Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The real debate on political correctness

Perhaps we are too scared of group sensibilities and succumb without thought to censorship
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I was very saddened to hear of John Latham's death last week. Although he was 84 years old, he remained, as Damien Hirst says, an enfant terrible, refusing to be tamed by age or the expectations that come of being received into the arts establishment. I admired that, even though he was often wildly, at times pointlessly avant garde.

I met him last November, a thin, intense man, disputatious and trembling with conviction. We were at Tate Britain, debating the gallery's decision to withdraw one piece of work from a Latham retrospective. God is Great is made up of an enormous, rectangular glass pane shot through with the three Abrahamic texts, the Bible, Talmud and Koran. After much soul-searching, Stephen Deucher, the director of Tate Britain, decided that the piece could create dangerous ferment among some Muslims, and pulled it to protect the gallery and staff.

Latham reacted with fury at this loss of nerve and, alas, has departed carrying in his fragile heart a sense of grave injustice. On the debating panel which included Anthony Julius, the lawyer, and Rafiq Abdullah, a Muslim intellectual, I said the Tate was wrong to surrender to imagined sensitivities and to assume Muslims and only Muslims were incapable of responding to art as art. I find God is Great a profound reflection of sublime, wordless faith, a truth higher even than the capacity of the foundational religious texts to communicate it.

But I do understand the dilemmas of institutions and service providers in an increasingly contested, multifarious society which has cut off the moorings of conventional certainties, hierarchies and modes of behaviour. We are more emotive and questioning, less deferential and accepting, more individualistic and demanding - all of which make for a volatile marketplace of ideas.

It is disingenuous to claim we are or should be absolutely free to say what we wish. There are always limits, but it is always better to strive for more rather than less freedom of expression. People who once wanted Rushdie's head are today chastened supporters of this precious right. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, of the (unelected) Muslim Parliament, approved of the Ayatollah's fatwa against the writer. Now he writes: "Freedom of speech, thought and creativity are far more conducive to creating a progressive and tolerant society than imposed self-censorship." In time, hopefully, a creative and more workable consensus will emerge from the noise and chaos, but only if we can learn to converse honestly and intelligently, without prejudice and a descent into disgraceful populism.

Which brings me to the only publication I have ever read that I wanted to slap several times. The journalist Anthony Browne has written a hyperventilated attack on "political correctness" which he claims has silenced and corrupted public debate and killed people in Britain. I do not exaggerate.

Here, in his own words, are the fearful fantasies of an anti-PC chap gone quite mad, but who nevertheless is taken as a brave prophet by other paranoids: "In total, nearly 1,000 people have caught Aids from infected immigrants since Labour came to power, ironically finally giving a rationale to the Government's safe-sex campaign. That's 1,000 lives blighted, ultimately by political correctness ... The politically correct truth is publicly proclaimed correct by politicians, celebrities, and the BBC, even if it is wrong, while the factually correct truth is publicly condemned as wrong when it is right." He gives an example of this. "Women's pay less than men's. Politically Correct Truth: sex discrimination. Factually Correct Truth: Different work/ life choices and childcare breaks."

Browne freely fabricates, accuses and insinuates throughout this shabby pamphlet.

"Migrationwatch, founded by former ambassador Sir Andrew Green, a lone group campaigning for less immigration against literally dozens of groups promoting mass immigration ... is almost totally blackballed by the BBC". The Economist and a few academics do support open borders but there isn't a single group in Britain campaigning for mass immigration. Go and check the BBC website and count the times Green has appeared in the past year alone.

Like his dogmatic peers Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchins and his hero godfather Kilroy Silk, Browne sees himself as a martyred, free speech polemicist. Other kindred spirits share his tent from right to left these days. They speak, they write, they influence the social and political agenda but they are not given the robust debate they say they want. That upsets them and brings on a persecution complex even though the majority of our newspapers and a good deal of the broadcast media are on their side and against the "PC" brigade which includes anyone who objects to whitewashed history, crude demeaning language, the monopolising of intellectual output, narrow-minded nationalisms, bigotry, exploitation and the hold of white male power.

The cultural critic Patrick Wright wrote many years ago when the panic of political correctness was raised here by conservatives who ruled over our lives with an iron grip: "PC has become the reflex sneer of the Right in response to every ethical and political challenge ... However it has also attractions for refugees from the collapsing Left, stepping out from behind all the discarded ideological baggage to catch up with the opportunities of a world where everything seems to hang free." The jungle is free; civilisation tames us and instils consideration for others and fair play.

The world drained of old ideologies is undoubtedly reeling and nervy at times. Populations are changing fast, the threats and wars we understood have given way to indefinable deadly enmities. Perhaps institutions and individuals are too scared of group sensibilities and we succumb without fight or thought to political censorship and pre-emptive placation to keep trouble at bay. There are dreadful pressures on us all to be "loyal" or to refrain from causing offence which does seem to be taken alarmingly easily and frequently these days.

Zahid Malik, a zealous Nottinghamshire police officer, for example, has just taken umbrage that Scotland Yard exhibits artefacts and stories of the most macabre crimes of the last century in the Black Museum. "Black" is turned negative, offensive he complains. Has the dimwit nothing better to do? "Black" is used negatively in every Asian language I speak.

This sort of thing can turn honest folk crazy and I have some sympathy with them. Perhaps bit by bit such demands begin to feel oppressive, lending weight to the demented world view of Anthony Browne.

When fairness becomes self serving or judgements turn censorious, society stops breathing. When John Latham took his last breath, he left this message for the rest of us.