Publish on the Net and you may be damned

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Dr Terence Kealey

Headteachers who write their school's newsletter or post a blog should beware. Writing as someone who has been burned, let me confirm that there are no obscure publications any more: there are only global publications that happen to be sourced in a particular geographical location.

Should one of those publications produce something of interest, it can go viral in hours, to be scoured by masses of people, not all of whom will necessarily be sympathetic.

If your school newsletter is online, your potential readership is more than two billion.

When you write online you revert to a pre-1688 world, a time when we had only the rule of men and kings ruled capriciously. But in 1688 the English embraced the Glorious Revolution, which instituted the rule of law.

Being the protector of our freedoms, the rule of law is one of humanity's great achievements, but it is no guide to writing safely.

The rule of law says that ordinary people - namely, people in private life - may write anything as long as it is not actually illegal. But the person who writes a school newsletter is not an ordinary person: he or she occupies an official position, so he or she is still subject to the rule of men, which we now call political correctness.

The power of political correctness was bemoaned in a recent issue of The Spectator, in which Paul Johnson reviewed Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity: the First Three Thousand Years.

In his review, Johnson lamented that MacCulloch is "terrified of offending powerful people, especially powerful groups who know how to use their muscle. Of course dons, especially Oxford ones, are so heavily supervised now in what and how they teach that professors cannot be too careful."

Paul Johnson may sneer, but he is merely a private person who as a journalist can be counted alongside comedians as a licensed jester. But if MacCulloch were to offend the Nestorian community, let's say, or disparage predestination, the blogosphere would soon turn blue under the weight of the outrage.

The mass media would then be swift to report it - the outrage itself being the story - and MacCulloch would find himself condemned globally as a schismatic and heretic. It would not be long before his vice-chancellor was asking difficult questions.

The blogosphere has become the world's unacknowledged legislature. Anonymous yet ubiquitous, it empowers all people: an Iranian policeman can no longer shoot innocents without his actions being immediately reported.

And because the web is the ultimate in democracy, it privileges above all else the idea that people's beliefs, merely by being deeply held, merit respect. That is a definition of democracy.

The myth of political correctness is that it protects the weak. Nonsense. Cows, chickens, sheep and pigs are weak, but political correctness ignores the likes of them. The truth about political correctness is that, like any democratic caucus, it kowtows to the power of groups.

And all groups believe themselves to be victims. That is a universal belief embedded in our evolutionary past.

Indeed, as a middle-class man holding a position of responsibility I know it is also true of my own group: we bear the greatest tax burden in society yet we receive the fewest benefits.

Political correctness demands, therefore, that every group - by virtue of its power to extract revenge, should you fail to acknowledge it - be recognised as victimised, in consequence of which its members' feelings must be privileged.

This has an important stylistic consequence for the person penning that term's school newsletter, which is that they should at all costs avoid humour, irony or satire. Those tropes play on words, often using them in one way while expecting the reader to interpret them in another.

But perhaps you are not that good at humour, irony or satire or perhaps your expectations of the reader may not be fulfilled. Either way you may offend a group. Don't risk it. Play it straight.

Nor should you flout received wisdom, because that too is moulded by the feelings of groups. To note (I am using this only as an example - it does not reflect my own views) that Chile is relatively prosperous today, and that, in consequence, General Pinochet might perhaps have had his merits, would offend certain constituencies, so - unless you are a professor of politics - don't go there.

And even if you are and you do, be Professor MacCulloch-like in your caution.

Conservatives lament that the world is thus impoverished, but just as hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, so political correctness is the price that public life pays to dotcommunism.

Pay it.

  • Dr Terence Kealey, Vice-chancellor, Buckingham University.

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