Monday, March 17, 2008

Political Correctness Gone Mad?

Preparing the Podcast version of this item was a lot of fun, because I decided for a change to go out and do some 'vox pop' -- sticking a microphone under the noses of random strangers on the street to ask for their opinions. I've not done this since I was a student in the 1970's and I was surprised at how nervous I felt when the time came for actually doing it this time around. Luckily Mancunians are mostly very nice and obliging -- even when a mad woman accosts them with a microphone. So, on balance I enjoyed myself, and the voices of these strangers brought an interesting perspective on my subject, before I sat down to write the script.

If you'd like to listen to the Podcast then there's a handy player at the end of this item. All you need is some speakers -- oh and some ears.

But how's about that question?...

Political Correctness. Now there’s a phrase. And it’s never said in a positive way – which I find odd, don’t you?

After all, it seems to me that if you’re going to do anything ‘Political’ – that is, about people and society, then the only acceptable option is to do it correctly.

Have you noticed, for instance, that the very newspapers which are the first to shout and howl about Political Correctness are also the first to have a fit about politics and politicians who aren’t correct? Seems to me they don’t know what they DO want – except, perhaps, to sell newspapers.

The usual target for finger waving about “Political Correctness gone mad” is anything associated with Human Rights. That’s also odd when you think about it. Because human rights are something which belong to all of us, all of the time – not just some of us, some of the time.

They’re not ‘given’ to anyone – they can only be claimed or denied. Trouble is, there’s a risk that most of us smugly take them for granted too. You may only realise how fundamental and precious they are when they’re abused or taken away.

What’s happened in recent years is that the press – and it is largely the print media I’m afraid – have attempted to steal a precious concept and subvert it into a dirty word. All they present us with are examples which challenge us to think that Human Rights are a bad thing – because applying them can sometimes lead us to look in the mirror uncomfortably at the consequences of our attitudes.

Before going any further, however, I wanted to know whether the press had succeeded. I decided to take my microphone out on the streets of South Manchester and ask people, first, whether they thought that Human Rights were relevant to them, or to their family and friends.

There were a couple of people who didn’t think so .. and I'm afraid you'll have to listen to the Podcast for what they had to say ... But … By and large, the people who thought Human Rights were relevant to them were the ones who could name one or more of them and know what they are.

So let’s look at that. Where do they come from for starters?

The Human Rights we talk about in Britain – the ones defined internationally in 1948 – came about as a response to the events of the second world war, including the Holocaust.

These events were a stark reminder of what can happen when any society treats, or allows others to treat, some people as less human than others.

The rights at the top of the list reflect that history – though they could just as well be applied to the history of Human Slavery, or what could still happen today under our noses – such as a recent horrific case of abuse that led to the death of a man with a learning disability.

There’s the right to life. The right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way. The right to be free from slavery or forced labour.

If you felt yourself nodding when those rights are mentioned then that illustrates how we can all identify why these things strike us as entirely sensible when applied to ourselves. What marks a civilisation is our preparedness to insist on the same standards for everyone else. And when I say everyone, that has to include people whose background and experiences may seem alien – and maybe frightening as a result.

Let’s list a few more. There’s the right to liberty. The right to a fair trial. The right to no punishment without law. Now don’t tell me those don’t resonate with us all. Which of us would wish to be detained without trial? And should we solve our social problems by mob rule? But that doesn’t deny that applying these principles fairly – to everyone – can’t be awkward for people who favour knee jerk reactions. But you can’t sacrifice the principal, no matter how tempting that might be in the heat of a particular situation. That’s why Human Rights are challenging. They hold us to account when we’re tempted to slide.

I could go on... There’s the right to Marry. The right to respect for family life, home and correspondence. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Sometimes rights like these can appear to conflict with one-another too. The last one – about religious conscience – very often comes up against others. But that’s why some of these rights aren’t simply absolutes.
Some rights are of course almost totally un-negotiable except in warfare. The right to life, for instance.

Some, like the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, are what is called ‘Qualified’ rights. That means they have to be balanced against the competing rights of others. And the law has a way of doing that balancing act. It’s called ‘proportionality’.

It’s also worth remembering that rights always come with responsibilities too. The right to freedom of expression is a powerful idea, for instance – but it’s tempered by the fact that we are all expected to use it responsibly.

Human Rights principles therefore give us a very useful up-to-date manual for organising a society where there are bound to be conflicts of interest from time to time, or where we may not realise that our best endeavours to treat people fairly are falling short.

The Department of Health, in conjunction with the British Institute of Human Rights, is nowadays teaching health service staff how to think about what they do, and the services they provide, in Human Rights terms. And it’s surprising how far that can extend. What rights are engaged, for instance, if there are insufficient staff in a hospital to change wet sheets? What rights are involved with treating gay and lesbian patients and their partners with respect? What rights are involved if a doctor or dentist faces removal of their right to work?

The NHS has taken a lead by using the principles of Human Rights to evaluate and improve itself in this way. Maybe that will help to make the concept feel more relevant for day-to-day life – at least for the 1.3 million who work in that field. But which other parts of our society could give themselves health checks using the same principles? And can we apply them to the way we live our own lives and treat our neighbours? I think we can.

All of this means that Human Rights are undoubtedly Political. Yet I contend that they’re also the correct basis evaluating our institutions, services and personal behaviour.

So, ‘Politically correct’? Well then I’d have to agree. But is that going mad or not? I leave that for you to decide.

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