We must nurture political correctness

It is the racist comments with a sliver of fact nestling at their heart that are most dangerous

ON HOLIDAY in India a few years ago, my friend's five-year-old daughter complained to her that she didn't want to continue with her shower that morning because the water was "fizzy". Told by her mum to stop being silly and get back under the water, she again complained, saying that now the shower was "hurting" her.

Moved to investigate, my friend stuck her hand under the jet of water, to be rewarded with the unmistakable tingle of an electric shock. Horrified, she complained in robust terms to the hotel staff, who appeared, to us, staggeringly unconcerned about the electric shower and its danger to a five-year-old girl.

Earlier this week, when Prince Philip made his remark about a fuse box being so badly wired that it looked as though an Indian had installed it, I remembered that experience. Could it have been this kind of workmanship and attitude he had in mind when he made his racist remark?

When shopping in Brixton on one of my first trips to London, in the early Eighties, I became increasingly perplexed by the range of clothing on offer in the local shops and market stalls. The clothes were just weird - voluminous, gaudy, Lurex-encrusted, never decorated with one hopelessly elaborate gilt and rhinestone "feature" when there was an opportunity to dangle 20 such features around the garment.

When I later told the friends I was visiting about my descent into fashion hell, they told me that this was the gear that the big black mammas wore. If I wanted to get myself some normal clothes, they said, I really had to get away from Brixton, and plough down Oxford Street instead.

Earlier this week, when Jeffrey Archer made his remark about a generation of black women being so overweight and badly dressed that anyone could see that they had lousy jobs, I remembered that experience. Could it have been the women who shopped in those places that he had in mind when he made his racist remark?

So what am I saying here? That poor old Philip and poor old Jeffrey have been ill-served by a nation that has roundly, pretty much universally, berated them for speaking no more than the truth? Absolutely not. As far as I'm concerned, their comments mark them out as ignorant and rather pathetic old buffers who understand nothing and communicate even less. They are both of a class and generation that thrives on seeking out the shortcomings of those they perceive as inferior to them, and using those shortcomings to bolster their own sense of privilege.

By pointing out that there may be a grain of truth in the shocking observations that the Prince and the Peer have shared with the nation, I am by no means leaping to their defence. On the contrary, it is the racist comments that have a sliver of fact nestling at their hearts which are the most dangerous of all. Unsubstantiable lies are easy to refute. Assertions that can be backed up by the use of skewed logic are far more powerful and insidious.

That is why another piece of news this week, that a couple of US academics have written a paper suggesting that the fall in the American crime rate may be due to the poor - blacks and Hispanics prominent among them - having had access to reasonably priced legal abortion a generation ago, is so ugly and repellent.

While the logic that dictates the findings of these two men may be unassailable, the knowledge they have shared with us is worthless, useless and dangerous, which may well be why no academic journal has yet seen fit to publish it.

But the three pieces of news, taken together, do offer us something, a timely opportunity to take the pulse of political correctness, and find that this much-maligned social and political convention is alive, thriving and still in need of care and nurture.

It has been most cheering to see both Philip and Jeffrey roundly condemned for their "light-hearted" observations, while it has been equally cheering to witness the caution that has greeted the abortion revelation across the political spectrum.

For too long, people defended their racism because it was "true", refusing to accept that the fault they described was in itself an effect, not a cause, of racism. Philip and his dodgy wiring, Jeffrey and his unacceptable clothing, the academics and their abortive crime-fighting - all of them have one cause at the root of their observations, and it is not to do with racial characteristics, but to do with the poverty that is concentrated among those who live their lives under the yoke of racism.

This is why another story this week, which links the recent rise in street crime with the decline in the use of police powers of stop and search following the Lawrence case, stinks of racism. The right-wing press has predictably argued that effective policing techniques should not be outlawed in the name of "political correctness".

Again, there is a kind of truth at the heart of this controversy, the truth being that there is currently a high rate of criminality among young black men.

But that does not mean that there is some characteristic of young black men that makes all of them potential criminals. Stopping and searching young men because of the colour of their skin is not so very far from catching the problem even earlier and persuading their pregnant mothers that they'd be better off having abortions.

That is why the police, just as much as peers of the realm, prince consorts, and well-meaning academics, have to embrace the rigorous but healing mind-set that is political correctness.

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