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Political correctness isn't mad, it's making progress

DOWN with this sort of thing.

Father Ted fans will recall the slogan from the episode of the Channel 4 sitcom in which priests Ted and Dougal were ordered to protest outside Craggy Island's cinema about The Passion of St Tibulus, a film denounced by the church as blasphemous.

The placards have been absent, but otherwise there has been a lot of "down with this sort of thing" going on this week. An advocate due to speak in an Edinburgh University debate about political correctness is boycotting the event because an advertising poster featured a drawing of a golliwog (the banner has now been withdrawn). David Baddiel, a comedian, and David Cameron, a comedian of different sorts, are tussling over whether Spurs fans should be allowed to chant "Yid Army". The release of the new Grand Theft Auto video game, made in Dundee, has left some commentators outraged at its scenes of torture and general moral mayhem. And all this before Filth, the adaptation of Irvine Welsh's controversial novel, arrives in cinemas a week today. Stock up on smelling salts, stable those skittery horses: the country is having a political correctness panic once more.

At times like these, the public appears starkly divided between those who are offended, and those who are offended by others taking offence. In reality, there is usually a great mass of don't cares in the middle, but every now and then society is forced to choose a side. The side of the angels would appear to be obvious but it is not always so, as continuing controversies show. Sometimes, a taboo word or symbol long thought to be dead and buried will rise again.

Take the golliwog, for example. Several otherwise intelligent sorts involved in organising debates at Edinburgh University have been taken back to primary school this week over their use of the symbol. The motion to be debated was: "This house believes that political correctness has gone too far". The house had certainly gone too far for Fred Mackintosh, a teaching fellow at Edinburgh University's Centre for Professional Legal Studies.

On seeing the advertising poster complete with golliwog, Mr Mackintosh said that up with this sort of thing he would not put.

A member of the debates committee, who herself had protested about sexist comments at a previous event, tried to explain her position to Mr Mackintosh. An image on a poster was never an endorsement, she wrote, but is "a literal illustration of the consequences of the sides of the debate".

One wonders if she would have felt the same way if a picture from a porn magazine had graced a poster for a debate on feminism. Some things are just too screamingly obvious: the need to steer clear of golliwog symbols is one of them.

Separately, the debates union convener raised a more debatable point. Many consider the golliwog a highly offensive doll, he said, yet there continues to be a portion of society who believes its continual use to be appropriate.

Here, we come closer to the nub of any row over political correctness. Does this seemingly never-ending debate go on because there are still too many shameful tendencies rattling around in our closets that deserved to be dragged out?

Sometimes they are not even hidden. If you are in company this weekend and talk turns to the Edinburgh University row, count how many sightings of golliwogs are cited. You'll be surprised, and depressed. Many will recall the little gift shop or charity fair where one was on display. Chances are you did not ask if the person who made it was prone to putting burning crosses in their front lawn. Chances are you shook the head and moved on.

It takes a brave soul to take a stand. But that is precisely what is happening when people object to the use of certain words, phrases or images.

Far from being "political correctness gone mad" this is civilisation at work. If I may be so politically incorrect as to cite a hymn, thank whatever god you like for those who dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, dare to have it known. It's the Daniels and Daniellas of this world, the ones who challenge prejudice when they see it, who open doors and minds.

Diehard users of the phrase "political correctness gone mad" tend to have led relatively charmed lives. They tend not to have been in fear for their own safety, denied a job or a house because of the colour of their skin or their religion. They have never been shunned because of their sex or sexuality. They do not know what it is to be teased mercilessly at school because of a disability, or condemned to a life on the dole because employers can't see beyond a wheelchair. They are life's self-appointed judges, not the judged.

It is when political correctness is used to shut down debate rather than open it up that some, rightly, become uneasy. If we Taliban this and Taliban that, we are in danger of ending up with a grim, frightening world in which no-one dares to open their mouth for fear of offending anyone. But the offended have a right to be heard, especially if they have direct experience of the words being questioned.

David Baddiel, for instance, being Jewish and cognisant of a time when "Yids out" used to be scrawled on British walls by Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, has an immeasurably stronger case for banning the chant than the prime minister has for not banning it. Allow society to decide.

And it does, eventually, choose the right, decent, and proper side. Those damned for being too damned politically correct for their own good have a funny old habit of being proved right in time. Take Peter Tatchell. Many readers will remember when Mr Tatchell was about as popular with mainstream Britain as Tony Blair is now. Between gay rights protests, his attempt to make a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe, his rage against the apartheid machine and much else, Mr Tatchell used to light Middle Britain's blue touchpaper like few others. Today, he is the voice of sweet reason on Question Time and a respected human rights campaigner. Society caught up with Mr Tatchell and is the better for it.

Despite the liberal agonising that went on in Edinburgh before the poster was withdrawn, the whole "to be PC or not to be PC" question is not that difficult to answer. It merely requires a person to think outside their own bubble of experience and ask themselves how others might feel.

If they cannot in all conscience defend the use of an image - and folks, the jury returned a verdict on that particular one when Alf Garnett was a lad - then they should think again.

Good on Mr Mackintosh for daring to be a Daniel. In one sure move he has shown that the PC debate is not about being po-faced but about progress, about treating others as you would wish to be treated. Up with that sort of thing.

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