If you want to know how unhinged PC has become, look no further than the controversy over sports teams with offensive names.
On both sides of the Atlantic, football teams with archaic names are under attack by self-styled guardians of proper speech and moral purity.
In Britain, the fans of Tottenham Hotspurs, a London-based soccer club, are being chastised for referring to themselves as "Yids." Yid, of course, is a derogatory term for Jew. Why do Spurs fans call themselves Yids? Is it some kind of weird self-abusive anti-Semitism? No, they use the Y-word in the same way some American blacks use the n-word – in order to defuse what was for many years a slur and transform it instead into a badge of identity pride.
This is something that fans of Spurs, which has historically had many Jewish supporters, have been doing for decades. Spurs fans joyously chant "We are the Yid Army!". The magic of this is that it utterly disarms any opposing fan who might have been planning to hurl some anti-Semitic abuse at Spurs – there's no point calling a Spurs fan a Yid when he's already loudly and proudly bellowing out the Y-word to describe himself.
Yet now the Yid Army is under assault by the PC Army, that gaggle of killjoys who cannot permit the existence of anything it finds unusual or offensive.
A coalition of football officials, anti-racism campaigners and commentators is trying to expunge the Y-word from football stadiums. London's Metropolitan Police have told Spurs fans the Y-word is "unacceptable." A fan was arrested at a Spurs game earlier this month and charged with a public order offense for the "crime" of calling himself a Yid. Imagine the police going around to Jay-Z's house and arresting him for calling himself and his friends niggas – that's how crazy this is.
Some context might be useful here: British football fans have of late been subjected to extraordinary levels of speech-policing.
At some stadiums, stewards wear head cameras to capture offensive chatter among fans. Liverpool football club has drawn up an actual list of words you are not allowed to say in its stadium, including everything from "nigger" and "queer" to everyday phrases like "man up" (sexist, apparently.) In Scotland, a new law—the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act—forbids fans from singing sectarian and political songs. The Yids are only the latest victims of the British authorities' war on football fans' traditions.
The Washington Redskins are also being lambasted for using an outdated word. "Redskins" was once commonly used as a pejorative term to describe Native Americans, so it is totally inappropriate for it to be used in the world of football, say the PC police.
This week, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas said the Redskins' name was a "slur." Even President Obama has got stuck in, saying that if he were in charge of Washington Redskins he would "think about changing" the name. There have been legal challenges to the Redskins' name, launched by Native American community leaders, but they've thus far proven unsuccessful.
The use of the name Redskins is different to the tag "Yid Army" in one way: where Spurs fans use the Y-word to refer to themselves, to their club's historic roots in London's Jewish communities, "redskins" is a term that refers to others, in fact to The Other, as Native Americans were seen for many years, particularly by racists.
Some will argue that it is one thing for an informal community of sports fans to ironically use a pejorative term about themselves, but it's another thing for a team to use a term that has traditionally been a slur against people that fall outside of its support base.
Perhaps. But the sport-based uses of the Y-word and the R-word also share something very important in common, which is that neither team, neither Spurs fans in Britain nor Redskins fans in the U.S., uses these terms abusively. There's absolutely no offensive intent. Indeed, these once-shocking words are denuded of their wickedness, emptied of their historic horribleness, when they're innocently uttered by proud modern-day sports fans either to refer to their cultural roots, in the case of the Yids, or just as a straightforward team name that has been in existence since 1933, as with the Redskins.
The Yid and Redskins controversies tell us a lot about the craziness of PC. Both are underpinned by the central conceit of PC: that the "right" of certain groups or individuals not to be offended trumps the freedom of speech of other communities.
But the right not to be offended is not a serious right. The desire to never feel offence is just sensitivity disguised as a right, emotional weakness dolled up as a "freedom from offence," and it is used as a battering ram against real liberties that actually matter—particularly the liberties of speech and association. The war of words against any team or informal community that speaks in a way decreed "inappropriate" by the self-elected guardians of correctness shows how imperious PC can be.
The simple fact is this—neither the name of the Redskins nor the tag Yid Army has any racial intent. On the contrary, when fans holler "Come on you Redskins!" or "We are the Yids!," they are making completely harmless, even positive statements, about themselves and the team they support. But that doesn't matter to the PC brigade, which is now so cut adrift from the real world inhabited by the rest of us that it cares not one jot for the context in which words are spoken.
PC violently wrenches words from their context and imbues them with an extraordinary power to do harm regardless of the meaning behind them. So even the positive use of the word Yid as a term of Jewish empowerment and the totally innocent, sports-based use of the word "redskin" can be interpreted by the overlords of PC as "racial slurs." This is mad. Surely in order to make a racial slur, you need to be a) racist and b) intending to make a slur? Not in the eyes of PC agitators, it seems, for whom context counts for nil.
Indeed, Britain's Football Association has decreed that dodgy words are unacceptable in football "regardless of their context." It was on this basis that, earlier this year, an FA official called Paul Elliott, who is black, was forced to resign for calling another black man a "nigger" in a cellphone text message.
PC's philistine disregard for the context in which things are said takes us back to a medieval attitude to language. It imbues certain words with an innate power to cause harm simply by being uttered. Like the kids in Harry Potter who never say "Voldemort" for fear that evil will befall then, so PC lobbyists tell us we must never say "redskins," "nigga," or "Yid," in any setting whatsoever, because such utterances might pollute minds, cause distress, damage souls—all modern versions of saying "unleash evil."
Once, censorship was primarily concerned with obliterating certain ideas, be it communism, fascism, or whatever. Now it has bigger ambitions: to blacklist not just certain ways of thinking but also certain forms of chatter and banter between friends and teammates. It wants to colonise not just our ideological universes, but our personal lives and friendships, our informal discussions, our very self-identification.