Political correctness, that curious form of totalitarian absolutism masked as simple politeness, has many unfortunate consequences. Local authorities, for instance, seize upon it as a useful stick with which to beat such anomalous outrages as Nativity plays, hanging baskets and roadside trees, while for entire quangos such as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission, it is the sustenance of life.
PC has another consequence, less often remarked upon, which is to manufacture and foster offence. For without offence, or the possibility of offence, political correctness would be like Eve without the apple. Happily for those for whom PC has become the light and the life, offence now flourishes like the green bay tree. It takes root in even the most unpromising soil where, with a little diligent watering by PC’s enthusiastic supporters in the BBC, The Guardian and that epicentre of enlightened thought that is Islington, it may blossom into full-blown outrage.
Three recent examples show how offence thrives in the most unlikely places.
First, let us visit Carrow Road, home of Norwich City Football Club. A few weeks ago, Delia Smith, renowned television cook and enthusiastic director of the club, made an unscheduled appearance on the turf at half-time to admonish the home supporters for what she felt was an insufficient show of enthusiasm. The Canaries were losing the game and Delia felt that their fortunes might be reversed were the home supporters to be more vocal.
Fortified, it was alleged, by a plentiful intake of champagne in the directors’ box, she seized a microphone and, with a snarling expression that those who had previously known her only through her cheese soufflÃ©s would not have recognised, she bellowed, among other things, “Let’s be ‘aving you!”
But instead of rallying behind their own Joan of Arc, the fans sat in stunned silence. Yes, my friends, they took offence. Let me remind you, these are football supporters – people who are noted for many things, but never for their delicacy of feeling. Are Norwich City fans perhaps different? Whereas other teams have followers who chant and spit and spew forth obscenities – who in short aspire to be the pimples on the backside of humanity – do the Canaries have aficionados? Do Norwich supporters chat in animated fashion about the delicious goat’s cheese roulade they ate the night before? Do they swap notes about chinoiserie drapes and silk Regency stripes? Do they eagerly await the National’s next production of a Pirandello? If so, no wonder they took offence when a coarse woman, apparently the worse for drink, berated them like some guttersnipe or fishwife.
Next let us consider the alleged gaffe of Prince Charles who, thanks to the sensitivity of modern microphones, was overheard confiding to his sons his heartfelt loathing of the royal press corps. “These bloody people”, he called them, before singling out the BBC’s Nicholas Witchell for special opprobrium.
Later, when the plague of hacks heard what the Prince had said, they were dismayed and, yes, offended. Can you believe it? If a poll were to be taken to name the group of people most likely to be found in possession of hard hearts, a callous disregard for the feelings of others and the kind of stark insensibility normally associated with mass murderers, the press would romp home clear winners.
That this group of reporters, widely supposed to be a disreputable, malodorous riff-raff of the kind that would have disgraced the deck of a pirate brig, should clap their heads and swoon to hear themselves traduced, is an extraordinary instance of incongruous offence.
Finally, we have the case of the policeman’s jolly. The guest speaker at the Association of Chief Police Officers’ annual black-tie do at the Guildhall, London, was the Hon. Mrs Justice Rafferty, a High Court judge.
In her professional capacity, she is used to surveying the craven wretch in the dock, and knows a shifty citizen when she sees one. Adroitly applying these skills to her audience at the Guildhall, she delivered a speech larded with filthy jokes and liberally spiced with the “f” word. She was, in other words, most courteous in speaking to her audience in their accustomed tongue. But did they appreciate her consideration? Did they hell.
What did they do? Why, they took offence. Yes, these hardened officers of the law, whom you might have thought were men and women of the world, squirmed, tut-tutted, and ran, ashen and purse-lipped, to the press (see above) to complain. A number described the speech with that most mealy-mouthed of adjectives: “inappropriate”.
Is it any surprise that crime is rising (or falling, if you prefer the official version) when the boys and girls in blue reach for the sal volatile when assailed by strong language? To be fair, though, they lead sheltered lives, rarely leaving the cloistered confines of the police station. Bookish types, never more content than when there are forms to be filled and gender awareness classes to attend, they do not easily adapt to the brutish world outside.
There is a lesson in all of this for marketers: should your campaign occasion complaint, seemingly on the most spurious of grounds, do not be afraid lest your lip tremble. When football supporters, the press and the police are wounded by a careless word, even a preux chevalier might weep to be slighted. v