BOOK REVIEW / Rights and wrongs of being correct: 'The War of Words: The Political Correctness Debate' - ed Sarah Dunant: Virago, 7.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
LINDA GRANT opens her contribution to this collection of essays with a contrast between attitudes to date rape in the 1970s, when she was a student, and today. Drawing movingly on her own experiences, she argues that date rape was as common then as it is now. The change lies in women's reactions. When she was at university, a victim of date rape might have bad-mouthed the rapist among her friends, but would probably have left it at that. Today, a student would be offered counselling by a women's group, feminists at the university might seek to persuade her to prosecute and in all likelihood - or so Grant seems to imply - she would experience the event as much more of a trauma than she in fact did in the 1970s.

Grant does not want to pass judgement on the new anxiety about date rape on American campuses or the tactics of what Katie Roiphe has called 'the date rape feminists'. Her concern is to understand why this issue has become so much more important to the students of the 1990s than it was to women of Grant's generation. But she clearly feels ambivalent about this development -she worries about 'the way in which the issue of date rape (and other forms of sexual violence such as pornography and incest) has come to blot out everything else in the sky' - and her ambivalence is revealing. Since its first emergence, Political Correctness has bewildered and divided the Left, just as it has united the Right. It is a state of affairs reflected in this unusually vivid and lively collection of essays.

No one seems to know where exactly the term 'Politically Correct' comes from, although there is a pleasing irony in the suggestion that it was originally coined by the Left in a spirit of self- ridicule - after all, one of the things the Right likes to bash the PC movement with is its alleged lack of humour. There is, however, a general agreement about what the movement stands for. PC finds its context in the passing of a politics centred solely on class, and its replacement by one concerned with issues of gender, race and, to a lesser extent, disability. More particularly, PC seems to have grown out of American universities of the mid-1980s. First identified with an attempt to open up the literary canon to minority groups -'Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture's got to go' demonstrators sang at Stanford - it has since become associated with issues of language and representation generally, and with a surprisingly procedural attachment to quotas, speech codes, and the machinery of formal or legal prosecution.

We are all familiar with much of the case against PC. The tabloids abound with stories about 'follicley challenged' 'pupil enablers' banning Baa Baa Black Sheep and Enid Blyton in favour of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin.

But there are also more serious critics dismayed by what they see as PC's penchant for euphemism, its dogmatism and intolerance, and its devotion to the cult of the victim.

It is hard, however, not to feel that in this instance, those sympathetic to PC get the better of the argument. A number of contributors argue, quite reasonably, that the PC movement is largely an invention of its enemies: 'you say PC when you used to say CP'. Deborah Cameron makes the point that it is right to care about language; of course it won't change everything, but words hurt and oppress. Lisa Jardine offers a compelling defence of widening and adapting the canon, not only in the name of 'difference', but to reflect the multicultural nation we have become. Compared to these pieces, Melanie Phillip's criticism of progressive dogmas on the family, race and education, and Christopher Hitchens's endorsement of Robert Hughes's endictment of the 'culture of complaint' seem unfocused. Hitchens, here as ever on robust form, asserts at one point, 'I didn't come all the way to America in order to watch what I say.' But what's so wrong with thinking before you speak?

Still, even if the PC lobby succeed in making a strong case for their cause, there is something sad about seeing these liberals and radicals screaming at each other across the chasm that PC has become. The obvious approach would seem to be to try to distinguish between different elements of the movement, the guiding principle being, as Stuart Hall suggests, to embrace the politics of identity and difference, but to reject its more adolescent and undemocratic manifestations.

With the exception, however, of a characteristically masterful essay by Hall himself, none of the contributions to this collection quite take this course. Not that this is very surprising. As Linda Grant, another moderate, observes, ' 'On the one hand, but then again on the other hand' has never been an effective rallying cry.'