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Political correctness gone right-wing

The Roz Ward case confirms what’s been apparent for some time: political correctness has become central to Australian conservatism.

That might seem counterintuitive since so much of what passes for commentary at the moment consists of right-wingers denouncing PC and its advocates.

Consider the moaning and whining about a video released by David Morrison, the former head of the army now running something called the Diversity Council. In it, Morrison suggests that people should avoid exclusionary and gendered language at work. A fairly unexceptional point, one might think. But Morrison also mentions that he no longer uses the word ‘guys’ – and that, of course, spurred the usual free speech rage-gasm.

Gerard Henderson responded with a piece entitled ‘Guys, it’s an exciting time to be an offence-taker’, while the reliably hyperbolic Brendan O’Neill pretty much declared Western civilization to be at an end.

‘It’s official,’ he wailed, ‘no zone of life is safe from the long noses and wagging fingers of the lifestyle cops and word police.’

Here we have the typical presentation of political correctness, generally depicted as a vast conspiracy led by powerful left-wingers exercising their censorial powers to silence humble folk.

Of course, that’s largely nonsense.

In fact, even O’Neill, a man who’s built a career out of a braying enthusiasm for whatever liberals currently hate, accepts Morrison’s general argument.

‘Some of the advice is patronisingly obvious,’ he says. ‘Apparently you shouldn’t walk about your workplace saying things like “abo”, “retard”, “fag” or “dyke”. Who knew? Everyone, I expect. Show me a workplace where such blatantly prejudicial terms are casually used and tolerated, and I’ll give you my salary this month.’

O’Neill’s monthly salary would, one suspects, provide a numerical indicator of just how long it’s been since he’s entered a normal workplace rather than phoning in his clickbait from Contrarian HQ. Until comparatively recently, ordinary employees put up with everyday sexism and racism as a matter of course. Even now, many still do. Slurs against Indigenous and transgendered people, in particular, are still very common – and a few years back the Daily Telegraph’s Joe Hildebrand mounted a one-man campaign to repopularise the word ‘retard’.

But insofar as it’s no longer acceptable to use words like ‘abo’ or ‘fag’, it’s because people fought to change the conditions under which they worked. Those struggles were nothing to do with censorship. In fact, when conservatives denounce ‘political correctness’, very often they’re attacking freedom of speech.

Think of the tearoom bigot who, once upon a time, could voice old-fashioned sexism or racism without challenge. These days, he (schooled by Andrew Bolt and the like) moans about political correctness when, for the first time, a workmate answers back. In that scenario, he’s objecting to someone else exercising a privilege that previously he’d monopolised. He’s complaining, in other words, about freedom rather than censorship: upset that someone who’d once mutely endured bullying now feels able to say, ‘Actually, I don’t like it when you call me that name.’

While it might be uncomfortable to be thus challenged, it’s scarcely censorship. It’s still not censorship if the one-time bully thereafter feels constrained about voicing certain opinions because he realises other will think less of him if he does.

Freedom doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for being a cock. By definition, freedom means your audience has a right to tell you when you’re being cockish, even if by doing so they puncture your self-regard.

A huge proportion of the examples of what the right-wing culture warriors call political correctness fall into this category. It’s not censorship when readers disagree with a newspaper columnist, even if they call her a bigot while doing so. It’s not censorship when students mount a petition objecting to a visiting lecturer. It’s not censorship when activists rally against a far right group.

These are, on the contrary, textbook examples of free speech – and yet they’re routinely trotted out as evidence of left-wing PC censoriousness.

Yes, some left-wing activists do call for the powers-that-be to censor racists or homophobes or other reactionaries. Yet, precisely because the state makes a dubious ally for progressives, instances of this kind of PC censorship are far scarcer than the media coverage would have us think.

The Andrew Bolt case, routinely cited by conservatives as the greatest instance of oppression an Australian has ever endured, provides a useful illustration. Bolt was, of course, taken to court over his writing in an action based on 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. We can argue about the utility of that strategy as a weapon against racism. (The legal action against Bolt doesn’t seem to have diminished his prominence as a conservative agitator. On the contrary, he used his self-presentation as persecuted truth-teller to leverage his career into new platforms.)

But most commentary on the Bolt case obfuscates the actual outcome. Bolt wasn’t thrown into prison. He wasn’t fined. No-one prevented him writing. The court didn’t even order an apology. The only consequence was a requirement his newspaper publish an addendum correcting articles admitted to be factually wrong. The penalty was, in other words, far less draconian than in a standard defamation case. Whatever else 18C meant for Bolt, it didn’t entail the imposition of a Stalinist gag.

You can find a similar gulf between outrage and actuality in almost all of these cases. If we return to the scandal about the Diversity Council, we might note that, whatever else David Morrison might be, he’s scarcely a representative of the left. The guy’s a former general, after all: it’s a little rich to lump him in with the campus agitators generally assumed to exemplify the PC push.

Furthermore, Morrison possesses no power whatsoever to control the usage of the term ‘guys’. Contrary to what O’Neill implies, the Diversity Council can’t send you to the gulag for the wrong turn of phrase. Indeed, one suspects his well-meaning video will have no impact whatsoever.

The conservative presentation of a huge left-wing apparatus enforcing a rigid orthodoxy through state coercion is a fantasy. Or, more exactly, it’s a projection – because insofar as such an apparatus exists, it’s deployed in the service of conservative values.

The most obvious example is Anzac.

In the book she wrote with Henry Reynolds, What’s Wrong with Anzac?, Marilyn Lake details the huge state-funded machine now promoting the Anzac mythology.

During the last ten years a veritable tidal wave of military history has engulfed our nation, generating the torrent of curriculum materials sent to primary and secondary schools by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA), the endless stories and supplements in newspapers and other media, new documentary series, live broadcasts of the Dawn Service from Gallipoli, travelling national and local museum exhibits, the Anzac Lecture Series and exhibitions at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, the expansion of memorials across the country and the publication of an unprecedented number of books in the field of war history, often made possible by subsidies from the DVA, the Australian Army History Unit of the Department of Defence, the Returned Services League (RSL) and the Australian War Memorial, which also has an affiliated Facebook site, encouraging members to ‘become a fan’ of the Anzacs … The vast pedagogical enterprise of the DVA – which under the Commemorative Activities programme has supplied all schools in Australia, primary and secondary, with voluminous and sophisticated curriculum materials, websites, virtual tours of the battlefields, handsome prizes including trips to Gallipoli and other battlefields – has been made possible by massive funding from the federal government, the budget for this activity increasing from $4,215,000 in 2001–02 to $5,878,000 in 2007­–8. Where it is the job of the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs to prescribe schoolchildren’s history is surely debatable. Whether it should link these history lessons to the definition and promotion of national values is more questionable still. Has the equivalent happened in any other democratic country?

That passage comes from 2010, well before the tide of Anzackery that engulfed Australia during the hundredth anniversary of Gallipoli. The best recent estimates suggest that the centennial festivities cost the nation close to half a billion dollars, a truly staggering sum of money. As Lake says, these activities not only push a distinctly partial (if not entirely mendacious) account of what happened in the Great War (ever hear mention of the Constantinople Agreement at an Anzac event?), they also promote a set of ideas about Australian culture and life today. And that orthodoxy is ruthlessly enforced, as the Scott McIntyre case illustrates.

You’ll remember that McIntyre, a football journalist employed by SBS, lost his job after he sent out some tweets describing the atomic bombs dropped on Japan as ‘the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history’ and decrying ‘widespread rape and theft’ by Anzac soldiers.

No-one suggested his thoughts on military history bore any relationship to his ability to report on soccer matches. He was sacked purely and simply because he voiced the wrong opinion about Anzac Day.

How, then, do we describe the status of Anzac in Australia other than as political correctness? Isn’t this – a huge bureaucratic infrastructure designed to enforce a certain point of view – precisely what conservatives say they decry? Where, then, is the outrage when, every year, the ‘lifestyle cops’ and ‘word police’ find some luckless individual who offends against the PC version of Anzac and do whatever they can to punish him or her?

Nor is this an isolated example.

The incessant Murdoch thinkpieces lambasting the censorious campus left masks the extent to which social conservatism has embraced a turbocharged version of the identity politics it ostensibly decries. Right-wing political correctness has emerged alongside an embrace of victimology, an obsession with quotas and representation (think of those articles totting up the precise number of conservatives appearing on each ABC show), and a tribal commitment to doctrine rather than evidence (the words ‘climate change’ come to mind). The offence-mongering over Ward’s Facebook is entirely typical: the people mocking university trigger warnings are themselves perpetually triggered, existing in a permanent lather of indignation over the scandals they whip up and reflexively demanding censorship of the ideas and the people with whom they disagree.

Yes, you can find that stuff on the left as well. But the difference is, of course, the right’s far more able to deploy real power to enforce its own brand of political correctness. Consider national security, another key shibboleth. When Zaky Mallah appeared on Q&A, the hysterical demands to implement tighter controls on that show were made in an environment in which anti-terror laws have dramatically reduced basic freedoms. As Jacqueline Maley notes in the Age, the Abbott government implemented legislation that left journalists facing ten years jail for reporting on ‘special intelligence operations’ carried out by ASIO. That came on top of all the other curtailments of liberty made in the name of fighting terror: the powers to ban books, declare organisations illegal, hold people without charges and all sorts of other innovations that strike at the basic values of liberal democracy.

That’s the context for the Australian’s bizarre contortions over Roz Ward. ‘Ms Ward is hardly a victim of those who would strangle free speech,’ declared the editorialist, the day her suspension was announced. ‘La Trobe University should hold her and others to account.’

Behold the authentic voice of right-wing political correctness, increasingly the common sense of Australian conservatives. Free speech belongs only to those we like – and everyone else should be crushed like bugs.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. “Yes, you can find that stuff on the left as well. But the difference is, of course, the right’s far more able to deploy real power to enforce its own brand of political correctness.”

    Possibly. But I think you need to also account for the effect of Clem Ford’s antics. And what happened to Barry Spurr.

    • Erm, in both these cases people lost their jobs due to their employers backing their business interests, not an external party.

      Clearly, if the student left controlled universities, everyone would be getting free education. They do not – except in right-wing fantasies – determine who gets hired and fired. What happened was that the university decided it was economically in their interests to fire Spurr (rather than acknowledging a broad range of issues affecting the student protesters / students in higher ed more generally). And considering the size of the student international market, do we really think universities would risk keeping a high-profile, blatant racist on?

      Of course, it may well be true that if students hadn’t protested, the university may have swept it all under the rug – but are you seriously arguing that students should not have protested a racist on campus?

      • You’re eliding the most important bit: Spurr lost his job because the left publication New Matilda published details from his private emails. The emails themselves were largely (a very poor form of) humour and snide commentary but they were private and they had no real bearing on Spurr’s job on the national curriculum.

        • No, he lost his job because the university fired him.

          Universities fire people for all sorts of reasons – and given that he was so comfortable with his own racism, we have no idea how else Spurr’s racism manifested without being caught on the public record.

          I would also point out WikiLeaks and the Snowden release have had zero impact on the ways governments behave, which goes to prove that information is meaningless, unless institutions choose to act on it.

          I happen to think it is a problem if politicians and people in positions of power are racists, even on their own time. Left-wingers don’t hide their politics, and Ward certainly didn’t.

          • Racism isn’t confined to the right. For instance, Wagner developed a hearty detestation of Jews and was a socialist. You can be sure racism continues in the left these days, as well as the right, and those with racism sentiments on the left are just as coy about it as those on the right.

          • And we really should have the presence of mind and discernment to be able to separate the private correspondence of someone from their actual work on the public record.

            And, as I noted above, Spurr’s emails were largely manifesting a very poor form of humour. This is something that is worth noting, because when stories like this become public, the inevitable tone the media adopt is of shock and denunciation – or at most a salacious prurience as they reveal details of the scandal that has made headlines for them on that particular occasion. Point is, any intended irony in the offending material is lost in the process.

          • BD: in this way:

            “Wagner’s involvement in left-wing politics abruptly ended his welcome in Dresden. Wagner was active among socialist German nationalists there, regularly receiving such guests as the conductor and radical editor August Röckel and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.[47] He was also influenced by the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Ludwig Feuerbach.[48] Widespread discontent came to a head in 1849, when the unsuccessful May Uprising in Dresden broke out, in which Wagner played a minor supporting role. Warrants were issued for the revolutionaries’ arrest. Wagner had to flee, first visiting Paris and then settling in Zürich[49][n 4] where he at first took refuge with a friend, Alexander Müller.[50]“

          • Perhaps…a self-identified socialist who is also a racist is…not actually a socialist? Just as in the same way Stalin, who identified as a Marxist, acted consistently against the main tenants of Marxism?

          • Is it so hard to admit that socialism, like all movements, is made up of people? Flawed, imperfect, corruptible people? And that racism in those circumstances is not surprising?

          • “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” – Karl Marx

            It must perhaps present a bit of a conceptual barrier to Marxists when the actual founder of Marxism displays obvious antisemitism.

      • Jacinda, the reasons you give for USyd sacking Spurr seem to be exactly the reasons that drove LaTrobe to first suspend Ward and then decide the costs around that were too great. Both about reputation and how that might impact on their business model.

        In each case communications not intended for widespread public dissemination were used as the basis for disciplinary action.

        The main difference is that in one case most of the Left were happy to see a university employee sacked and in the other not. The Right took the opposing view. I didn’t see anti-racist activists attacking the decision by USyd to sack Spurr. The exact opposite — they called for him to be dismissed (see: https://www.facebook.com/events/635139899940701/permalink/636725829782108/)

        I also don’t really see the socially progressive content in exposing and protesting an academic’s racist emails. The protest got its “victory” with disciplinary action against the academic by university authorities, a power those authorities are also happy to use against the Left. I don’t see much to cheer here.

        Jeff’s article evades this by portraying the Left as always the less powerful force, rather than framing this more accurately as a Left-Right battle to influence what those with actual power (e.g. employers or the state) will do about people the Left or the Right disapproves of.

        • Tad you seem to be strongly implying that the state (in this case the University management) is a neutral arbiter battled over by Left and Right. A strange position for a Marxist to hold I would have thought.

          • Or that capitalism is neutral, or empty of politics. Or that we live in a pluralistic society full of competing lobby groups.

            What I think the Ward case shows is what an organised workplace can do: the NTEU has been active for some time, and it was Ward’s relationship to the union, and the union’s campaign that dissolved the situation so quickly. This is always going to be a weakness for the right: they may have institutions to back them up, but they’re hostile to unions.

            Moreover, there’s one thing in publicly shaming (university) management, but the stakes are obviously different when there’s underlying economic threats.

          • Dave, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s precisely because of my hostility to the ability of state or private employers to discipline or dismiss workers for what are essentially private communications that I think the Left is making a disastrous mistake in believing it can leverage that employer self-interest to its own advantage by calling for right-wingers to be sacked (or simply not defending them from sacking).

            Jeff Sparrow’s article says nothing about successful cases of such action by the Left, in order to paint a picture of the Right as the sole, all-powerful bad guys. The social interests of academics-as-workers against their employers is thereby subordinated to Left/Right point-scoring.

          • Jacinda, I think the Left should have defended Spurr’s right as an employee to private communication not being used to discipline him, and to have opposed the action USyd took against him.

            Instead they called protests for him to be sacked.

  2. What, no anti-Anzac poe(m)try?

    I guess if big money is spent and made from the corporatisation of Anzac Day, so too will political correctness become a big money spinner for the right as well?

    All the more reason for the roads taken.

  3. I’m never speaking to the person who shared this article and led me to this cesspool ever again.

    This is one of the most deluded “things” I’ve seen in some time.

    You’re having a massive whinge whilst claiming everyone else is – despite the fact in reality they’re just fed up with this bullshit.

    You’re comparing “hey guys” to dated slurs that would never be used in the same context. “hey abos!” – said nobody to anyone ever.

    I can’t even b e bothered going on with this retort, it’s not worth my time or anyone’s.

    Seek help and avoid the rest of society.

    • “I’m never speaking to the person who shared this article and led me to this cesspool ever again.”

      Somewhere that person just smiled a smile of such pure, unadulterated joy that it spontaneously created a kitten.

  4. “in reality”??? ‘surely not’?

    I’m happy you found same – apolitically blissful is it?

  5. It’s telling that the comments section of this article has been overtaken by one commentator’s implicit defense of someone who expressed indefensible sentiments on his university email (and was rightly punished for doing so).

    A wonderfully clear-eyed article, Jeff, and a timely reminder of the hypocrisy at the heart of hard-Right rhetoric.

  6. After reading this comment thread today I don’t know what political correctness is today or means any more (other than meaning different things to different people who sit on the same side of the political divide, as far as I can tell).

  7. I wrote this piece to argue, in the wake of the extraordinary assault on Roz Ward, that politically correct censorship has become central to the Right. I acknowledged that some people on the Left did (wrongly, in my view) see state censorship as a useful strategy but I argued that the Ward case illustrated that, contrary to what is usually asserted, the Right is far more committed to censorship than the Left.
    Immediately, Tad Tietze sought to transform the thread into an attack on the Left, much as he does with every other thread or subject. He was quickly joined by a melange of overt right wingers, all repeating the conventional wisdom about the terrible menace of leftwing political censoriousness.
    Engaging in this argument seems entirely pointless because there is so little shared ground. But for what it’s worth, my article did not mention either Clem Ford or Barry Spurr precisely because they’re both so trivial in scale compared to the episodes I do discuss. Nevertheless, those cases do seem to have become totemic for rightwingers, here are a few quick thoughts.
    In December 2015, Clem Ford shared, on a White Ribbon Day FB post, examples of the extraordinary sexist abuse and threats she receives. That spurred various trolls to abuse her more. When a man named Michael Nolan called her a ‘slut’, she reposted his comment (along with examples of Nolan’s racist posts) on her page, which has a substantial readership. As a result of that publicity, Nolan was sacked by his employer. Since then, he’s become a cause celebre for for MRAs, PUAs, gamergaters and all the other noxious individuals who see Ford as the leader of a huge misandrist conspiracy.
    The suggestion that the racist and sexist Nolan should be seen as in in some way comparable to Roz Ward is abhorrent, as is the notion that the Left shouldn’t take sides in the interaction between Ford and him.
    Whatever you think about Clem Ford’s politics, her courage in combatting the rape threats and stalking she receives is entirely admirable. For wiw, I support her right to fight back against racism and sexism – even when I don’t agree with the particular tactics she employs to do so. In particular, the suggestion that Ford shouldn’t publicise the misogynist abuse she receives, that she should not say anything about the people attacking her in case her abusers suffer as a result, is quite extraordinary.
    In any case, while Ward was disciplined after a campaign by the Australian and columnists in all the Murdoch tabloids (supported by high profile politicians), Nolan was reposted by one freelance journalist. There’s no comparison between the two cases, other than in the fevered imaginations of the so-called Red Pill Right.
    At first glance, the Spurr case might seem more comparable to the Ward incident. But only at first glance.
    Ward was disciplined for posting an antiracist message on her private FB. Spurr resigned after using his university email account to circulate grotesque racism. One of these things is not like the other.
    Once Spurr’s racist emails were public, no-one could have prevented him being disciplined. Everyone knows that uni emails are, for better or for worse, treated as official correspondence. Everyone knows that the unis have policies against racism, sexism, etc. That’s why Spurr resigned – even if he had been a union member (which he wasn’t), the NTEU could not have saved him. Yes, there was a student protest calling for Spurr’s sacking but that wasn’t why he resigned. As Jacinda and others have noted, Spurr was investigated by the university administration, not by the Left. As soon as it was apparent that he’d so systematically breached basic policy (and not just about racism either: he also violated student privacy on a number of issues), he was a dead man walking.
    What about the original publication of his emails? Was that comparable to the Australian’s campaign against Roz Ward? No, not at all. New Matilda argued that posting the leaked emails were in the public interest, not because Spurr was a rightwing member of staff, but because, at the same time as he was opining to his friends about the worthlessness of Indigenous people, he was reviewing the National Curriculum — and calling for less emphasis on Indigenous people in it. An anti-Aboriginal racist was shaping what kids learned about Aboriginal culture: the idea that the Left should have taken no position on this is, well, astonishing. It’s equally odd to say that a muckraking publication should have hushed up information so clearly in the public interest, just so as to protect the interests of a racist academic.
    In fact, both cases illustrate the general point in my article. As I said, some activists do call for the state to police racism, sexism, etc, a strategy I believe to be mistaken. But, despite what we’re constantly told, this tendency is fairly small – and certainly much less significant than the massive PC campaigns of the right. It’s just idiotic to compare, say, a tiny magazine like NM to the Murdoch machine that was unleased in the campaign against Ward.

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