The PC vs the East End Ministry of Truth

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The Independent Online
WE CAN tell a lot about ourselves as a country from the enemies we choose, our household demons. So what can we say about the pursuit of Jane Brown, Hackney headteacher? Her decision not to allow pupils to watch a ballet of Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that it was heterosexist was illiberal and narrow-minded. But it has dominated television news bulletins, covered front pages, provoked bitter political rows in Hackney and at Westminster, drawn in the Government, and spawned an almost hysterical debate about Shakespeare, culture and the control of schools. Isn't this all just a tiny bit odd? Just a little over the top?

Ms Brown seems to be a person composed partly of folly and partly of wisdom, much like the rest of us. The investigation that has been launched into her appointment may or may not be merited, but she certainly did not deserve to be harassed by Kevin Nasty and the boys from the East End Ministry of Truth. But she was not their real target. She was a symbol of the controversy about 'PC', or political correctness, an issue that is in danger of obsessing much of the media and some politicians - sometimes, it seems, to the exclusion of economics, the role of the state or the ethics of government. It is the latest diversion.

So let it be stated clearly: PC is no big deal. It might be a real issue on American campuses, where a far more mixed and multi-racial culture is struggling to be born. It might impinge occasionally on the margins of our own culture, the odd school, the occasional teacher- training college. But as a household demon, it is pathetic, and so are those who bang on obsessively about it.

PC is not much more than the shifting requirements of politeness in changing, more sensitised society. Would Kelvin MacKenzie refer to a small boy in a wheelchair as a 'cripple'? If not, he is guilty of political correctness. Would a Tory minister refer to the 'nigger issue'? Would any modern writer refer to Jews in the way T S Eliot did? All of that is PC, but yesterday's PC. In any society that is alive and striving to develop, the fashion for what is tolerable and polite changes. And most of us, sooner or later, change with it.

But the next question is obviously: how much change? Ms Brown was way ahead of most people in objecting to a ballet on the grounds she did and also way ahead of common sense. But this pushing of the boundaries will always go on. And the limits of political correctness will not be set by activists, teachers, journalists or politicians, but by millions of people's instinctive reactions; what they find sensible and useful and what they find risible. 'Gay' has made its way into everyday vocabulary, though this happened slowly. 'Vertically-challenged' and 'gingerbreadperson' never will.

In pushing, or resisting, new language and attitudes, schoolteachers will have a little more influence than many people, but we should be sceptical about that, too. Banning a writer or expressing teacherly disapproval is, for many children, a positive incitement. Perhaps Ms Brown is a closet Shakespearean, determined to drive Hackney children to secret readings of The Two Noble Kinsmen in the local McDonald's.

Shakespeare takes us on to the most interesting aspect of the PC debate, political correctness and culture. It is important first to distinguish Shakespeare from everyone else. As the most fecund genius England has produced, the Bisexual Bard (does Ms Brown know the Sonnets?) has become a central emblem of national pride. This has always been so, but may be more so now than ever, as rival symbols of Englishness - Parliament, the Monarchy, Michael Portillo - struggle to compete.

Spit on Shakespeare and you spit on England. This allows lots of idiots who have barely read a word he wrote to get all red and puffy when children aren't allowed to go to the ballet - not a prohibition that would normally worry the Sun. So Ms Brown not only pushed views that will never become popular, but she chose a dangerous author to mess with.

The PC row spreads well beyond Shakespeare, of course, to hostility shown by some academic fanatics to all dead, white, male artists. Given the vast popularity of just these authors, it is hard to see this as a serious threat to them. Taste is always changing and the great authors swim through. Shakespeare himself suffered from being bowdlerised during most of the previous two centuries. Christopher Marlowe's reputation suffered because of his proud enthusiasm for tobacco and 'boyes'. Tobacco was OK but boyes were an unmentionable vice. (Now, of course, it's the other way round.)

Actually, if we are really worried about the survival of our great texts, it is class, not sex, that is the big problem. Class is what novels used to be about - think of Jane Austen, Eliot, Trollope, Balzac, Proust, Galsworthy. But class, in the finely- graded sense that drove their stories forward, has dried up as an issue. (At least class in British society: it is interesting to note that the last big novel about class, Vikram Seth's Indian epic, A Suitable Boy, was hugely popular here.) Sex is timeless and universal: the damp hydraulics change little through space and time. And as Gore Vidal has nicely put it, once modern writers found they could put sex into novels, they 'proceeded to leave out almost everything else'.

So here too, PC is not the problem it is made out to be. If anyone really believes Western culture is threatened because a few ideological professors in California are teaching Maya Angelou rather than William Wordsworth, they can't think much of the culture they profess to value. A literature that needs to be carefully protected from modern writing isn't worth protecting.

So PC doesn't matter? It certainly doesn't matter nearly as much as the whole Jane Brown farce suggests. The limits of taste and tolerance are endlessly interesting, and always a fit subject for debate. But to turn a mistake, the subject of justified laughter, into a serious witch-hunt, or to pretend that a few PC activists are the latter-day equivalent of the Brownshirts, is demeaning to our entire political culture. It is a sign of sad insecurity. Among those national virtues the British used to pride themselves on, not least was a sense of proportion.