Political Correctness (and Courtesy) in Australia

By MacLennan, Gary | Monthly Review, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Political Correctness (and Courtesy) in Australia


MacLennan, Gary, Monthly Review


The 1996 election of a conservative coalition government after 13 years of Labor Party rule has brought marked changes in the Australian political climate. The Prime Minister, John Howard, has attacked political correctness (PC) and claimed that his government has lifted the pall of censorship that hung over Australia. Also important in this context has been the election of independent Pauline Hanson, an overt racist, to the Federal Parliament. Standing for a traditional working class Labor seat, Hanson achieved a huge swing. Since her election she has continued to attack Aborigines and Asians. The elections of Howard and Hanson have sparked off discussion about the meaning and role of political correctness as well as a race debate.

I think it is important to begin any discussion of PC with the acknowledgment that when we are discussing PC we are dealing with linguistic behavior and that there have always been rules, laws, conventions, restrictions, and regulations controlling such behavior. I want to stress the word "behavior" here. No one is talking about changing our language. They are simply discussing how we might change our use of it. The rules of language behavior are often quite complex and have only ever been partially written down or rendered explicit, but they are very real and very operative. I should also point out that these rules, etc., though they are largely implicit, are historical and as such they are subject to change and challenge.

Now if we move from these general remarks to a specific territory, field, or domain such as that of politics, our first acknowledgment must again be that in the discussion of political matters there have always been rules, etc., governing language use. I want to argue in fact that there are three basic kinds of political correctness: dominant PC (DPC); residual PC (RPC); and emergent PC (EPC). This classification as you will recognize is based on Raymond Williams' notion of dominant, residual and emergent cultures.(1) I intend to say a little about each of these forms of political correctness.

With regard to DPC I had originally been contemplating a reference to treason trials as an example of dominant political correctness in action. However fate in the form of the workers riot in Canberra in August then took a hand. While watching the television coverage of the workers storming parliament I felt a sense of pride and identity with the Irish worker who was urging on the other workers to smash down the gates of parliament. I was also full of joy that the workers had linked up with the Aborigines and students in their attack on Parliament.

Certainly my response to the Canberra demonstration ran very counter to the coverage of the demonstration in the media, especially the public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). There the commentators were trembling in their eagerness to condemn the actions of the workers. On ABC Radio Prue Goward indulged in her very own brand of red baiting, blaming would you believe "Trotskyists" for leading the workers astray.

Now I want to analyze the contrast between my remarks and those of the media commentators. They were articulating what I would characterize as dominant political correctness (DPC). As such they were giving voice to the common sense that constitutes the consensus on which our current set of social relations rest. Within the terms of this consensus violence against authority must always be seen to be "counter productive" and "illegitimate." Among the many things that remain undefined and taken for granted here are "authority," "violence," the legitimacy of a government that promised conservatism but is giving us radical right economic policies, and beyond all this the fact that social relations in Australia are marked by relations of exploitation, domination, and the uneven distribution of power and wealth. Above all I would argue that the pious consensus that rushed to condemn the riot in Canberra rests on the acceptance of the current dehumanizing status quo. …

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