Melanie Phillips

10 January 2012

How David Cameron fell victim to the sensitivity inquisition

Published in: Daily Mail

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Oh dear. The latest victim of Britain’s new ‘sensitivity inquisition’ is no less than someone whose antennae are most exquisitely attuned to the niceties of political correctness — the Prime Minister himself. 

David Cameron saw his attempt to set the political agenda by calling for a ‘fairer’ Britain completely overshadowed by a row over his throwaway jibe at Ed Balls.

Mr Cameron likened the shadow chancellor’s abusive gestures during Prime Minister’s Questions to Tourette’s syndrome, whose sufferers are characterised by uncontrollable tics and profane language.

This calls to mind the fuss over George Osborne’s throwaway joke more than five years ago that suggested that Gordon Brown had autism. 

Both remarks displayed that effortless public school cruelty that has caused Mr Cameron to be compared with Flashman, the bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. 

Nevertheless, the outraged reaction in each case was surely more than a touch over the top. After all, the targets of these insults were clearly Ed Balls and Gordon Brown — and no one else. Yet it was sufferers from Tourette’s or autism who were held, instead, to have been grievously traduced. 

This row reminds me of the time I once used the term ‘schizophrenic’ in the way it is often colloquially used to denote someone who veers between one opinion and another — only to be bawled out by the father of a child suffering from schizophrenia.

The popular association of this illness with being ‘in two minds’ was a shocking prejudice, he stormed, as it actually involved a wholesale breakdown of brain function.

Well, I was sorry to have spoken so loosely and trodden on such a corn — but did my colloquialism really merit quite such an affronted response?

The truth is that we are living today in a very strange culture, marked by a bewildering combination of hyper-sensitivity, gross hypocrisy and rank absurdity.

To put it another way, while many now feel forced to censor what they say for fear of being pilloried for one thought-crime or another, others manage to get away with vile remarks — while still others are attacked for the use of words whose meaning has been wrenched out of context.

For example, Labour MP Diane Abbott was accused of racism last week for having tweeted that ‘white people love playing “divide and rule”.’ 

But this was absurd. White people do love dividing and ruling — especially the British, who during the Empire thought they had elevated this to an art form.

Similarly, the loud-mouthed TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson detonated yet another race row at the weekend after comparing the sight of Olympic synchronised swimmers with the ‘upside-down hats’ of the 21 Chinese cockle-pickers who were killed in rising tides in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, in 2004.

He was promptly attacked by anti-racism groups who said he had ‘no right to offend communities in this country who live and work here and provide more to Britain than he does’.

His remark, it has to be said, was as gratuitously tasteless as it was bizarre. But racist? His fatuous comparison surely caused offence not on account of the ethnicity of those Chinese cockle-picklers but because it insulted their memory as the fatal victims of a horrible tragedy.

Meanwhile, the world of football has been engulfed by one racism furore after another. Last month, the England football captain John Terry was charged with racially abusing QPR player Anton Ferdinand by allegedly calling him a ‘****ing black ****’.

Last week, the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned by the FA for eight matches after repeatedly calling a Senegalese-born Manchester United player a ‘negro’. And during the Liverpool/Oldham FA Cup tie at Anfield last Friday evening, an oaf in the crowd called player Tom Adeyemi a ‘******g black b******’.

Some may wonder whether abusing someone as a ‘****ing black b******’ is really worse than someone being abused as a ‘****ing b*******’.

Well, personally, as a Jew, I find it rather worse to be abused as a ‘Jewish bigot’ rather than a mere ‘bigot’ (though, distressingly, I am vilified as both fairly regularly). This is because being abused as a Jew or a black person is more devastating because the abuse relates to a person’s unalterable identity. 

On the other hand, all such abuse crucially depends on the context in which these things are said. Yet our culture of hyper-sensitivity now seems to mean that virtually any disobliging comment uttered by a white person about black people, or vice versa, is automatically deemed to be racist.

It’s hard to decide whether this is evidence of mass hysteria or mass imbecility. Of course, it is right that true prejudice — as demonstrated by the terrible murder of Stephen Lawrence — should be deemed wholly unacceptable. But it is also  necessary to display a sense of proportion and balance.

Once upon a time, that line was marked by the law against incitement to racial hatred. Singling out a person or a group for such incitement of hatred on account of their unavoidable racial identity was not just considered unacceptable in itself.

The concern was that it created a climate that encouraged acts of racial violence. Yet such was the parallel concern not to infringe freedom of expression that very few prosecutions were brought under this law.

Now, however, freedom of expression is forgotten. Prejudice has become the cardinal sin because protecting someone’s feelings now trumps all.

As a result, the feelings of hurt suffered by self-designated ‘victim’ groups are interpreted as a criminal offence. The problem with this approach is that it leads straight from the decent desire to eradicate true prejudice to the politically correct tyranny of stamping out any view with which those in authority  may disagree. Moreover, the culture of political correctness dictates that only groups who are deemed powerless can be considered victims of prejudice.

Thus people who make remarks which offend Muslims or gay people, for example, may find the police investigating them for ‘Islamophobia’ or ‘homophobia’. Yet, on the other hand, Christians find themselves being insulted all the time with no redress.

In the interests of driving out prejudice, we are now in a position where language has been progressively censored. So, for example, the word ‘retarded’ was changed to ‘mentally handicapped’, which, in turn, also came to be considered insulting and so was replaced by ‘differently abled’. Similarly, ‘ethnic minority’ was bafflingly replaced by the new PC-speak term ‘minority ethnic’.

In other words, we have progressed seamlessly from insult to euphemism, with truth and a sense of proportion being mislaid somewhere along the way.

Meanwhile, true offensiveness, cruelty and humiliation are considered acceptable on TV reality shows such as Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!

Jeremy Clarkson, despite all the uproar he creates, is still handsomely rewarded for his consistently tasteless patter. And despite the gross anti-white racism, violence and offensiveness of rap music, our arbiters of taste and decency  — in their wisdom — simply ignore it.

So why is it that while causing offence, in some cases, has become the greatest sin that can be committed, in others its practitioners are richly rewarded? The answer is that by trying to stamp out certain attitudes, political correctness creates a culture of public bullying.

By affording ‘victim groups’ immunity from the possibility of being prejudiced themselves, it gives them carte blanche to abuse and intimidate others.

For example, rappers are considered part of a protected black culture in a way that poor old Diane Abbott, who plays the mainstream political game, is not. Rappers, therefore, are beyond criticism and are given licence to abuse.

This bullying culture has become all-pervasive. Whether on Twitter (that new vehicle of the PC hate-mongers) or on reality TV, which makes money out of cynically breaking all boundaries of taste and decency, it all amounts to an invidious abuse of power.

To such hypocrisy and inconsistencies, however, our society has become (if  this is not an insult to the chorally impaired) tone deaf.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie