It started on the school bus – at least for me. It was about 1977 I guess and there was a girl a few seats in front of me who wore calipers on her legs – clumsy 1970s contraptions. No one had heard of Political Correctness then, much less suggested that it had somehow gone mad, but the kid next to me – a couple of years older – suggested to some of the other kids that maybe calling her spacca was a bit unkind. Couldn’t they just call her Clare? I don’t remember if he made much of an impression on them, but I think he did on me. It didn’t feel at all significant at the time, but I remember thinking he was right. I didn’t think much more about it, but it probably primed me for my encounters before long with words like paki and nigger – there I was, barely shaving and it was already apparent that life can be so much more pleasant if we don’t go around insulting people for no good reason. It seemed to go without saying that wearing calipers or having a different skin colour were not good reasons, but it turned out that lots of my contemporaries felt that these were perfectly acceptable reasons for behaving like an arsehole to people. On the whole though, over time, those terms began to fall out of general use. Fewer men referred to women as birds or a bit of skirt. Tired old ‘comedians’ whose ‘jokes’ consisted of laughing at people for not being fat white blokes were on TV a lot less. There were a few complications along the way – we were brought up with the idea that ‘ladies’ was a more polite word than ‘women’, but it turned out it was often also more patronising. It was a difficult adjustment, which could take up to 12 seconds to come to terms with before getting on with life. The homosexual community caused huge confusion among certain sections of society by adopting words that had previously been insults, and pulling the rug out from under the homophobe’s already limited vocabulary.
The seventies turned into the eighties and as the eighties wore on things seemed to improve. On the one hand, pretty much everyone I knew had learned the simple truth that people should be taken on their own merits, not lumped into groups and judged collectively, and on the other hand, the cult of Thatcher had moved the right on from supporting Enoch’s white supremacist nationalism to caring about nothing but money. Rock Against Racism and Give Racism the Boot had met with some success in progressing popular culture beyond the ‘Mind Your Language’ stereotypes, but it seemed that these were symptoms, rather than causes of a newer, less hostile approach to the world. People seemed to have realised that life is just more pleasant if you’re not a jerk.
How wrong we were. People – or a significant minority of them – had not realised that it’s better not to be a jerk. They still wanted to be jerks, but now felt like they weren’t allowed to be. Their impulse to randomly insult anyone slightly different to themselves began to fester, craving release, fuelled by made-up stories in The Sun about lefty councils banning black bin liners, or changing the words to Baa-Baa Black Sheep, or renaming manholes as ‘drainage inspection points’. Somehow anything to do with health and safety got roped in – reducing deaths and maimings at workplaces overwhelmingly occupied by working-class white males was, somehow, represented in the press as a conspiracy by Islington lesbians to ruin everyone’s life. Hatred was seething under the surface, waiting, hoping for an excuse to show its ugly face again. And then, in a vain attempt to save a political party and drag it into the twenty-first century, David Cameron unleashed Brexit, Farage and the Rees-Moggs and dragged us all the way back to the seventies.
Now the seventies weren’t all bad, and there are quite a few aspects of that time we could really benefit from now – smaller class sizes, a properly funded and unprivatised NHS – and publicly owned power utilities, railways and water suppliers while we’re at it. But we haven’t got any of those back – just the racism, misogyny, homophobia and small-minded fear of anything but meat-and-two-veg English stodge. And now Boris Johnson has officially rehabilitated casual racism under the transparent guise of ‘straight-talking’, ‘telling it like it is’, and ‘calling a spade a spade’.
It’s a depressing state of affairs, but in the end, these are people and ideas whose time has passed. They’re not the future. What we’re witnessing are the last, gasping breaths of a mindset still stuck in the twentieth-century and unable to deal with the way the world is changing. But if Call-me-Dave could have kept the lid on the box and seen out what was then a challenge based solely on a policy hardly anyone cared about, we could have moved on with a lot less anger, aggression and divisiveness. We could be having sensible discussions about things like shorter working weeks, universal basic income and how to deal with the social care crisis. Instead we’re consumed by a choice we don’t get to make over whether we entrust the kneecapping of our society to a blustering, racist bully or a deluded, incompetent fool. Either way, the race for our next PM will have been won in the corridors of one or other of the ‘Great Nine’ English fee-paying schools.
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