Un-Australian activities

One of the great dangers of political struggles is that of ‘fighting fire with fire’ and thereby becoming the same as your enemy. Nowhere is this more evident than among critics of ‘political correctness’. The standard critique of political correctness is that its practitioners believe that hurtful speech is oppressive and therefore seek to curtail freedom of speech. In the caricature version of PC, a reference to a 150 cm, 200 kg person as ‘fat’ is un-PC and must be replaced by a euphemism such as ‘gravitationally challenged’.
Opponents of political correctness are similarly quick to claim oppression whenever they are subject to verbal criticism. ‘Racist’ is the absolute taboo term for these reverse-PC types, followed by ‘McCarthyist’, but even something as neutral as ‘right-wing’ reliably calls forth howls of protest.
All of this confusion is exhibited by Janet Albrechtsen complaining about left-wing attempts to censor free speech on campus. Although she says this is a problem in Australia, the sole example she gives is that of Robert Manne criticising his off-campus opponents as supporters of a ‘new racism’.
Most of her examples are American. A typical instance is a letter written by some academics to an Oklahoma newspaper criticising a Web Site called Campus Watch. Janet was so upset about this that I initially supposed that the University of Oklahoma must be hosting the site and that the letter could be seen as an attempt to have it taken down. But no, in Janet’s world, a letter to your local paper counts as attempted censorship.
Intrigued by this, I went to the site and clicked on the first page an article entitled Harvard’s Un-American Activities. I assumed that this headline would refer to some committee established by Harvard, on the model of the famous House Un-American Activities Committee, to suppress non-PC comments on various issues. But, as it turns out, Campus Watch wants to suppress Harvard. The article refers in general terms to opponents of a war with Iraq as treasonous, and specifically stated that

The unconscionable decision to allow the commencement speech called “My American Jihad” – which whitewashed the real meaning of the term in favor of a mild vision of personal struggle – has now been followed by a faculty-signed petition against war on Iraq.

In other words, despite its frontpage claim to ‘fully respect the freedom of speech of those it debates’, Campus Watch is specifically engaged in attempts to suppress campus speech, and to label dissent as treason.
A few of final observations. First the term ‘politically correct’, like its Australian cousin ‘ideologically sound’, was almost never used seriously. It originated within the left as a term of relatively gentle mockery for those obsessively concerned with superficialities like the use of appropriate terminology and the avoidance of unsound choices in consumer goods.
Second, political correctness is, under the name of ‘civility’, widely praised by many who would shrink in horror from anything ‘PC’. The basic point of civility or ‘manners’ is to act in a way that is socially appropriate rather than acting in accordance with your own feelings. As such it is an organised system of hypocrisy. Considered as ‘the tribute that vice pays to virtue’, a certain amount of hypocrisy is socially useful. But ultimately, correct choices of words are no substitute for genuine sympathy with other members of the community, something that is distinctly lacking among many right-wing advocates of ‘civility’ and quite a few ‘politically correct’ leftwingers.
Finally, a week or so ago, the Oz was honest, or brazen, enough to reprint the entire controversy between Janet and Media Watch. Reading it at one sitting it was obvious that Janet was guilty as charged, of printing distorted and plagiarised quotes, then failing to retract properly despite complaints from the person being quoted. Her only defence was that MW was engaged in selective prosecution, a valid enough point, but not one that does anything to restore her own credibility.