Leading article: Gone mad? Hardly. It's all about respect for others

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The Independent Online

According to a new book published by the Civitas think-tank, "political correctness" has a good deal to answer for. Among the ills of modern life that are blamed on political correctness by the author Anthony Browne are, in no particular order, suicide bombings, Aids, anti-Semitism, African poverty, poor discipline in schools, exam grade inflation and the ban on fox-hunting. Mr Browne argues that political correctness has prevented our political leaders from addressing certain uncomfortable "truths" such as, for example, the link between the growth of Aids in the UK and African immigration. To give another taste of his thinking, he claims women are paid less than men for the sole reason that they insist on taking time off to have children.

Of course, the book provides no convincing evidence for any of this reactionary bilge. But what distinguishes it a little from other intemperate rants is that it seems to tap into something approaching a zeitgeist. Complaints against political correctness have been around for a long time. Right-wingers have always railed against it. But these complaints have reached a crescendo in recent years. Even some on the political left have now joined the chorus of disapproval.

Political correctness certainly has an image problem. It is widely regarded as an un-British phenomenon, at odds with our tradition of free speech and our sense of humour. But why is this? A large part of the problem is it is subconsciously associated with the hackneyed phrase: "It's political correctness gone mad". To many, political correctness is now "mad" by definition. Yet political correctness is actually a form of politeness. It is not a question of free speech, but simple manners. Refraining from using names that certain groups - whether gays, ethnic minorities, or women - find derogatory is an indicator of civilisation.

The right-wing press delights in ferreting out examples of local councils tying themselves in knots in an effort not to offend. A perennial favourite at this time of year is the renaming of Christmas lights as "winter lights". It is true that some public bodies are overzealous and needlessly scared of causing offence. They ought to exercise more common sense. But we should be thankful that we have a culture in which public institutions scrutinise themselves in this way. Such minor irritations as occur from time to time are surely tolerable. And it is important to remember where we have come from. At one time, boarding houses hung signs that screamed: "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish". Racist sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour appeared on television well into the 1970s. It is due, in part, to political correctness that we have been delivered from such unenlightened times.

This newspaper does not believe in stifling free speech. Mr Browne is perfectly entitled to attempt to identify a link between the rise in HIV in the UK and African immigration - just as people are entitled, we believe, to deny the Holocaust. But we reserve the right strongly to disagree with them.

Opposition to political correctness is still very much part of a reactionary political agenda. Tellingly, the vast majority of the stories that appear about "political correctness gone mad" involve dark-skinned ethnic minorities.

Political correctness must be rehabilitated. It should be regarded as a positive phenomenon, with connotations of civility and mutual respect. If political correctness means councils offering rudimentary translation services, if it means teaching children about other cultures in school, if it means local education authorities refraining from painting golliwogs on playground murals, then we are proud to subscribe to it. In fact, let us strive to make Britain yet more politically correct.