The phrase “political correctness gone mad” has become so commonplace that deploying it nowadays feels almost farcical, immediately casting its user as an old fogey (or “gammon” in current parlance). But the maddening thing about cliches is the fact that they tend to be true – and this one is no exception.
Focusing on contemporary feminism, it becomes clear that the prevailing climate of offence-taking isn’t merely a problem for those who fall foul of it. Thanks to the law of unintended consequences, political correctness often causes the most harm to those it purports to protect.
A century after women in the UK first received the right to vote, political correctness is causing the feminist movement to abandon the universalist, egalitarian principles it first espoused. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s definitive pamphlet A Vindication on the Rights of Women, written at the turn of the 18th century, she urged male legislators to rethink their own hypocrisies. “Consider,” she wrote, “whether, when men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, is it not unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness?”
“Who made man the exclusive judge,” she added, “if woman partake with him the gift of reason?” In making the case for equal rights, Wollstonecraft drew on enlightenment values, declaring women capable of rational thought and decision-making.
Yet today, there is a recurring pattern of feminists refusing to accept other women’s personal choices. Many commentators lauded the recent removal of Formula 1 “grid girls” and darts “walk-on girls”. One feminist campaigner called such job losses “necessary” since “these are decorative roles that make money for men”. Every social change, she added, has “people who must suffer for it”. Note that whether the grid girls actually feel objectified has been relegated to a non-issue. What matters now is the collective good, what other women think – and their sensibilities are now enough to dictate behaviour.
This represents a decided shift away from the politics of liberation, and the maxim “a woman’s right to choose” – now repackaged as “we support your choices – so long as they’re the ‘right’ choices”. A strong dose of hypocrisy and snobbery underlies who is allowed to monetise their bodies and why. Models disrobing for the purposes of high fashion? No problem. On Instagram, middle-class feminists are busily “freeing the nipple” as a gesture of defiance. Yet working-class women attempting to cash in on their looks through the less exalted avenues of glamour and promo modelling have attracted widespread censure.
This is not only instinctively illogical but also heralds the decline of universalism, for a movement that cannot accommodate those with even minor disagreements will always be doomed to fail. For years, internal squabbles between competing factions of feminism have caused alienation and petty schisms. If you share many of the same goals but disagree on specifics – calculating the gender pay gap, legalising prostitution, gender fluidity etc – you can find yourself quickly ejected from the club, as Julie Bindel’s example shows.
Bindel, an old-school radical feminist, has devoted her working life to women’s causes, co-founding a law-reform group which helps women prosecuted for killing violent male partners and campaigning for domestic violence refuges. Yet since 2004, she has been systematically “no platformed” for a lone Guardian column critical of gender reassignment surgery and transsexual activists.
Though Bindel later apologised for these remarks, she remains a pariah in contemporary feminist circles. This attitude partly explains the movement’s lack of universal appeal. One recent poll found that more than 90 per cent of women now eschew the label “feminist”. Ironically, it also echoes the centuries-old authoritarian ideal that Wollstonecraft despised; we have simply replaced old-school paternalism with a new brand of maternalism for the 21st century.
Much has been said about campus “snowflake” culture. From a feminist angle, the most pernicious aspect of this manifestation of political correctness is perhaps its demeaning assumption that women are uniquely incapable of handling challenging material.
Student activists officiously insist on “saving” female contemporaries from potentially upsetting “triggers” in novels, newspapers, even pop songs – as if they were indeed the weaker sex. Finalists at Oxford University are now being given extra time in certain exams, to help female students, who are apparently “more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”. Forget “weaker sex” – possessing two X chromosomes is now likened to a handicap or a learning disability. This is both insulting and damaging, depriving young women of an education that truly equips them for the adult world, with its setbacks and rejection. In pushing for this diminished, infantilising experience, campus feminism is betraying women.
Or consider the #MeToo movement, founded on noble principles, calling numerous high-profile abusers to account for vile – often criminal – behaviour. Yet all too quickly, the pendulum swung back towards censoriousness and archaic ideas of modesty. Soon, actress Claire Foy was issuing a statement denying she had been offended when Adam Sandler touched her knee during a TV appearance. The actor David Schwimmer gained huge plaudits for offering a female critic a chaperone during a hotel room interview, reminiscent of a Jane Austen novel. Netflix has banned crew members from flirting, hugging and even looking at each other for more than five seconds, in new anti-harassment guidance. Quite how the cameramen are supposed to work under these conditions is another story. This is part-dystopian, part-Victorian. What next? Covering up table legs?
Extreme examples perhaps, but natural by-products of an offence-taking culture and a movement liable to promote female victimhood. Such sexual alarmism has real-world consequences for young women in particular.
A survey commissioned by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” initiative found that the number of male managers uncomfortable mentoring women has tripled since the #MeToo movement began last October. Who can blame them? According to another recent poll, 41 per cent of young women “expect to face discrimination at work”. Worryingly, this group hasn’t even entered the workforce yet – this is simply anxiety about what could happen to them in the future.
The same is also true of young men. A quarter of millennial-age men now believe asking someone out for a drink constitutes “sexual harassment”. Quite frankly, if this is sexual harassment, then we’ve lost the battle. But it’s unsurprising that many feel like this when #MeToo so often glibly conflates examples of horrific abuse with far more trivial incidents.
Take the recent expose of comedian Aziz Ansari by an anonymous young woman who posted an excruciating account of his clumsy sexual advances on a first date. Yet the post – which quickly went viral – recounted a hook-up that, though awkward and unpleasant, was consensual. Before Ansari had received any right of reply, thousands were calling for his show to be axed and the comedian erased from public life. Not for the first time in #MeToo’s short history, justice was superseded by “trial by Twitter”.
Of course, the movement represents far more than the “outing” of celebrities, but such incidents are already having a chilling effect on everyday interactions. A growing number of young people are navigating the turbulent world of hook-ups in the post-#MeToo age using “consent apps”, which record users agreeing to sexual activity with others by tapping or writing on their smartphones. To many, this sounds like the death knell of good sex – heralding a big brother world where each fumble or hand on the knee must be documented and approved before taking things further.
This approach is both sinister and clumsy, displaying an almost comical lack of communication. Most importantly, it reflects a loss of good faith between the sexes. Indeed, the logical implication of recent PC campaigns in UK schools and universities – to force male students to attend “compulsory consent workshops” – indirectly encourages young women to view male contemporaries with suspicion, and in the most extreme examples to recast them not as equals, but “rapists-in-waiting”. Almost overnight, a new generation is being encouraged to redraw the lines of acceptability, and we should be seriously concerned about where this could lead.
Righteous anger alone rarely leads to ethical, proportionate behaviour. In 1998, animal rights activists broke into a Staffordshire fur farm, releasing 8000 mink, many of which were subsequently run over or shot by farmers. The remainder, meanwhile, decimated local wildlife and threatened the survival of rare birds and fish. What better symbol exists of good intentions having devastating consequences?
In feminism too, the #MeToo genie is out of the bottle, hastened by a politically correct call-out culture. Here, we should tread carefully, and welcome open discussions about where this tide of outrage could take us. Likewise, we must reclaim the movement which once fought for female empowerment, from the one that, too often, casts women as victims. Policies should always be judged by outcome, not intention. Or, as the old suffragette slogan goes, deeds not words.