Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Right-wing double standards and the justification of bigotry

One of the many clichés attached to the idea of "political correctness gone mad" - itself a cliché that has gone beyond the level of tedious - is "you couldn't make it up." Originally a staple of the rants of Richard Littlejohn, it is now routinely thrown into tirades and polemics where, in fact, the vast majority is either fictional or product of the most tenuous truth-stretching.

An isolated incident, if it happened at all, which occurred for utterly legitimate reasons will become a countrywide pandemic happening "for fear of offending Muslims" in the hands of the press.

This is how Winterval, a commercial promotion in Birmingham a decade ago that made regular mention of "Christmas," became the annual campaign to "ban Christmas" that pretty much keeps the tabloids going from October to December. This is how a pre-school in Oxfordshire getting children to sing "Baa Baa Black Sheep" with "a wide range" of descriptive words replacing "black" because it "encourages the children to extend their vocabulary," became schools "banning" the song "because it's racist." There are countless other examples of how "political correctness" was, in fact, fashioned by the right.

Their reasons for this do not need much exploration. Political correctness quickly renders any "offence" felt by minorities suspect, as intended with the coining of such phrases as "playing the race card." It also makes its opposite, political incorrectness, not just acceptable but even heroic - essentially a justification of bigotry under the banner of "traditional" attitudes. At the same time, with unashamed irony, it helps to set a precedent for the right-wing version of political correctness and playing of the race card by white Christians.

Just the latest example of this is the outrage in the tabloid media led, as expected, by The Daily Mail over a charity allegedly "depict[ing] Christians as Islamaphobes who regard Muslims as terrorists." According to the story, "a boy wearing a large cross around his neck is shown telling a friend that a smiling Muslim girl in a veil looks like a terrorist" in the magazine, and "it has angered Christian groups and MPs who fear it sends out the wrong message."

The response most quoted by the press is that of Mike Judge from The Christian Institute, who stands vehemently against the message of the cartoon;
What about Christian children in care who received this magazine? How will they feel to see themselves mocked as narrow-minded Islamaphobes? It is a clumsy caricature, symptomatic of a culture which says it is OK to bully Christians in the name of diversity.
One can't help feel that this statement, and similar ones quoted in the Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and elsewhere have utterly missed the point. Firstly, that the boy in the cartoon is Christian in no way implies that all Christians are like this. Indeed, that boy's behaviour is contrasted by that of his friend, who is no less white but a lot less narrow-minded. This has nothing to do with "offence" and everything to do with an attempt to utterly blot-out all criticism of Christianity (whilst simultaneously attacking its rivals) because it feels threatened.

Philip Hollobone, Tory MP for Kettering suggested that "you can hardly imagine anyone producing a magazine in which the roles were reversed and it was the Muslim girl who was behaving badly," but of course they wouldn't. There is no ongoing problem of bigotry or discrimination towards Christians, however much certain more reactionary elements may like to play it up. The fact is that, being the majority religion in this country, and having far greater reach and influence in the press and government than any religious view should, their position can only be described as comfortable. Muslims, however, do suffer discrimination, bigotry, and even violence against them on a broad scale.

Of course, there is the fact that Islamist terrorists caused widespread destruction and death on July 7th 2005, not to mention other attempted attacks prior and since. However, those responsible are not ordinary Muslims but those drawn into the more extreme and militant sects, a separate issue in and of itself. The government, the media, and the far-right have played on this to drum up and incite a more general disdain for Muslims beyond that specific bracket and campaigns like the "outrage" over this cartoon only serve to make such scaremongering excempt from criticism.

Now, Muslims are in a horrendous position. Even the slightest complaint, however legitimate, is leapt upon with fervour as an example of "anti-British" attitudes (a phrase with solely totalitarian connotations), whilst integration and acceptance of the intangible strawman of "British values" is viewed with suspicion. This only exacerbates the alienation of the Muslim community, and creates further tensions.

There are serious issues that need to be addressed surrounding religious, racial, and cultural diversity, but we cannot do that as long as we are drawn into the hysterical fervour drummed up by the media against the bogeyman of "political correctness gone mad."