'Political correctness' is now more usually used in a disdainful, irritated way. Yet despite the term's currently lowly reputation, it does serve some use. It can make one think twice before saying things that will upset others (even if they do go ahead and do the upsetting). It can make one think twice before making sweeping statements within debates that are historically loaded with sensitivity and complexity.
Yet too often, political correctness is a jarring and stymieing phenomenon. It's jarring for those who are indiscriminately chastised by others for breaking the political correctness code when they raise a contrarian point of view within a sensitive topic. It's stymieing because too often in can close down discussion and debate.
With the latter, one might wonder if the issue of immigration and multiculturalism had been discussed more openly, then perhaps Ukip might have been nipped in the bud before it gained such momentum. Ukip and Nigel Farage capitalised on those afraid of raising concerns about immigration and those frustrated with the culture of political correctness that surrounded the issue. Among the student body too, political correctness is all too often a way of shutting down discussion before it begins (as I've written about before). Political correctness is frequently used to legitimise a corrosive culture of censoriousness which serves as a means to avoid discussing challenging, sensitive but ultimately important debates. Political correctness can nurture dangerous groupthink, in which a collective self-righteous does not permit any dissent.
We thus need those who are willing to affront political correctness in a way which questions consensus, opens up debates and challenges groupthink. I can think of many who have done this. Whether it's David Aaronovitch or Nick Cohen as commentators questioning the comforting conformities among certain quarters of the left that often nourish political correctness. Whether it's counter-extremist expert Maajid Nawaz confronting political correctness about Islam by re-tweeting the 'Jesus and Mo' cartoon of Jesus and Muhamad (which LSE authorities banned some of the their students from wearing), accompanied by the words "This is not offensive and I'm sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it." Whether it was Christopher Hitchens as a public intellectual and bane of religion, whose inquisitive scope challenged those who sought to ring-fence issues or people from scrutiny (The Missionary Position was Hitchens provocative title for his invective against Mother Theresa).
In response to the latest Jeremy Clarkson fiasco many have sought to defend him because he's not afraid to say it how it is, he is a scourge to political correctness, he winds up the PC brigade. And these are some reasons why he attracts a mass audience- almost one million who have signed a petition saying 'BBC: Bring Back Clarkson'. But should Jeremy Clarkson really be christened the scourge of political correctness?
Taking on political correctness should be saying or doing something that is interesting, intelligent and bold. That is risky and puts you out on a limb against the weight of consensus. It shouldn't be about being a bit of a prick and knowing you'll get away with it because you have mass popular support and generate huge revenue for the BBC. Comparing caravan holidays to concentration camps, as Clarkson has done, is not challenging political correctness. It's just nasty, indifferent to the sensitivities of those who justifiably don't want one of humanity's greatest tragedies to be trivialised. Hearing the untouchable Clarkson call a car "a bit gay" probably won't be of comfort to the much more vulnerable child bullied every day in the playground because of his homosexuality. Clarkson saying he'd have all public sector workers taken outside and executed in front of their families to some may well be funny and to others will not. Either way, it's not taking on political correctness.
The latest Clarkson debacle has been labelled a 'fracas'. There is considerable ambiguity there: what constitutes throwing a punch? Did he really shout at someone for dinner being inadequate? Whatever the precise details, he's committed some sort of misdemeanour, the extent of which is yet to be established. And as with his previous misdemeanours, perhaps he'll be able to rely on getting away with it, helping himself out with some throw away apology. But knowing you'll get away with it is not boldly taking on political correctness. It is instead the act of a coward.
The other defence of Clarkson is he's a unique and special entertainer. For this defence Clarkson's fan base isn't limited to the general public and their petitions: he can rely on the support of public figures too. "We need the Clarksons of this world" cried the TV presenter Kirsty Allsop on Newnight, he is "loved by millions". Similarly David Cameron said that "Because he is a talent and because he does amuse and entertain so many people...I hope this can be sorted out because it's a great programme and he's a great talent". Both Allsop and Cameron so very endearingly told us how various members of their family watch and adore Clarkson and Top Gear.
But why should entertainers be beyond reproach and the taking of responsibility? Why should 'talent' deflect from wrongdoing? It's regularly touted that politicians or bankers shouldn't' be above the law, that they should abide by the same standards of decency and decorum that everyone else does. Why shouldn't the same apply to entertainers? Imagine if a politician had been accused of hitting someone. Imagine the bloodlust, the moralising condemnation from journalists or members of the public on Twitter. I suspect a politician wouldn't have the good fortune of having petition signed by almost a million to help them out. And given how they'd be politically toxic, I suspect they wouldn't be able to enjoy such sympathetic support of politicians or public figures as Clarkson has.
Entertainers must not be ring fenced from inquiry nor should they be subject to infallible idolisation. The Jimmy Savile affair was a prime example of the potentially dangerous effects of a culture that does not question nor scrutinise the talented. Concerns about Savile were raised, but were brushed aside. A culture which worships entertainers means entertainers can use this culture to get away with wrong doing and harming others.
Whatever happens to Clarkson, portraying him as the scourge of politician correctness won't do because being cruel and being rude for the sake of it isn't challenging political correctness. And the entertainment defence won't do either. Jeremy Clarkson is indeed a fantastic entertainer, but that doesn't mean he shouldn't be held responsible for his actions, nor be beyond reproach.