Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' were banned by Minnesota schools over alleged racial slurs. Photo: Amazon.com
Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn' were banned by Minnesota schools over alleged racial slurs. Photo: Amazon.com

Is it time to take a deep breath and ask where unbridled political correctness is driving us? Words and actions that are intended to be hurtful are deplorable. Surely the key lies in the intention.

That does not mean that someone can deliver a cartload of gratuitous abuse and then claim he or she intended no harm; each situation has to be judged in its own context and on its own merits.

What troubles me is that the interpretations of what is and what is not politically correct have become so all-embracing that many people are reacting by rebelling altogether against the very concept of political correctness.

A striking illustration of lunacy perpetrated in the name of political correctness is the banning by some US cities of two classic American novels, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, from their schools.

The first novel describes a principled white lawyer fighting a losing battle for the life of a colored man wrongly accused of murdering a white woman, and Mark Twain’s story tells of two boys, one white and one black, who run away together, and the white boy’s affirmation of friendship over racial discrimination.

It does not require a bachelor’s degree in literature to grasp that these books are two of the most forceful and dramatic arguments against racial discrimination.

Beautifully and, in the Harper Lee novel, heart-wrenchingly written, one does not have to search for a hidden message to understand that these powerful writers bent their creative skills to making people understand that the dignity of the human being is blind to color and race.

That the ban on these books should be praised by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) makes me wonder whether the lunatics really have taken over the asylum.

What do the burgomeisters of the cities issuing these proscriptions imagine is the meaning of a free world?

It is bad enough that university students in Hong Kong think it is acceptable to shout down a speaker with whose opinions they disagree, forgetting that for free speech to have legitimacy it must apply across the board.

It used to be that civilized communities were based on consideration for others, in every form of social intercourse

What is meant by political correctness? It does not help that the very concept is highly subjective. From where does it spring?

May I respectfully suggest that at bottom, it is a question of good manners. Before Donald Trump erupted on to the scene, there was an almost universal norm of accepted behavior. Quite distinct from criminal behavior, it was not permitted to insult people for no good reason or describe people in derogatory terms just for the sheer hell of it.

It used to be that civilized communities were based on consideration for others, in every form of social intercourse.

When societies experienced discriminatory practices, it became necessary for those discriminated against to take a public stand against such practices. Inevitably, some of those advocating non-discrimination expressed themselves in a manner that offended parts of those societies. In so doing, these overzealous advocates alienated part of the community they wanted to win over, leading to a backlash.

Again, each situation had to be looked at through the prism of those discriminated against, and where the discriminators were themselves excessively vocal, it required equal emphasis to overcome it. Thus the oppression of America’s black communities demanded powerful advocates. But it was voices of reason like Dr Martin Luther King who achieved the results, rather than those of the Black Panthers and their ilk.

The quest for equal opportunities and rewards for women is an ongoing evolution, but it is not strident feminism that wins the day but the reasoned professionalism of successful women that will succeed eventually.

Underlying all these movements are fundamental principles that the liberal Western democracies recognize as givens.

At its heart, the battle against discriminatory practices is a quest for balance in society. It is no less true for being trite that moderation in most things is to be preferred.

If a rabid Christian sets fire to a mosque, that is no cause to blackguard all Christians any more than condemning all Muslims for an attack on a church. This leads to blind, indiscriminate hatred and anarchy.

Humor is a particularly interesting area in the context of political correctness.

John Cleese has gone on record asserting that only humor that is intentionally hurtful should be considered politically incorrect. Think of the countless jokes that Englishmen tell about Irishmen, Jews tell about Gentiles, indeed the whole cornucopia of jokes that involve one nationality poking fun at the idiosyncrasies of another. Unless they are manifestly cruel, why can there not be an equality of humor by one race at the expense of another?

Or are we to live in a world where only Chinese can tell jokes about Chinese and only Irishmen can tell jokes about the Irish?

It is both sad and mad to see students at universities, places where people go to have their minds opened, to learn to think and reason, insisting on statues of historical figures being removed lest the students’ sensitivities be offended.

Historical figures have to be viewed through the lens of the norms of civilization of their time, not with eyes that no longer see or understand the complexities of the age in which they lived and achieved pre-eminence. Oliver Cromwell was responsible for beheading King Charles I, but Cromwell’s statue still stands, albeit in a ditch. It is historical fact and if we allow others to select what parts of history accords with their current philosophy, we will never learn from history.

In a world whose principles and priorities are being thrown into such turbulence, it is even more important for children to have the opportunity to have their minds opened to the events of the past.

Political correctness, improperly applied, is the greatest threat to our civilization.

Neville Sarony

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.

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