Monday, 1 September 2014

Taxi Driver

The media coverage of the Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham has focused on political correctness ("a vile, perverted ideology which is wrecking our society and ruining the lives of the innocent"), and the related evils of anti-racism (a "dogma") and multiculturalism ("we no longer have a universal moral code or national identity, and the consequences can be seen all around us, whether in the rise of home-grown Islamic extremism or in the failure of too many migrant groups to learn even basic English"). The religious flavour of this language, and the apocalyptic image of social breakdown, cannot distract from the all-too-obvious bigotry. The salient fact for most commentators is that the perpetrators were Pakistani and the victims white.

Some, such as Allison Pearson, have tried to obscure this by paying lip-service to other aspects: "Powerless white working-class girls were caught between a hateful, imported culture of vicious misogyny on the one hand, and on the other a culture of chauvinism among the police, who regarded them as worthless slags" (class, immigration, sexism, bingo!). Even professional liberals, like Yasmin Alibhai Brown, have found themselves talking nonsense: "White experts and officers have for too long been reluctant to confront serious offences committed by black and Asian people" (which presumably explains the pitifully small number of them in prison).

That levels of misogyny vary between different communities is hardly a surprise, nor that it should be more prevalent in a conservative community like British Pakistanis. People in Clacton are more bigoted than people in London, essentially because the big city attracts the unconventional and progressive, and because proximity and variety encourages tolerance. This does not mean that Clacton has "questions to answer", any more than the Pakistani community has. Similarly, that the police belittle crimes against women and the poor is hardly news. The police service is a conservative institution and the structural bias of the legal system means it privileges crimes against property and social order.

Dan Hodges, who passes as a "lefty" in the eyes of Daily Telegraph readers, says "we cannot ignore that race played a part in these crimes", however he never gets round to explaining the part that race played. This is because his reasoning can only lead to either crude racism (Pakistanis have a greater propensity to abuse) or obvious nonsense (the terrified police were intimidated by the all-powerful Pakistani community). As a consequence, his rant explodes under the pressure of its own frustration in a fit of hyperbole: "A major British town was turned into a rape camp". Really?

Organised crime depends on networks of influence and opportunity. It is inescapably social, which means the community is inevitably compromised, if only through a desire to "mind its own business". That said, the dominant factors are usually material and reflect circumstance. A salient yet widely-ignored feature of the Rotherham case (like Rochdale before it) is the involvement of minicabs (the Jay report notes: "One of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being directly linked to children who were abused"). The significance of ethnicity is that Pakistanis are disproportionately represented in this employment sector (providing greater opportunity and scope for collusion), not that Pakistanis are more likely to be sex abusers due to arranged marriages or Islam.

For the right, political correctness is simply "cultural Marxism", which they source to the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci and the "correct party line" tradition of Communism. However, though the left has undoubtedly played its part, modern "PC" is largely an invention of reactionaries appalled at the advance of civil rights in the US in the 60s and the emergence of identity politics in the UK and elsewhere in the 70s. From the early 80s it was routinely attributed to the "loony left", famously in the case of the GLC and often on the basis of nothing more than myth (Baa Baa White Sheep etc). This worked well enough during the Thatcher era, but it gradually lost its credibility after the rise of New Labour (according to Google Ngram, the phrase "loony left" peaked in 1995).

Thereafter the focus shifted from "loony" to "craven", with an emphasis on the assumed cowardice of local government and public corporations in "standing up" to the greedy and arrogant demands of immigrants and special interest groups (mad mullahs gradually took over the role previously played by lippy rastas and boiler-suited lesbians). For Daniel Hannan it is always the happy time of Thatcherism ("Labour's rotten boroughs ... remain stuck in the early Eighties"). Even self-styled "liberal lefties" like Denis McShane appear to have internalised this narrative, excusing their wilful blindness as the result of brainwashing by The Guardian. Though PC is now assumed to infect all areas of public behaviour, from hands-tied police to conniving councillors, it remains at heart a matter of language: what words are permissible. The deployment of the phrase "Pakistani heritage" in the context of Rotherham clearly hints at a desire to use blunter terms.

Contrary to the myth of a communist conspiracy, political correctness originates in the 18th century idea of politeness (politesse). Like reason, the sublime and the sentimental, this was a key concept of the Enlightenment, amplified through the broader cultural norms of civility and manners. Whereas previous styles of language were deployed as class and status identifiers (courtly love, Renaissance classicism, French imports), now "right language" was seen to express "right behaviour" and "right thinking" and thus to be an ethical aspiration for all rather than merely a badge of membership for the few. This built on the earlier development of "plain speech" through the translation of the Bible, which was a rejection of "fancy" (and implicitly Catholic) aristocratic forms as much as the vulgar demotic.

Politeness meant moderating language. The original Spectator talked of its mission to "enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality". This points up the impeccably bourgeois credentials of the idea that society could be improved by improving its speech. This would in turn lead to the 19th century belief that language is the repository of national spirit (notably among German Romantics) and thus a common endeavour. While this encouraged some to see language as a plastic medium for moulding a national revolution, it also suggested that language itself was a site of political struggle. What was common to both left and right was the Enlightenment idea that language was universal within the polity, which fed the nineteenth century mania for standardised vocabulary, grammatical rectitude and an antipathy towards dialect and "backward" tongues.

In the 20th century, the "linguistic turn" in philosophy and the emergence of structuralism led to the realisation that the control of language was a means to control society, which is where Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory came in. This reached its logical conclusion in Orwell's 1984 with Newspeak. The negative implications of this were an important contribution to the postwar enthusiasm for recovering marginalised languages (Gaelic, Welsh etc) in the 50s and 60s and the new-found vigour of dialect (notably in poetry) during the 60s and 70s. While these developments were often seen as progressive by the left because of their anticolonial and autonomist credentials, they were actually conservative.

The purpose of this trot through the history of political correctness is not just to point out that it has been employed for conservative and reactionary ends as much as progressive ones, but to note that control is central to its practice: it is people in positions of power that promote politically correct language and thinking. The rightwing critique of PC depends on the belief that Marxists and craven fellow-travellers are in control of major cultural institutions, such as the BBC, as well as local government and the bits of education still in state hands. In reality, the local government left (which was never extensive or entrenched) was systematically disempowered after 1979, education was homogenised through the national curriculum and changes to university funding, and the arts and media were infected by managerialism and neoliberal deference. If PC has grown over the last 35 years, it isn't down to the tireless work of Marxist academics or gay social workers.

But this doesn't mean that political correctness is simply a fabrication. It does exist and it exists for a reason. The perp was big business, which recognised as early as the 1960s that discriminating against ethnic minorities, women and gays was counter-productive, mainly because it limited the pool of talent for recruitment and alienated potential customers (Gary Becker's The Economics of Discrimination was the key validation of this change in thinking). This shift led to business jargon absorbing notions such as "diversity" and "equal opportunities" at the same time as it expanded under the dual impact of modern management theory and the spillover of the terminology of financial engineering.

The incursion of business jargon into the public sector after 1979 was mainly driven through privatisation and outsourcing, but even where these didn't occur, public sector managers were under pressure from central government (advised by consultancies) to adopt private sector practices and vocabulary. Left to its own devices, local government (as institutionally conservative as the police) would probably still be as cautious in embracing cultural sensitivity as it was in the 1970s (it is worth remembering that the "loony left" was largely a generational reaction to a fossilised and often intolerant Labourism). As the Jay report makes clear, Rotherham Council was not an enthusiastic champion of multiculturalism, rather it saw the Pakistani community as a problem to be avoided.

The focus on political correctness by the rightwing media is a psychological projection: attributing to their opponents (the nebulous left) their own desire for social engineering, i.e. the creation of the "universal moral code" and "national identity" beloved of The Daily Mail. The problem for the right is that capitalism works to undermine both of these because its is motivated primarily by profit. That is why we have Internet porn and offshoring. As Adam Smith put it, "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest".

The lesson of Rotherham is that too many people did not see it as being in their interest to enquire into the sexual exploitation of children in local authority care, or to pursue the ample evidence of an organised criminal network centred on minicab firms. The best way to prevent a repetition is not to sack individual local authority workers or members of the police years after the event, or to demand that the Pakistani community explains its "failure", but to make it in the interest of the relevant authorities to give a shit.


  1. What are the actionable policy prescriptions that follow from this analysis? How do you make people give a shit? More carrot and stick perhaps, greater regulation for mini cab drivers, subsidising investigative reporters on the local press for a more effective fourth estate.

  2. You make people give a shit by making it their job, so they have both a material incentive (to get paid) and an institutional presumption that teenage girls with chaotic lives are potential victims rather than potential criminals.

    Historically, CSE has been under-resourced and passed like a hot potato between police and social services. Funding has been found to address middle-class fears - thus CEOP is biased towards online grooming, which doesn't respect class boundaries - but years of cuts have meant that offline grooming, outside of institutional abuse in schools and care homes, is often ignored.

    Getting CEOP (or a new agency) to focus more on offline abuse, particualrly in the night-time economy, instead of pandering to politicians keen to use child porn as a means of justifying state surveillance, would help.