George Austin reflects on increasingly weighty matters

There was a curious opening sentence to a letter in one of the church weeklies just before Christmas. It began: ‘It is disturbing to read that some Christians continue to defend the smacking of small people.’ Why, I wondered, ‘small people’? What had there been in a previous issue to which the writer could be referring? Had someone made the distinction between the smacking of big people and of little people? Could there be those who thought one was right and the other wrong? Nothing in the Church of England could surprise me now. Or was it something to do with a directive from the European Commission on Human Rights?

As I read on, all soon became clear. ‘Small people’ was the politically correct way of referring to children. Now don’t get me wrong: I do not believe that there can be any justification for corporal punishment and I do not believe the canings I suffered as a child at primary school were the making of me. When the arguments against such beatings began to hit the headlines in the late 40s I remember well that my father declared he was totally opposed to such punishment. That surprised me somewhat as a father beating his child was common practice in those days, and he was no exception. ‘That’s quite different,’ said he when I pointed it out to him.

The trouble is that the prophets of political correctness do at times get their under-garments in a twist. There was an incident at the Canberra WCC Assembly when, at a signal from the platform, the hall was invaded for a ‘spontaneous’ demonstration by people who were described as ‘differently-abled’ – in other words they had a variety of disabilities.

The point of the demo was to complain that there were no ‘differently-abled’ people on the WCC Executive. My reaction was to whisper to Bishop Tom Butler in the seat next to mine that I was going to complain that there were no ‘other-weighted’ members of the executive either, but he wisely restrained me. Let me say at once that I was not seeking nomination for myself. There were several delegates much more other-weighted than I was, especially from some of the Pacific islands.

But like the phrase ‘small people’, ‘differently-abled’ seems so patronising. I would not dare to suggest that people with disabilities of sight, hearing, movement whom I know are not endowed with the same skills and intellects as those shared among people without such problems. Only last year, I heard a talk by a man (forgive the sexually-differentiating word) who described himself as ‘profoundly deaf’ (he said it, not me) who was a musician, composer and music teacher. How was he ‘differently-abled’ by comparison with musicians who did not have hearing problems?

As for ‘other-weighted’, I am fat, my father was fat, my grandfather was fat, his mother was fat and his grandmother was fat, and I seem to be made in their image even though I exist on a fairly low calorie diet. I eat about 150 calories a day more than my wife, but whereas she keeps to under eight stone, I am – well, never mind what I am. But I do find it strange that the PC commissars do not seem to mind superior remarks against the other-weighted.

A recent report in The Times was headlined ‘British and proud of it, say ethnic minorities’. It referred to a Government report showing that from a poll taken between 75% and 80% of ethnic minority groups – Afro-Caribbean. Asians and mixed race – felt themselves to be British, a fact borne out by the ethnic mix in the crowds at both the Jubilee celebrations and the Rugby World Cup procession.

Yet it is still regarded by the more extreme PC advocates that to say, ‘I’m proud to be British’ is somehow racist. At the same WCC Assembly, I was severely taken to task because I (to be fair, deliberately) wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, ‘Britain is Great’. I doubt if a Nigerian or a Russian or an Indian delegate would have been regarded as other than properly proud that he or she was happy to be from their country of origin. Certainly if a women delegate had proclaimed, ‘I’m proud to be a woman’ she would have been applauded for her liberation. But what if a man said ‘I’m proud to be a man’?

As for the New Church of England, a bishop I knew would if he were about to say the word ‘humankind’ pause for a microsecond, swell with pride and then utter the magic politically correct word. And I once noticed that there was a similar pause in his sermon where he would avoid using the masculine pronoun for God. I asked him afterwards if he ever referred to God as ‘He’. ‘Certainly not,’ he replied, ‘quite improper.’

But there is a more dangerous side to political correctness. The Bishop of Chester was threatened with court action because he had suggested that gay people might be able to change their orientation. I think that for most gay people the bishop has got it wrong. But what of those who are uncertain? And it means, I suppose, that it would be actionable (and quite improper) nowadays to recount the story of the toilet graffiti My mother made me a homosexual under which a wit had added If I gave her the wool, do you think she’d make me one? The mindset of the PC commissars seems set against humour.

More seriously, PC fads appear now to be seeping into legislation, especially in directives from Brussels. Some equal rights legislation, important as it is in its theoretical intention, is bound to raise problems for religious bodies. Will church schools eventually be forbidden to enquire about religious affiliation when seeking to appoint teachers? Or church-based organizations? Do religious people have rights? Probably not.

At its daftest (or is it at its most sinister?), will the Church seeking to appoint, say, a diocesan director of mission have so to word the advert that the post can be open to non-believers? And would it work both ways, so that the National Secular Society would be forced to allow a Charismatic Evangelical to be appointed as its director?

Of course it works not only against Christians. The local initiative in one northern city to prevent Muslim girl students from wearing traditional headscarves is one example, but could it be extended to male Sikh students whose religion requires the turban? And if advertising Christmas is banned in some places, what of Islam and Judaism?

It’s a mad, mad world we live in.