Opinionista Justin McCarthy 23 September 2013

Political correctness: The best thing that ever happened to congenital whiners

Political correctness is a scourge. As an advocate of the right to offend (my simplistic way of saying that I’m distinctly libertarian), I contend that political correctness diminishes society’s ability to function properly by adding layers of gratuitous complexity that deviate us from the path to genuine social advancement. Unwarranted complexity ultimately serves nobody’s interests, yet so many activists, government officials and members of the public exercise their voices and their votes unthinkingly, based most frequently on misguided narrow interests. The result is often an outrageous subjugation of the very basic rights that many of these voices seek to protect in the first place.

From the evidence sparked by my last two articles, in particular the manner in which Pierre de Vos and Alistair Mackay framed their responses, I contend that liberty is a terribly misunderstood concept. Ignoring their egregious misrepresentations of my argument and some of their misguided conclusions, I contend that both writers fall victim to the very political correctness that I rail against.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant regarded man as a rationally self-conscious being with the impure freedom of choice. By his categorical imperative he maintained that an individual should act only according to a maxim that he would like to see made into a general law. Political correctness is a narrow perspective on Kant’s categorical imperative that is either selectively or unthinkingly blind to its broad application in general law. Liberty’s premise is that each person can do as he chooses. The premise of a free society is that each person can do as he chooses provided he does not harm another. This is where the subjective choices of the individual can be reconciled with universal objective law.

Libertarian Philip Schuyler frames this neatly when he says, “The area between actions that harm others and those that merely offend forever requires defence, however, because individuals have a double standard regarding rights that reduces to, what I do is my business; what you do is your business unless I have a real problem with it.”

Without regurgitating my previous argument, suffice it to say that I maintain the right of any individual or collective to offend anyone, precisely because offence is so entirely subjective that any attempt to distinguish a boundary is futile. Should a company choose to run an advertisement that is, for example, homophobic, racist, sexist or just plain stupid is their right. Just as it is anyone’s right to call the advertisement homophobic, racist, sexist or stupid and to boycott the advertiser’s product or service and call upon others to follow. Equally so, it is anyone’s right to submit a complaint to an authority mandated to deal with such matters, such as the courts, the SAHRC and the ASA. However, I draw a line at calling for a ban. If an advert contravenes a law there are mechanisms to deal with that, self-regulation being the most practical but not without its faults.

Where I raise the alarm and cry foul is with the corrosive effect of strident activism and principled outrage, real or feigned, which so often purports to be founded in noble principles but frequently abandons those very principles in a show of the double standards Schuyler refers to. The will of one party seeking to trump that of another is as old as mankind. Once resolved by violence, so-called civilised societies impose a rule of law to regulate disputes against a set of principles such as a Bill of Rights and a Constitution. Whilst themselves imperfect, they are the best instruments we have to maintain social order.

Democratic governments, themselves appointed by society as arbiters and enforcers of the instruments of order, are serial abusers of the rights of the individuals they’re appointed to protect. To demonstrate my point, I’ll take just one example from our own government. The Control of Marketing of Alcoholic Beverages Bill just passed by Parliament is a classic case of purportedly well-intentioned governance trumping the rights of both advertisers and citizens. The limitation of the rights of manufacturers to advertise their legal wares is nothing short of outrageous and will hopefully be robustly tested in the Constitutional Court. I say hopefully because law is precedential, where a victory in one case can have a direct bearing on the outcome of thousands of others.

In this instance there already is some precedent in the 2012 Supreme Court of Appeal case of BAT vs Minister of Health (First Respondent) and NCIS (Amicus Curiae) where in effect the court ruled the state had an obligation to protect the public from knowingly and willingly inflicting self-harm, and restricted the rights of smokers who voluntarily opted to receive communication from tobacco manufacturers. This is massively problematic as the state is now empowered by the highest court in the land to regulate what one category of citizen can and cannot choose to read about a perfectly legal product. If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. I take serious exception to my democratically elected government telling me what media I can and cannot consume from the manufacturer of a legal product which the state itself is a massive recipient of tax revenues from. So should you if you believe in self-determination, freedom of expression and freedom of choice. This is nanny stateism and it is a dangerous threat to your liberty.

Many institutions are also guilty of the same subjugation of citizens’ rights. Private companies, political parties, trade unions and even sports administrations routinely ride roughshod over individuals’ rights, but in these instances the individual at least has the choice to take it or leave it. Not so when it is cast in the statute books. Which is why, when faced with the moral outrage or perfectly reasoned argument of any interest group, we should be vigilant in allowing them to build up a support base without a thorough examination of the far-reaching consequences. Interest groups, or lobbies if you prefer, take many shapes and forms, and each of them has a varying effect on the government as well as what is regarded as the societal norms of the day. Precisely because interest groups are far more vociferous than the disinterested and disengaged, they tend to have a far greater impact on society in general and government in particular. If governments cannot be trusted, neither should those seeking to influence government to act a certain way, because more often than not there’s a narrow interest hiding behind a façade of good intentions. Whether these intentions are misguided, sincere or sinister matters not. What matters is their impact on the basic rights of the individual and the extent to which government regulates their behaviour. If the right to liberty is not given sufficient import, it gets pecked to death by regulation because there is always political pressure to act and the advantages of regulating usually appear to be advantageous.

Every time someone calls for something to be regulated, members of society have an obligation to themselves to interrogate the impact of how such regulation might impact society in the broader sense. What appears sensible in the immediate term may well lead to an unintended erosion of liberty. Most members of society tend not to think of the bigger picture, and merrily either support a motion or ignore it because they haven’t considered the implications. Let’s take the example of smokers. In 1993 our government passed the Tobacco Products Control Act, which regulated smoking in public, the sale of products to minors and implemented health warnings on packaging and advertisements. In 1999, the Act was amended with greater restrictions including an outright ban on advertising and sponsorship. Then, in 2007 there were further amendments, which placed greater restrictions on smokers as well as an additional responsibility on the shoulders of proprietors of retailers, restaurants, bars and clubs. One of these is the requirement of a proprietor to ensure that no person under the age of 18 is present in a designated smoking zone. Thus a restaurateur is obliged to dictate to a parent what he or she permits their child to do. That the parents may choose to smoke in their own home around their children is beside the point, the restaurateur is obliged by law (and the penalty of a R50,000 fine) to enforce parenting choices on a customer. This is where good intentions become ridiculous.

Present regulation gazetted and awaiting the Minister of Health’s approval includes an outright ban on smoking areas in any building whatsoever, save for one’s private residence. Under this regime a smoker may have to travel 50 stories of a high-rise building and walk several kilometres to an area to satisfy his or her habit. Under labour legislation, an employer may not restrict an employee from exercising his/her right to smoke, so now the employer has to bear the burden of the cost of employees who may lose up to several hours of productivity per day. Let’s say you’re a call centre manager, where attendance of your employees to their deskbound duties is paramount. Are you going to fill the next vacancy with a smoker? You’d think twice about that. Yet if you selected a non-smoker over a smoker that could be deemed prejudicial and the smoker could have a labour case for discrimination. This is an example of where overregulation becomes self-defeating, because it tramples the rights of one party in favour of another.

This is politically correct nanny-state mentality and it’s an insult to every single individual’s right to self-determination, no matter what your beliefs. You may not care about smokers’ rights (for the record, I’m a non-smoker), but what’s next? Oh yes, alcohol restrictions. Then carbonated soft drinks and other sugar based product restrictions. Then fast food restrictions. Then restrictions on how much red meat you can purchase and consume, how much flour you may be sold, or how many particles per million of chlorine you’re permitted in your swimming pool. And if you think I’m being alarmist, just look at the legislation New York has lined up for its citizens, or how this mentality has worked out for the British or any number of European states. These are examples of states that have exceeded their authority, violating the rights of one interest group to protect another’s.

So what does all of this have to do with an advertisement for a tub of margarine? Quite simply, this is the beginning of that slippery slope into a nanny state culture, where your government, the same one you are legislated to pay taxes to, decides to use those tax revenues to impose on you what you may or may not put into your body. If we cry foul at every alleged offense and call for things to be restricted or banned we not only encourage, but ultimately give permission to our lawmakers to determine what is acceptable or not. Smokers are a minority group along with homosexuals and any number of other groups. I see plenty of outrage directed at smokers, but very little directed at the severe limitation of their rights. It’s just not politically correct to stand up for the rights of smokers. I see plenty of outrage directed at homophobia, but very little supporting the right to feel hurt should your child choose this route. That’s just not PC.

Alistair Mackay wrote in response to my piece, “But ultimately, they [the parents of gay children] are the minor characters in that scene. It just simply isn’t as difficult for them as it is for the child”. But how would he know? From his age it is easily determined that Mackay isn’t old enough to have any offspring of sufficiently advanced age to be questioning their sexuality. From his declared sexual orientation it’s very unlikely that he will ever know. Yet he asserts that any pain his parents may have felt cannot be compared to that of his own. He effectively posits that it’s not a human truth that parents of gay children may actually feel hurt by their child’s choice. That’s out and out prejudicial bullshit and the kind of politically correct thinking that can and does lead to a nanny state imposition on his own rights. The same goes for Pierre de Vos who posits that those who hold “mainstream” (his word, not mine) views lead an empty and meaningless life. Pontificating aside, who is De Vos to apply politically correct judgment to the choices of others and brand it meaningless and banal?

We all have preferences in which we are in the minority. If liberty were subject to a vote, each of these runs the risk of being banned. To quote Ivo Vegter, “Individual opinion is the final arbiter of what is right or wrong for that individual, but popular opinion is no arbiter of what is right or wrong in the general case.” DM



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