One of the problems with Political Correctness, if one can define it as a desire to change the words we use to change how we think, is that it will invite a backlash. That backlash will not necessarily be for the good, but could encourage a new sort of ugliness: a desire to say things that are by any yardstick offensive, rude and coarsening of public life.
Consider how we talk about people suffering from physical and mental handicaps these days. Even the word, ‘handicap’ might get you into trouble. This Wikipedia take on PC terms shows to what lengths the speech-code enforces will go to change language. Yet there seems to be something of a fightback, and I am not sure if I like the results any more than the PC stuff. Last night, TV presenter Jonathan Ross, a man famed for his massive BBC salary, loud suits and inability to pronounce the letter R, launched an attack on the now-estranged wife of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney in terms so vile that Ross’s career might have been destroyed a few years ago. On the Have I Got News for You satirical current affairs ‘quiz’ show last night, the same sort of mockery was sent the way of Heather Mills, again playing on the fact that she is an amputee. Now, of course some people who suffer such calamities learn to put on a brave face about it and even laugh at their own misfortune. Humour can be a great source of strength. But I thought it pretty striking nonetheless that it is considered okay by mainstream, left-leaning members of the chattering entertainment classes to have a crack at someone by reference to their disability. Personally I have no desire to discuss the rather nasty divorce case. Life is too short.
I suppose context does matter. The media, or at least parts of it, have taken the view that the soon-to-be ex-Mrs McC is a gold-digging trollop who has played on her disability to win support for her case, so she is fair game. But I also suspect this is just another example of the boorish strain in what passes for British public cultural life these days. A year or so back, Andrew Sullivan noted how (link requires subscription) British TV shows and magazines like Maxim or Big Brother were spreading the Brit gospel of crassness and vulgarity across the United States. He had a point then and it applies just as much now.
The most powerful British influences on American culture today are ferociously crass, unvarnished, unseemly – and completely unapologetic about it.
Vulgarity, I suppose, has its uses. A strong tradition of satire and mockery of the rich, famous and powerful can and does act as a check on the over-mighty. A certain level of vulgarity is probably rather healthy. But my goodness, would it not be refreshing, just for once, if the supposed public merrymakers focused more of their aim on our corrupt and power-mad political elite, and rather less on people who, for all their supposed failings, are not really very important? But perhaps to state the question is to know the answer. Taking the piss out of religious fundamentalists, crooks or tyrants is quite dangerous to the would-be piss-taker (just ask Theo Van Gogh). Much easier to have a go at a pop star instead.