Why PC fanaticism is just as bad as religious extremism
Be warned: the behaviour of the politically correct left is alarmingly akin to religious fanatics in Pakistan
Watching the horrifying crowds of men in Pakistan calling for the death of Asia Bibi seemed like watching another, medieval world.
Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, spent eight years on death row after allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbours. Last week, the supreme court acquitted her, and she secretly left her prison, causing violent protests from Islamists, who said she should be hanged for blasphemy.
The UK Foreign Office has said she is still in Pakistan, meaning her life is at tremendous risk. Even the judges who allowed her release are in danger now, after an Islamist leader said all three “deserved to be killed”.
Many of us will feel far removed from Bibi, a victim of one of the most oppressive mobs this decade has seen. But, while the secularisation of the West may have led us to believe that the violence and authoritarian nature of Pakistan could not be replicated in our midst, history shows us that societies twist and turn, and new movements are quite capable of replacing religion.
What happened to Bibi should serve as a lesson as to what happens when censorship is allowed to engulf a country. Indeed, there are troublesome parallels in the West. The UK, for example, has been slowly moving in a dangerous direction of late, steered mostly by the politically correct left, which has become evermore authoritarian about what people can say, and therefore believe.
Their behaviour is alarmingly akin to that of the religious fanatics in Pakistan: monitoring words for any signs of evil sentiment, sometimes misquoting them as proof of wicked deeds. Heavily applied political correctness is no different from religious extremism. It is the same thing: believing that everyone is blaspheming against you.
The news is littered with examples of this sweeping fanaticism, which paints a picture of a new religion – a belief system with its own absolute truths, revealed only when someone offends against them. Insult the idea that people can self-declare whether they are male or female, or suggest that the gender pay gap is not a real thing, and you find yourself at the whim of the fundamentalists.
The offensive may not be thrown in prison, but they will be ostracised and cast out by way of Twitter excommunication. And let’s not forget the existence of dubious laws that can punish people for “insults” that cause “distress”.
PC fundamentalists, with their cult-like proclivity towards hysteria, sanctimony and following the crowd, care nothing for nuance – as evidenced by the recent condemnation of the philosopher Roger Scruton, who has said contentious things about homosexuality, Islam and rape. No matter that what he said was in a complicated, academic context, merely to call into question the religion is enough to be condemned.
Such events, though largely limited to the internet, can have hugely stressful effects on people’s lives, as Jon Ronson points out in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Take Lindsey Stone, the US careworker who, when a photograph of her goofing around in Arlington National Cemetery became public, was accused of “disrespect” and sacked. The witch-hunt that followed meant she hardly left her house for a year.
In daily life, many of us know the dangers of speaking our minds; we try to ascertain the religion of our listener before we delve into conversation and, should we find our beliefs contradictory, we tiptoe around. It’s partly politeness, but increasingly also an awareness of the social consequences that await us should we offend. Western society is still one of the most free in the world, but legislation and the policing of language draw us dangerously close to wobbling.
Should the tightrope on which we all walk on when we speak become much thinner, who knows what the risks might be?
All of this might seem irrelevant compared with the case of Asia Bibi. But consider this: it has been reported that her request for asylum in Britain has been denied because for her to go there may cause civil unrest. Even while we in the privileged West count our lucky stars not to be in her situation, are we complicit in her inability to escape it?
Bibi’s plight should teach us how crucial it is for a free society to extend the boundaries of speech, not constrict them.
Last week, a social media campaign across the West called for the release of the Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger imprisoned for apostasy. The irony that this happened while, on the same platform, users were sifting through the works of writers for evidence of offence is almost beyond belief.
We must learn from the lessons from other parts of the globe – of the importance of the liberties we have taken far too much for granted.
– © The Sunday Telegraph