columnist Paul Johnson, a man once described as looking like an explosion in a pubic hair factory. Roll up Dr David G Green, who identified that disadvantaged New Zealanders were not victims of the economic reform, but of a more ambiguous disease he called “victimism”.

For fairly mathematically sound reasons, one would have though, there’s not much reason to agree with Green’s assertion in his book From Welfare State To Civil Society that no fewer that “374 per cent” of Americans “suffer from victimism”. Surely some mistake? Victimism, as he explains it, is essentially a variation on another of those hoary old anti-PC clichés, “the grievance industry” – our third biggest industry, according to Rosemary McLeod anyway, behind welfare and dope. The trouble with the PC brigade, remember, is that they’re always moaning about everything.

In such thinking lies the seeds of neoconservatism, an intellectual movement which grew, the Economist recently noted, from a conviction that “liberal” (a term now possibly as devoid of meaning as political correctness) had become a euphemism, in the United States anyway, for “left” or “social democrat”. The instinct of such liberals was to call on the state to solve any obstacle to a better society. “You identified a problem. You called on the government to finance the programme: and the desired outcome would result.” Having watched liberalism being taken over by such reasoning, neoconservatism arrived. To the neoconservative , “there probably wasn’t a problem. If there was, social scientists probably misunderstood it. It was probably insoluble, and in any case efforts on the part of government to solve it would probably make it worse.”

Once, then, a societal problem was considered a sign that somebody needed to do something to change things for the better. Now, it’s considered a sign that some people don’t know when they’ve got it good. The trend is no longer to see how a problem can be fixed, but to see what shortcomings exist in a person which have caused them to suffer from the problem anyway. Such scepticism often turns out to be justified. Just as often, however, it’s simply easier than addressing the issue in question.

Accordingly, Dame Silvia Cartwright’s recent comment that some politicians were refusing to acknowledge the existence of poverty in New Zealand was greeted with outrage. How dare anyone at that end of the spectrum bring up such a sensitive subject! And what word should the minister of justice use to describe Dame Sylvia’s observations, but “inappropriate”. Inappropriate! My, what goes around really does come around.

Officially, you see, poverty does not exist. And so, on the campaign trail, Jim Bolger portrayed himself as the only major party leader embracing the optimistic spirit of the age. So often did he pronounce his optimism on TV3’s first leaders’ debate, for example, you’d have thought there was Prozac in his mineral water. But there was irony in the establishment’s election behaviour: even as they accused anti-establishment factions of moaning about everything, they traded in “the politics of fear”. The Alliance – what have we got to fear? The economy – what have we got to lose? Funny how breezy optimism goes out the window when the status quo’s under threat.

Remember, this is an environment where TVNZ gets so nervous about offending somebody that it doesn’t okay a proposed documentary on the Employment Contracts Act. Why? Because, at some point in a programme which would surely have dealt with both the benefits and the drawbacks of the act, it might mention the fact – the fact, not the opinion – that productivity has actually decreased since its introduction? That wages haven’t kept up with inflation? To say as much isn’t to take sides, merely to debate the issues. Similarly, the most talked-about documentary of the year, Someone Else’s Country, a documentary on the Rogernomics years, wasn’t screened on the channel that bround you Success. The only broadcaster with any bravado was an Auckland-only music video channel, whose viewers probably thought it was a promo for the next Rage Against The Machine album.

Because the truth is that even as we moan about the fact that future generations will be prissy, subliterate ones because of all this hand-wringing PC interventionism, it may in fact be the cult of selfism, if anything, which confers such characteristics upon them. They’ll be liberal because of the work of activists since the 60s to bring minorities up to a standard equal with the rest of us, before this whole PC thing got out of hand on both sides of the political divide. If they prove to be self-centred and subliterate, maybe it will be because they grew up in an era when it was considered good government to interfere in trivialities like who should compete in social golf matches while bailing out of responsibilities in areas such as health and education.

The ultimate irony, you see, is that the election campaign revealed our prime PC practitioner to be Jim Bolger, a man determined to be all things to all people, rewriting history to tailor himself to the prevailing political mood of the day. Who else, but a man who whispers sweet, cynical nothings like “The Decent Society” into the ear of the easily-aroused voter, could have the gall to loiter around Nelson Mandela’s old cell as if he had done anything other than help keep him in there for a few more years? The Christians may have wanted to take us back a century, but at least they were saying something (although the candidate who called New Zealand a “vast fornicatorium” may have made us sound far more interesting than were really are). Let’s rid ourselves of “political correctness” by all means, but accept that the purge will have to be wider than we might have hoped.

And what does PC mean by strict definition anyway? According to the dictionary I poked my thumbs into, “political correctness” is, in fact:

“conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp on social matter, in the avoidance of anything, even established vocabulary, that may conceivably be construed as discriminatory, or pejorative; advocacy of this”.

Now, quite apart from the fact that “may conceivably be construed” sounds like a prime piece of doublespeak in itself, this requires us to define two other words. Liberal: “generous; noble-minded; broad-minded; not bound by authority or traditional orthodoxy”.

And radical: “favouring thoroughgoing but constitutional social and political reform”.

So political correctness, it would seem, is being bound to an authoritarian doctrine but not being bound by authority. It requires a narrow-minded conformity to broad-mindedness. All this time, in other words, PC may have never actually meant anything much at all.

Then again … a conformity to broad-mindedness. Couldn’t extremists on either side of the PC divide learn something from that sentiment?

This essay was originally published in Metro magazine, November, 1996. It is copyright to Metro magazine and is published here with the kind permission of Metro’s editor, Nicola Legat. Thank you also to Andrew Heal himself -- we lost him too soon.