Three weeks ago, it was announced that the thirteenth incarnation (or, to use the official term, ‘regeneration’) of the Doctor – the protagonist of the legendary BBC science fiction show Doctor Who – will be portrayed by Jodie Whittaker. As much as one would have hoped this casting news to engender no special media attention aside from the usual buzz that the announcement of a new Doctor brings along, it of course did. Popular and serious newspapers alike, not to mention the countless inhabitants of the opulent blogosphere, tuned in to discuss two questions: did the BBC make a legitimate choice in casting a Doctor who, in contrast to her twelve predecessors, is in possession of a uterus? And is Britain ready to welcome such a Doctor?

Both questions have been answered primarily positively in official publications, where it has been pointed out that change has always been an essential feature of Doctor Who – the protagonist’s ability to change physical appearance when mortally wounded makes his/her change of gender less bizarre than might be thought – and that it is about time that British girls can now also play the hero in playground re-enactments, instead of being confined to the role of the Doctor’s eternally female ‘companions’. But as legitimate as these opinions of course are, they do little to alleviate the ire of a substantial minority of fans who complain on social media that the show has been ‘ruined’ or ‘killed’. As more often, the gap between progressive opinion makers and conservative social media users is striking.

It is difficult to discover the exact reasons for this disappointment, because the primary sources are statements on social media which usually do not contain a comprehensive argumentative structure. But one complaint that resonates again and again is that the BBC, in casting Jodie Whittaker, has made a decision based on political correctness. Take, for instance, the following comments:

Doctor Who is my favorite TV show of all time. It has been since I began watching in 2010. Now it is ruined. The Doctor is a male. He will always be a male. This is a stupid PR/PC [public relations / political correctness] stunt to appease to the feminists. […] This woman isn’t the doctor, nor will she ever be. She is simply an attempt by BBC to become more “Politically Correct”. This is going to change the show in a way that will ruin it rather than make it better. Thank you, BCC, for ruining my favorite show by letting the PR team into the loop.

– ‘Ultra Nerd’ (on Youtube)

I doubt I’ll bother to watch this now the character has morphed out of all recognition. The only surprise is that they picked a white woman to play the role, with the BBC’s constant determination to ram their PC, ‘inclusive’ agenda down our throats.

– ‘dexie’ (on the website of the Daily Mail)

The BBC continues to forge its program of political indoctrination on the masses.

Political Correctness – an indoctrination program of three main political themes to which the public will eventually subscribe to. They are – not to challenge the political and social advancement of uninvited ethnic minorities in Britain, ‘equality’ for homosexuals on all levels, and in at a poor third – an occasional dose of feminism.

– James Edwards (on the website of The Telegraph)

Comments like these can be found under almost every article or video announcing or discussing the casting news. Since the sentiment is apparently shared by such a substantial minority, it would be interesting to look deeper into its sources. Unfortunately, most comments do not offer much argument over and above the foregoing – once the words ‘political correctness’ have been spoken, it seems, the deplorability of the situation is supposed to be self-evident.

Except that it isn’t. ‘Political correctness’ is a term that is often used but seldom defined. Taking the two words of which it consists at face value, a person is politically correct when saying or doing something that is in line with a dominant political discourse. The implication, of course, is that this dominant discourse is mistaken. So there is a strong factor of disingenuousness in political correctness: its motives derive from the self-centred desire to be approved by the dominant political factions (the ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’) and not from nobler desires such as speaking the truth (in political discussion) or maintaining artistic integrity (in art).

In practice, of course, the term has taken on a much more specific meaning – that of disproportionately benefiting or promoting minorities in a way that undermines either cultural institutions or society at large. But still the idea of disingenuousness, or even betrayal, dominates the term’s connotation. The many occasions on which right-wing politicians have blamed political correctness for myriad social problems that western societies face today – terrorism, crime, and unemployment, just to name a few – all show a similar narrative: by refusing to talk about negative impacts of certain minority groups, the political elite has willingly closed its eyes to important social problems and thereby sold out its own electorate.

Not only that, political correctness is also associated with the silencing of voices trying to mend this neglect of social problems. In an interesting Guardian article[1], Moira Weigel traces back the roots of today’s discourse of political correctness to the 1990s, when right-wing authors criticised what they perceived as an atmosphere of intellectual intolerance existing in American universities. According to these authors, the American academic climate was such that voices critical of multiculturalism were incapacitated through censorship and intimidation, and they compared this situation to historical instances of thought control such as Stalinism or McCarthyism.

This narrative of oppression and intolerance has over the past two decades been transferred from the debate about academia to debates about almost all political and cultural institutions. As a result, those who agitate against political correctness often see themselves as underdogs protesting against an oppressive elite. This is exactly the sentiment that speaks from above comments. The BBC, as a public institution, is trying to ‘ram their agenda down our throats’ or even ‘indoctrinate’ the British public. It is, in other words, enforcing a cultural policy that goes against the best interests of the people it claims to serve. Resistance against this institutional oppression is not only right; it is a small-scale deed of heroism.

The problem with this narrative is that it is exceedingly vague. How exactly does the casting of a female Doctor oppress people? By depraving British boys of heroic role models? But, by any account, male heroes have had, and still have, quite their share in popular culture. By putting politics ahead of artistic integrity? But, since it has been well established within the show that the Doctor can become an entirely different person by ‘regenerating’, there are no artistic reasons that forbid a male-to-female regeneration. By forcing upon people the ridiculous idea that women can be heroes? Perhaps this last suggestion makes a caricature out of the indignation. Perhaps there are good arguments against a female Doctor that I cannot think of, but just the cry of political correctness (or feminism) does not show me, or anyone, what these reasons are. Any attempts to clarify the arguments of the angry Doctor Who fans gets lost in the fog that resides behind the words ‘political correctness’.

In absence of any argumentative clarity, one cannot help but get the feeling that by accusing the BBC of ‘political correctness’, complainers turn the tables on what is actually an emancipatory move. As long as the same cv is judged less impressive when headed by a female name, only a fraction of CEOs and professors is female, and the Daily Mail finds it relevant to accompany its story on Jodie Whitaker’s casting with nude photos from an unrelated previous role, women still occupy a disadvantaged position in western countries. How, in such social circumstances, can the addition of a heroic female role model be oppressive, as the connotation of the words ‘political correctness’ suggests? How can social conservatives ever be the victims of feminists?

The paradox has been noted before: accusing opponents of ‘political correctness’ – and therefore, by implication, of silencing other opinions – may serve to silence minorities. None of this is to say that there can be no political intolerance towards conservatives. In recent years, there have been incidents in American universities that have affected the capacity of controversial thinkers to engage in open debate, such as the firing of academics against whom complaints had been filed by students who felt ‘offended’. This of course is worrying. But it is also a rather rare type of occurrence, very different from most situations the words ‘political correctness’ are applied to. The term extends to so many battles, so many opponents, that is has become virtually meaningless. It conveys a narrative of oppression, but leaves it entirely vague how this oppression works.

This is the main problem with the term ‘political correctness’: it has become a blind curse, a formula meant to invalidate an enemy without engaging with the internal complexity of her motives. It is an instance of the power of words to obfuscate the endless subtleties of the social world by convincing its actors that there are clear boundaries where there are not. And yet the concept has real consequences: as a political weapon, it can create a sense of self-justification or draw in voters by discrediting political opponents. It can straightforwardly mobilise large subgroups of society against casting decisions in which it is difficult to discover any harm. It can create polarisation while veiling the grounds on which such polarisation rests – and by which it might be resolved. And it puts opponents in an impossible position: no one will accept the label, but by denying the charge of political correctness, one opens up the possibility of appearing even more disingenuous. Once the words ‘political correctness’ have been uttered, the discussion is automatically skewed in the advantage of the complainant. This cannot help to facilitate an open discussion.

In the face of such verbal simplifications, one’s only defence is to refuse the terminology. When political correctness is offered as a ground for distrusting a person or decision, whether we agree or disagree with the speaker or writer, we should ask for clarification. What is meant by political correctness? How exactly does it manifest itself? And, perhaps most crucially, why is it so harmful? In insisting on answers to these questions, we may (one can only hope) gain access to interesting arguments that direct us to real problems. The terms we use are the tools we have at our disposal for understanding the social world, and they determine the course of arguments. ‘Political correctness’ is too blunt and aggressive a tool to characterise the social desirability of actions or viewpoints. Ditching it might help us get to the point of debates in which something is actually at stake – and abandon debates in which nothing is. I suspect debates about how many X-chromosomes the actor to play the Doctor should have belong to the second kind, but we can only know for certain when its instigators express themselves more concretely.

Written by Joris Graff