Civil war of the words

I’ve got a 1994 book called ‘The War of the Words – The Political Correctness Debate’. A typical product of its time, it counterposes contributions from those sceptical of PC – such as Melanie Philips voicing early doubts about her own liberalism – against essays from right-on ‘left’ personalities, e.g. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown bemoaning that “the most dispiriting aspect of it is how many liberals have joined in [the anti-PC backlash]”.

In the end, Euro uncle Stuart Hall restores left commonsense and order: True, PC was good for breaking up those old “collective identities” and “master categories” such as class and labour in order to introduce “new sites of struggle”. Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council is fondly remembered as something like the Paris Commune of this “new politics”. However, things have been getting out of hand: “militants” have taken political correctness too far, providing easy ammunition for the right. Hall likens their stance to the Bolsheviks’ “essentialism” and sense of holding “absolute truths”.

Stuart Hall correctly cites PC as “cutting across the traditional left/right divide”, even if he regards this as a good thing. After all, what we’re dealing with here is popular front-line soldiers and their liberal allies getting geared up for full-on Blairism.

In a sense, War of the Words succeeds as an amusing piece of pop-academic ephemera. Yet part of the fun is marred by the fact that a half-remembered version of the same hopeless politics is currently being played out on the post-SWP left.

Aptly described as “Frankenstein politics” by Tom Monday in his latest Weekly Worker piece, the monster now seems to be turning against its masters, with shouting leaders castigated as “triggering”, their taking the word trauma in vain as “ableist”, and their expressed desire to “get out of the left ghetto” as “belittling black experiences of marginalisation in ghettoes”.


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