PC or not PC?

Rumours of a backlash against political correctness in social work have been greatly exaggerated.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

Has there been a backlash against political correctness? In Britain, in the minds of many, PC has for years been synonymous with social workers. From the mid- to late 1980s onwards, social work theory and practice began to insist that students and practitioners demonstrate their commitment and ability to work in an ‘anti-discriminatory’ and ‘anti-oppressive’ way.

This move from an ‘everybody is the same’ approach to one that recognised the unequal nature of British society became hugely influential within social work training. It culminated in the statement by the Central Council for Education and Training of Social Workers (CCETSW) in 1991, that ‘racism is endemic in the values, attitudes and structures of British society including that of social services and social work education’ (1). Various other issues around gender (sexism), disability (disablism), sexuality (heterosexism) and age (ageism) came to be seen as hitherto hidden areas of oppression that needed some social work intervention.

Social work theory, increasingly influenced by postmodern and poststructural theories of difference and of the power of language, began to concentrate on how dominant ideologies influenced people’s thoughts and actions. Mirroring the demise of the political left, social work’s move from a macro to a micro critique of social power meant that more and more attention was being paid to interpersonal relations.

For radicals who had become disillusioned with the prospect of change in a wider political sense, the workplace provided an opportunity to continue their political mission and ease the radical conscience. Publications detailed the way in which people/social workers were acting in a racist or sexist manner – some deliberately so, others without being aware of it. Gradually there was a move away from seeing the state as problematic to seeing interpersonal relations as the site and source of conflict.

The personal was very much political, and being ‘anti-oppressive’ had become a 24/7 job. You were either anti-oppressive or oppressive. According to Lena Dominelli, a professor of social work and author of Anti-Racist Social Work, Feminist Social Work and Anti-Oppressive Social Work Theory and Practice, any social worker who overhears members of the public voicing offensive remarks, whether of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature, has a duty to confront them. And she argued that social workers should have the back up of their employers in carrying out this anti-oppressive work (2). Presumably, if the public still didn’t toe the line then the police could be called to assist the social workers further.

Many leading social work academics now argue that there has been a ‘backlash’ against these developments, with local councils and social workers being accused of spouting ‘political correctness’. According to Audrey Mullender, professor of social work at the University of Warwick, ‘political correctness’ is ‘the most damaging phrase in the English language’ and ‘has been employed constantly, in a slick backlash reaction’ against social work’s mission to promote equality (3). Lena Dominelli claims that anti-oppressive social work was deemed ‘a politically subversive operation’ that threatened the status quo, and was thus attacked by those opposed to social change (4).

It is true that the tabloid press of the late 1980s early 90s delighted in ridiculing the policies and practices of left-wing councils, including social work departments. It is also true that in 1993 Virginia Bottomley, then Conservative secretary of state for health, accused social work of being preoccupied with ‘isms’. Such criticisms did have an effect on policy; also in 1993, Jeffrey Greenwood was appointed as chair of CCETSW, and swiftly declared his commitment to equal opportunities and to ridding social work training of ‘politically correct nonsense’ (5).

But the concept of a ‘backlash’ is problematic. The extent of the backlash is exaggerated. Tabloid sensationalism aside, more reasoned intellectual arguments against developments in social work have been relatively rare. Invariably, it is the same articles by a small band of critics that are cited as representing the backlash – including journalists Melanie Phillips and Brian Appleyard, and social work academics Martin Davies and Robert Pinker (6). For all the changes at CCETSW, its principles continued to be part of social work training programmes.

While anti-racists and feminists may be right to point out that the term political correctness was used by the right as a means of closing down debate or avoiding having to justify opinions or practices, the term backlash plays the same role for the left. Criticism is dismissed as either part of the ‘new right backlash’ or as a result of inherent racism or sexism. It is rare for the criticisms actually to be addressed – especially the charge that new forms of social work are illiberal and intolerant, in imposing speech codes or increasingly intruding in the private realm.

Indeed, issues of academic independence and freedom of speech have routinely been dismissed by social work academics as liberal ideas that are rooted in Western values of freedom, tolerance and individualism. Defending freedom of speech and academic independence became equated with upholding Western racism (7).

Whether the term used is ‘PC’ or ‘backlash’, the statement being made is the same: ‘I no longer need to justify myself to you, as you are part of the a) loony left or b) racist/sexist right’ (delete as appropriate, depending on which part of your argument you are no longer willing to debate).

Most importantly, talk of a PC backlash overlooks how these ‘radical’ theories and practices are now embraced by most sections of the British establishment. It is not only the social work profession that talks about endemic, institutional or unwitting racism – the police and judiciary are just as likely to use such language. However, as Mick Hume has argued on spiked, the meaning of ‘institutional racism’ as espoused in the Macpherson report into the murder of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence, is a long way from its original meaning. Today, ‘institutional racism’ refers to the actions or thoughts of individual or groups of police officers, rather than to the broader role of the police (8).

For all its talk of empowerment, anti-oppressive theory betrays contempt for the masses, whose behaviour and thoughts do not match current middle-class ideals. Its conflation of words and action, public and private, political and personal in social work theory has provided the authorities with ever increasing justification for intruding in people’s lives. If this is ‘politically subversive’ then politics truly has lost its meaning.

Read on:

Registering distrust, by Ken McLaughlin

Stressing vulnerability, by Ken McLaughlin

(1) Rules and Requirements for the Diploma in Social Work (Paper 30) 2nd edition, CCETSW(Central Council for Education and Training of Social Workers) London 1991: CCETSW

(2) Anti-Oppressive Social Work Theory and Practice, L Dominelli, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002

(3) ‘Foreword’, A Mullender, to N Thompson, Promoting Equality: Challenging Discrimination and Oppression, Hampshire: Palgrave 2003

(4) L Dominelli, Anti-Oppressive Social Work Theory and practice, Hampshire: Palgrave 2002

(5) Quoted in Independent, 28 August 1993

(6) ‘Illiberal Liberalism’, M Phillips in The War of the Words: The Political Correctness Debate, S Dunant, London: Virago 1994; ‘Why Paint so Black a Picture?’, B Appleyard, Independent, 4 August 1993; The Essential Social Worker, M Davies, Aldershot: Gower 1985; ‘A Lethal Kind of Looniness’, Times Higher Educational Supplement, R Pinker, 10 September 1993

(7) See ‘Anti-racist Social Work Education: (7) Improving Practice Teaching and Learning: A Training Pack’, B Humphries et al, London: CCETSW 1993

(8) See The Phoney Moral Crusade Against Racism, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today