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.