A recent incident made me think of PC or Political Correctness creating a public awareness of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behaviour. It’s a controversial concept and you can certainly have too much of it. In Britain at this time of year there are always people who are so scrupulous about not offending the sentiments of members of minority religious communities that they campaign against Christmas lights and even Christmas cards. A ridiculous example, in my view, of PC.
Nevertheless I have seen the spread of generally accepted views of what constitute acceptable behaviour bring about important social changes in Britain. The chauvinist approach many British men, including me, had to women when I was young is for instance no longer PC. Ethnic jokes hurtful to minorities have been declared PI, Politically Incorrect.
The incident that made me reflect on PC occurred on Delhi’s Lodhi road. Waiting at a traffic light I saw a young man riding pillion on a scooter finish a bottle of water and toss it casually on to the roadside. So much for the impact of the Swachch Bharat campaign, I thought. Ceremonial sweeping won’t make Bharat clean unless the Swachch Bharat campaign persuades Indians that dropping litter or dumping garbage is unacceptable conduct.
In spite of the national reverence for Mahatma Gandhi it would appear there is still a need for PC to make it more unacceptable to practise untouchability. A recent survey by the National Council of Applied Economic Research has found that more than a quarter of the population do not regard untouchability as socially unacceptable and still practise it. For instance, it is still apparently quite common to disallow a Dalit into the family kitchen.
Maybe there is also a need for more PC in the way minorities are talked about. Earlier this year a young woman working for an international organisation came to see me. The first question she asked was, “How do you like living here?” I replied, “Very much, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” She shot back with shock and no hint of shame, “But what about all these Muslims?” Surely she should have felt it was not PC to speak in such a manner.
Last year there were more accidents in India than anywhere else in the world and the WHO said half of the victims were among the most vulnerable travellers in the jungle of Indian roads — motor-cyclists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Yet there seems to be no awareness that bad driving is socially unacceptable.
One of the causes of the tragedies enacted on India’s roads is that it’s not considered politically incorrect to flout the law. Does that perhaps also apply in other areas of life? It is after all often said, only half in jest, that in India laws are made to be broken.
The revenue authorities have come to realise that a powerful way to combat tax evasion is to seek public support for paying taxes, to make it PI not to pay them. One of their recent advertisements has the boxing champion Mary Kom saying “you have the power to make India a powerful country by paying your taxes on time”. But at the same time the tax authorities don’t think it is PI to break their own laws by failing to pay refunds when they are failing to reach their collection targets by legal means.
It would be foolish to suggest, for instance, that Political Correctness alone would create a Swachch India. But it could go a long way to help if Indians who dropped litter were made to feel ashamed. PC can also be taken too far, and make the concept ridiculous. PC does not mean allowing organisations with special interests, particularly religious organisations, the right to impose their views on a wider public.
When those self-styled moralists take the law into their own hands — burning books, threatening artists, attacking bars, and harassing young couples — they should be punished. Sadly all too often they are not — another example of the government seeing it as PC to disobey its own laws.
The views expressed by the author are personal