UNITED STATES—Many moons ago, there were some pretty hard and fast rules in journalism about what was and what was not fit to print (or talk about or show on radio and TV). By today’s standards, the idea that saying “bastard” or “booger” on the air would get you fired seems pretty ludicrous. And it was ludicrous and wrong. We have made some pretty good improvements since those “golden years.” 

However, today, we have our own rules and they are just as unjust, just as irrational and just as ludicrous as those absurd rules from the 1950’s. Suzanne Moore wrote an article recently in a respected newspaper in England that included a comment that many transsexual people found offensive. She wrote “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” Some of the transsexual people were apparently also following Ms. Moore on twitter and proceeded to jam her twitter feed with loud and often profane objections. Initially, Ms. Moore bantered back, in witty repartee, initially, then with a grim determination to justify her writing, and finally, closing her twitter account.

Her friend, Julie Burchill, sprang to her defense in print, and on twitter. She wrote a scathing article of her own that lambasted the outrage of the offended transsexuals (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tobyyoung/100198116/here-is-julie-burchills-censored-observer-article/) and criticized the criticizers most severely. If the first article prompted outrage, the defense article resulted in a firestorm of outrage and consternation. Her article was removed from publication. Her newspaper has been picketed and loud voices are calling for her to be sacked. When Guardian columnist Julie Bindel criticized the critics, she began receiving insults and death threats.

People wrote the government, the media, and the authors, voicing their outrage at the horrific insults and terrific harm caused by Ms. Burchill. Well, I haven’t seen so much impassioned harangue since some ultra-conservative ayatollah called (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpa8oswmpWY) for the extradition and execution of a young man for allegedly questioning (insulting) the teachings of Islam.

We are all familiar with these clowns. Sometimes we laugh at them. Sometimes we oppose appeasing them, but we always know that their extreme reactions are reactionary, inappropriate, out of proportion and dangerous.

Whatever happened to the good old concept of “sticks and stones?”  OK, so you are offended (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqPcjm-X5GQ). After initially refusing to apologize, Suzanne has published a rather exhaustive apology, which may satisfy many (though not all) of those who took offense at her initial comment. I do not think responsible journalism should be about slandering people, being hurtful, being rude, or being crude. However, journalists have a responsibility to provoke discussion, to stimulate controversy and honest debate. There are different points of view and they all should have an equal right to be heard. Editors generally walk a fine line between what is controversial (what sells), what is true, and what is actionable.

This whole affair evidences how narrow the bounds of discussion have become. This is the effect of polarization and extremism. The more extreme the opposing viewpoints, the narrower the boundaries of acceptable discourse are drawn. It becomes impossible to even question, politely, the accuracy of facts or the correctness of conclusions. The business of reporting about topical events and issues becomes a cavalcade of affirming accolades that clarify nothing, illuminate nothing, describe nothing and mean nothing.

This is at the heart of what is wrong with political correctness. It is an artificial barrier erected to prevent open inquiry and discussion of important issues. It gives equal shelter to the incontrovertible truth and the specious conjecture. It invalidates the whole process of debate and engenders apathy in thinking minds. This is one of its principal purposes, I suspect. On the one hand, it is very effective for those in power to fragment dissent into little warring constituencies of natural allies and on the other hand to drive most of the dangerous intelligentsia into apathy and materialism.

Suzanne Moore’s original article was making the point that squabbles over little details need to be abandoned for big battles. She urged people to concentrate on real, important issues like climate change, the destruction of liberal democracy and the systematic dismantling of the social safety net, and the production economy upon which it is ultimately based.

The fact that this argument has been completely swept from the map of discussion is sadly typical of PC disputes.  We need to grow up and stop wearing our hearts on our sleeves. We need to figure out what is really important and fail to be distracted from that by imaginary controversies.

By Henry Meyerding