I ended up getting quite frustrated with the injustice of being forced to keep my massive, seventies-kid mop. I think I sulked a lot. Then, my cousin explained it to me. "You can't have a skinhead," she said, "because black people don't like it." I got even more angry. This was less justice. Why should other people care about what haircut I had? Why should what they think matter? I think I probably kicked something over and slammed a door.
You see the problem, of course. My cousin, who was only about eleven at the time, didn't really get it either. The reason why it was perhaps a bad idea to get a skinhead if you were a white kid in the late seventies is because for a lot of people who had them, it was a statement that they didn't like black people. If my cousin had explained that, and told me that some of my mates might think I didn't like them anymore, or that my mum and dad didn't like them anymore, I might have understood. But she was only eleven.*
Thirty-odd years on, and despite not being eleven some journalists and politicians take my cousin's original approach to explaining why some people think it's perhaps not a good idea to do or say certain things. Almost any story about Political Correctness (and they're pretty much always exaggerated so far you'd fail to spot the kernel of truth behind them even if you had a great big microscope in the first place) is hung off the idea that something has been stopped in case people are offended. Usually Muslims.
Yesterday, I looked at Baroness Warsi's repetition of the Winterfest myth, and where she said this:
For example, there was a county court that didn't put tinsel on its public desk because they thought it would offend!Even if we ignore the fact that it seems to have been moved because it was in the way and pretend that it was because of Political Correctness Gone Mad, would the tinsel really have been moved because people in charge thought it would offend?
That's really unlikely. If some misguided soul had decided to move the tinsel for PC reasons, it's far more likely that it would have been because they wanted the place to be more inclusive, that they wanted people who didn't celebrate Christmas not to feel out of place or that a County Court was somewhere run by people who didn't care about them. Yes, they would have been overzealous and have made the wrong decision, but it probably wouldn't have been because of other people, real or imagined, becoming offended by the presence of twinkly plastic.
What can happen when people talk about doing things because some group or other is offended is that they shift some or all of the blame for the action onto that group rather than whoever's responsible for the action, at least indirectly. In the hypothetical tinsel case, the hypothetical County Court had the idea that they should do something nice for other people changed into the idea that they were made to do something they didn't really want to because someone thought a certain group would be upset.
People take offence. If someone takes offence at something that wasn't intended to be spiteful, we usually think they're overreacting and they've decided to do something unjustified. What could be spiteful about tinsel? Nothing. It's crazy to be offended by it. Why should we listen to people who have decided to get upset about something completely innocent? It's their fault for getting the wrong end of the stick.
The tinsel example is a bit more complicated, so we'll come back to it. Bet you can't wait.
A better example of how this shifting of blame works is the recent Daily Express coverage of advice circulated by Stoke-on-Trent Council to headteachers about how to make life a bit easier for Muslim pupils. This became 'SCHOOLS FORCED TO DELAY EXAMS TO AVOID INSULTING MUSLIMS AT RAMADAN', which said:
Council chiefs were accused of “excessive” political correctness and “pandering to minorities” for issuing an edict to primary and secondary schools on how to avoid offending Muslim pupils.This, and the earlier 'SWIMMING POOL BLACKED OUT TO APPEASE MUSLIMS ' were examples of a national newspaper quite deliberately demonising a certain group with the trick of including the 'they were offended at something innocuous and now we have to bend over backwards for them' narrative. Of course, in reality neither of the things the stories referred to had anything to do with offending anyone.
This can lead people to quibble over a red herring. "Who's offended by this?" they might ask. "Here are some Muslims who say they are not offended. Therefore, you're all stupid and anybody with an ounce of common sense would see we don't need to ban windows in swimming pools," or whatever crappy thing the papers are pretending to be outraged at this week.
But things are not usually quite so nasty since, thankfully, not every newspaper is the Express. Back to the tinsel.
What usually happens when journalists or their editors aren't deliberately attacking Muslims or whoever, is that the person or organisation making whatever decision they made is attacked for being stupid. We're not usually talking about the actual decision, but the imaginary one involving avoiding offence. In Baroness Warsi's example, the bad guy is the state (don't ask me, I don't know either), but usually we're talking about loony lefty councils or crazy lefty something or others. (Actually, the Express stories manage to attack both).
The Campaign Against Political Correctness' entire definition of Political Correctness centres on people taking offence on the behalf of others. In these cases, the idea that nobody will be offended is used as evidence to show the decision was stupid and made by an idiot. Maybe they'll even be blamed for people getting annoyed with the minorities they (actually haven't) said will be offended.
I won't even start on the fact that saying something is offensive isn't the same as saying it will offend someone. (A knife is an offensive weapon. That's not because if you stab someone, they'll be offended. Although they probably would be).
The thing is, real examples of where someone has actually said that something has been dropped or changed because people might be offended are vanishingly small. I've been looking at PC Gone Mad stories for years, and I can't remember any. Usually,stories that do say this have exaggerated, misinterpreted or seemingly deliberately misrepresented something. ( I'm always open for new PC Gone Mad stories, so feel free to add links in the comments).
That doesn't stop people from saying that all sorts of things have been done for just that reason all the time. Whether that's because they're deliberately misrepresenting stories to make them seem more ludicrous, because they're mistaken, or because they're as unable to understand what's going on as my eleven year old cousin is a whole new question. It depends on who's making the claim, I guess.
An admin person is probably mistaken. Baroness Warsi? Who knows? Hacks at the Daily Express and their colleagues in the other tabloids? That one's not difficult to work out.
*The real reason was more likely to be that my mum didn't want me looking like a thug and didn't want to have to keep taking me to get my bloody hir cut. Which means the 'moving a bit of tinsel because it was in the way' reality of Baroness Warsi's story is more relevant to my rubbish childhood story than I thought. Bonus!