A personal urge to control

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Charming and clever, disgraceful, delightful, witty and wicked - the journalist Christopher Hitchens is all of this and more. He's white and he's such a boy] He went all the way to America for freedom. He lives in one of the most heterogeneous societies in the world, yet has such difficulty with its diversity. He dramatises that difficulty with a tantrum: 'I didn't come all the way to America to watch what I say.'

That's his last word on the subject of political correctness in a new anthology, The War of the Words, edited by Sarah Dunant. She warns us: 'PC is a dirty word in Nineties Britain.' It is denounced by its critics as thought police. Prince Charles reckoned it was why some parents didn't smack their children. And it is affirmed by advocates as an attempt to promote sexual and ethnic equality in literature and politics.

The most important word in Hitchens's incontinent contribution is the word 'I'. He, along with his cohorts in the neo-conservative mutiny against PC, takes everything personally; yet amid their self-absorption and self-pity they themselves remain opaque.

Hitchens scorns the mantra of modern feminism - 'the personal is political' -but that mantra has detonated traditional alignments: what unites old-fashioned class warriors with old-fashioned Fabians, liberals and the buccaneering new right, from Melanie Phillips to Andrew Neil, is their wish to be above the argument. They expected to be agents, not subjects, of social change.

It is a crisis of empathy that animates these new conservatives. Potent opinion-formers present themselves as victims, as outraged, disconcerted, distressed and criticised, as if they'd never been in an argument before.

Phillips uses the I, Me, My pronouns 94 times in her 20 pages of outraged complaint. But, oddly, she changes when she mentions motherhood and the challenge of children: the 'I' becomes 'One' and the personal pronoun becomes impersonal.

What motherhood teaches us is that adults' autonomy and authority is uniquely disturbed by children. That challenge is not celebrated but feared by Phillips. Her regular protests in the media about standards, schools, single mothers, order and disorder, crime and community seem driven by the same quest for control that also drives the neo-conservatives.

Phillips feels herself to be motivated by concern for the poor, sick and jobless, the vulnerable and the dispossessed - someone else. This is the politics of sympathy. It calls to mind a poignant review of Eve Arnold's photography by Val Wilmer, the pioneering photographer and critic of black music. Arnold, she said, was 'sympathetic' rather than 'radical'.

Radicalism, by contrast, thrives in the space between sympathy and empathy.

The anthology offers startling contrasts. For example, Lisa Jardine offers an equally personal, but disciplined account of teaching Othello to undergraduates in east London. Which edition of Othello is authentic? How does a white professor, teaching a white tragedy, empathise with the experience of black students navigating racist representations of Othello?

She isn't embarrassed or afraid. Neither does she shrink from her own surprise at her students' lack of shock. Her generosity clarifies what feels so cruel about the neo- conservatives: they give us their fury, but not the energy of engagement, of participating in the process of sorting something out.

PC came out of the authoritarian culture of political parties, to fortify them against diversity and dispute. It was a way of trying to regulate, standardise and resist a proliferation of identities and interests and issues. Ironically, the neo-conservatives shadow that defensiveness: they too are about control.

Because the debate in the book is between those for and against the reform of language and politics, what is missing is the nuance, sophistication and range of movements which have been changing the way we think anyway. For activists in disability politics, for example, the PC debate seems irrelevant. What makes disability movements so interesting is their diversity, their debates, their rows; above all their endless efforts to fashion their own subjectivity.

They see a similarity between neo-conservatives, socialists and liberals who seem so paralysed by difference that they mock it or euphemise it. So, have you heard the one about the journalist who wants to call a cripple a cripple, with all the bravado of someone who has, himself, never been called a cripple? Or the one about what's PC for bald? Follically challenged. Ha, ha, ha.

A friend of mine who teaches social workers in the North explains she has no choice about whether she is personally challenged: 'I am, all the time, by having children who refuse to stop challenging; by relationships across colour; by the feeling of alien-ness.' However, it is clear that, 'unless it is central to your being, you don't wish to be careful all your life'. When you are a black woman in a world that thinks it's white, you always watch what you say - that's the difference between a black woman and a white boy who didn't go to America to watch what he said.

The PC panic erases all this and takes us back to the neo-conservatives' pain and paranoia. It's like someone having a bad trip and we keep trying to talk them through it because we want to make them better, when it might be better just to walk them round the block and put them to bed.

'The War of The Words' (Virago, pounds 7.99).

Angela Lambert's column will appear on Friday.