Howard Jacobson: The minute there's mention of a think-tank, I fear attack upon the quiet in which I live

Sometimes the mental weaponry is aimed at someone else, but that doesn't make me feel any better
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The Independent Online

I have been trying to work out what my objections are to the compound noun "think-tank". It must have something to do with the conjunction of two such antipathetic words - one ennobled by abstraction, the other functional and brute. If my etymological researches are to be trusted, think-tank is American in origin and first surfaced in print 100 years ago to mean, jocularly, the brain - an artificial pool or reservoir where thinking is stored, or swims about to no obviously practical purpose, like ornamental fish. A plain man's joke at the expense of intellectuality. "You're the scholar - put your think-tank to work on that, Pythagoras."

And the word still assumes an intellectual division in society. We have think-tanks to do what the rest of us cannot, to keep the public brain moist, to irrigate us when we run dry of thought. I was going to say we employ them to do what the rest of us cannot, but I am not sure who employs them. Which is another reason they make me uneasy. In whose pay are they? At whose behest are they thinking? Whose dirty work of cerebration are they doing?

Then there's "tank". Of course it's tank as in cistern, but how can you hear the word tank in our time and not visualise an armoured vehicle spitting fire? Myself, I want to take cover the minute there's mention of a think-tank; I fear the imminence of an attack upon the quiet in which I live. A salvo of rumination, a cogitative blitzkrieg, aimed at the heart of my slumbering values.

Sometimes, as in the latest publication by the conservatively populist think-tank Civitas - and I can't say I sleep easy knowing there's an organisation called Civitas out there either - the mental weaponry is trained at the heart of someone else's values, but that doesn't necessarily make me feel better. An attack's an attack and there's no knowing who's going to get hurt when the ideas fly. All this by way of trying to explain why, though I think I probably agree, from the little I have read of it, with Anthony Browne's new demolition of political correctness for Civitas, I wish him not to have written it. Or at least not to have written it, in a pamphleteering spirit, for a think-tank.

Whoever lends his views to an interested organisation inevitably compromises them. The ideas he hopes to disseminate are hobbled from the start, hostage to the party, pressure group, or tank. Those guardians of the language who are under attack in this instance will simply dismiss what is said against them as another predictable, right-wing Civitas rant. While those, like me, who are more sympathetically disposed to the argument that language-watch is censorship will not be comfortable seeing it invoked to make the conservative case on such issues as immigration, the family, welfare, Aids, etc.

The truth is, you can hate the methodology of political correctness without hating what it hopes to bring about. You can oppose the deceitful language of multiculturalism, for example, but still want to live in an open mixed-race society. Conversely, you don't have to be a bleeding-heart socialist to balk at Browne's portrait of the welfare scrounger, encouraged "to blame others" for his poverty when the reality is that he is "lazy, ill-disciplined, [and] addicted to benefits".

That such a person exists only a fool would deny. But no less foolish is the supposition that laziness and ill-discipline come into the world unbidden, the creation solely of their own anti-social volition. Arm yourself against the verbal apologetics of political correctness with language which is dissonant and unimaginative and you end up making the political correctors' case for them.

To monitor political correctness is to note how words are emptied of their meaning, or given new ones, to fit a system or an ideology. Mount your assault upon it from a position which is itself ideological or systematic and you are merely substituting one way of bending truth for another. Between the "victim" as the politically correct see him, and the "lazy, ill-disciplined" ne'er-do-well as identified by Civitas, there is morally nothing to choose.

Not for the first time in this column, we reach the conclusion that only the unaffiliated writer can be trusted in the environs of language. To the unaffiliated writer, anyway, this much is clear: however much we despise the uses to which political correctness has declined, it originated in the sound conviction that our inherited grammar and vocabulary shape our ideas and deeds, and that by drawing attention to the biases implicit in language we can eliminate them to the benefit of everybody.

Anyone who finds fault with that must never have paused before his own selection of a word, never have reconsidered a sentence or reordered a thought to suit the company or the occasion. Because we know only too well the freight of displeasure or offence our words can carry, we are forever submitting ourselves to a process which some call self-censorship but which it would be wiser to think of as judgement. Whether we are PC or not, we are constantly making decisions about the appropriateness of the language we employ. If good speaking, like good writing, is a matter of assembling the best words in the best order, what helps us in our choice is sometimes clarity, sometimes beauty, but just as often charity and diplomacy.

So we start, whoever we are, from the same place as the politically correct, in that we are conscious, for good and evil, of linguistic effect. I would wish Anthony Browne to have acknowledged this kinship. Not in order to spare the politically correct his criticisms of them, but to deny them the opportunity to show how much, if he is what you get without them, they are still needed.

I predict, since everyone is predicting something, that we are going to hear a lot more this year from the political correctors of whom we are sick, and their adversaries of whom we are sicker still. Anthony Browne, with some degree of accuracy I think, understands political correctness as the product of our own too-muchness, a sort of guilty corrective to the West's "unrivalled affluence".

Come our inevitable decline against the East, we will not be able to enjoy the luxury of so much moral slack. Whether we will then see, as Browne believes, the return of "objective truth" (whatever that is) I don't know. But if it means we no longer stop to consider the effect of the words we use, no longer accept that a quibble or prevarication can spare a feeling and better minister to the public good, then we will be retreating as thinking beings, not advancing.