Wednesday, 27 August 2014

When is political correctness not political correctness?

The now universally pejorative term "politically correct" has reared its head again in the discussion of the appalling Rotherham child abuse scandal. The term is nowhere used in the report by Professor Alexis Jay that exposes the full extent of the tragedy but that has not stopped commentators from declaring that political correctness was what was to blame for the abuse being allowed to go unchecked for so long.

The narrative is clear: almost all of the abusers were of Pakistani heritage, this fact being repeatedly reported by abuse victims, and the police, social services, (Labour) councillors and other public officials consistently refused to acknowledge that fact for fear of appearing racist. So abusers were left unchallenged and the girls' pleas for help ignored, purely as a result of stultifying political correctness.

This is an appalling charge, and the danger is of course that it appears to call into question the belief system that underpins any positive interpretation of the term "political correctness": that it is unacceptable in today's society to make judgments purely on the basis of factors such as race. If political correctness can lead to the turning of a blind eye while 1400 children are being abused then we are better off without it, aren't we?

The term is an interesting one, coined apparently in the mid 20th Century by serious-minded communists and socialists to describe the acceptability or otherwise of any thought or utterance within their particular political belief system. However it quickly proved a term and a way of thinking that was easy to parody and ridicule. Hardly surprising, given the etymology. "Correct", from the Latin corrigere (to set to a rule) implies a certain rigidity and absolutism. Politics on the other hand is the art of the possible. The connotations of the two words are poles apart.

So political correctness came to sum up a certain blind rigidity of thought amongst those over-influenced by some particular political ideology. And slowly its meaning began to spread, until it now encompasses anyone who puts any sort of ideology (political or otherwise) above what the critical observer regards as common sense.

So was political correctness in these terms what lay behind the repeated failure by various Rotherham officials to act on allegations of child abuse? The Sun's leader column asks when left wing politicians and the police are going to place child safety over political correctness, and bizarre as it may seem, the consensus seems to be that it was an unwillingness to appear racist that prevented the police from intervening earlier.

Professor Jay's report certainly identifies "collective failures of political and officer leadership" that she describes as "blatant." She talks of reports into allegations of abuse being suppressed and ignored and of no action being taken. She states that "Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated" and says that the Council leader's 2013 apology "should have been made years earlier, and the issue given the political leadership it needed."

Yet on the specific issue of the perpetrators' Pakistani heritage and its importance in how the situation was dealt with her criticisms do not perhaps make the case against "political correctness" quite as strongly as commentators appear to suggest. In her executive summary the only comment on this subject is this: "Several staff described their nervousness about identifying the ethnic origins of perpetrators for fear of being thought racist; others remembered clear direction from their managers not to do so."

This is a serious point, but it is not her first comment on the issue of the ethnicity of the abusers. Her primary criticism is that "throughout the entire period, councillors did not engage directly with the Pakistani-heritage community to discuss how best they could jointly address the issue." In what sense could an unwillingness to discuss crucially important issues with members of a non-white ethnic group be regarded as political correctness?

The large majority of Professor Jay's criticisms though are on another issue entirely, and this is what really calls into question the interpretation of her report as a condemnation of political correctness. She says that "the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers"; that "Police gave no priority to CSE [Child Sexual Exploitation], regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime"; and that "Some at a senior level in the Police and children's social care continued to think the extent of the problem, as described by youth workers, was exaggerated, and seemed intent on reducing the official numbers of children categorised as CSE."

This speaks of a systemic failure at senior level to respond seriously to concerns that were being relayed to them by social workers who "appeared to be overwhelmed by the numbers involved" and were "acutely understaffed and over stretched, struggling to cope with demand." There was clearly a fear that there was a can of worms here which, once opened, would lead to even more overwhelming pressures, and "Some councillors ... hoped [the problem] would go away."

The key issue though was the nature of the children who were being exploited. Professor Jay's report contains this damningly concise summary: "The majority of children whose files we read had multiple reported missing episodes. Addiction and mental health emerged as common themes in the files. Almost 50% of children who were sexually exploited or at risk had misused alcohol or other substances ... and two thirds had emotional health difficulties. There were issues of parental addiction in 20% of cases and parental mental health issues in over a third of cases."

Put this picture of the children involved against the "contempt" of the police and other agencies and the view at senior level that the problem was "exaggerated" and you get to the real nub of the issue. The girls were not believed and their stories not taken seriously because they were just not the kind of children whose concerns one ever takes seriously. They were runaways, delinquents and troublemakers and the daughters of drug addicts. One can almost hear the contempt in the voices of "those at senior level" when describing such people.

There is an interesting twist here. Many of Rotherham's councillors are of Pakistani heritage and, one imagines, successfully middle class too. Perhaps more than most these would be the people who would look down their noses at low-class trash like the girls described here. They may not actively have believed that such people deserve what they get, but from the security of their stable, affluent and well-regarded family lives they would be less than inclined to believe everything such girls said.

So if anything it was a failure in political correctness rather than its over-enthusiastic implementation that let these girls down. The victims of this abuse were ignored and their testimony was not believed because, primarily, of their social class. And that, far more than the unwillingness of some staff to confront the issue of race, was the enormous failing here.

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