Today I came across a video of MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, as she took offense to a guest’s use of the term ‘hard worker’ Saturday, arguing that it diminished the experiences of slaves.“If there’s somebody who is a hard worker when he goes to Washington, it’s Paul Ryan,” argued conservative guest Alfonso Aguilar. Harris-Perry didn’t disagree but wasn’t a fan of his word choice. She went on to say, “I just want to pause on one thing, because I don’t disagree with you that I actually think Mr Ryan is a great choice for this role,” she said. “But I want us to be super careful when we use the language ‘hard worker.’ Because I actually keep an image of folks working in cotton fields on my office wall, because it is a reminder about what hard work looks like.”
As soon as I finished the video, I immediately began writing this furious blog entry. I have no tolerance for that kind of bullshit and cultural reappropriation, especially to a well-meaning and harmless guest’s totally innocuous off-hand comment. She took it out of context, transported it to a new setting, and then manipulated it by endowing it with a racial and oppressive dimension it didn’t have before. The man’s words were condemned for an offense he could have never foreseen or prevented, and he was baffled and embarrassed needlessly. This is a glaring example of political correctness gone awry and the self-righteous overreach of those who rigidly enforce PC doctrine. I find few things as vile as vigilant censorship and an attack on free speech, especially when done in the name of lofty goals like equality, social justice, tolerance, and egalitarianism.
I have to say that I am socially very liberal, while being perhaps a little more fiscally moderate, but I consider myself a progressive, egalitarian, and open-minded person who is committed to equality and social justice and accepting everyone for who they are. I’m a registered liberal Democrat, but I also envy much of what socialism provides for its citizens.
Having said all that, there is one issue that I absolutely HATE to acknowledge I find myself agreeing with conservatives about, and that is political correctness. I am much more progressive, sensitive, and tolerant of Political Correctness than most Republicans I’ve met or seen online. In looking for a picture for this article, I poured over dozens of mean-spirited, racist, and hateful memes, all taking aim at the hated and maligned PC movement. Whereas, I recognize its objectives are good and noble, and that it started as a way to give voice to the voiceless and promote multiculturalism and cultural plurality. Disenfranchised groups could choose how they wished to be called, and the spirit of the movement was to provide safe environments where we could use uncoded and respectful language we could all agree on. People could pick how they chose to define and describe themselves. It was a way of taking ownership back, and probably even more obviously, a shift in power to the previously marginalized and disenfranchised.
Yet now, I feel like it’s gotten out of control, and actually curbs and muzzles free speech, sanitizes it of its character and strips away the vernacular, and removes anything remotely controversial or contentious. That might sound good to you, but the kernel of our healing and reconciling as a nation lies in that uncomfortable gray area where language breaks down, and we must find new ways to communicate. When everyone is so ultra-sensitive and easily offended, we don’t have a discussion anymore, just a unilateral wall thrown up in the face of the offender, and a public shaming of them, perhaps as cruel as the embarrassment once felt by the victim at the hands of a merciless majority. You see? It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s not just the advocates of political correctness being victimized and crying foul, but now the majority, who like to cast themselves as the oppressed minority, and stripped of their First Amendment rights.The Right call the Left sissies and whiners, but that’s no better than the pot calling the kettle black. Or should I say African American? 😉 Either way, the burden is on the P.C. movement, because more often than not, the conversation terminates with them. It’s a conversation ender, and someone feels vindicated, and someone feels silenced, but neither one learned a damn thing!
I don’t advocate racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other language that doesn’t belong in a civil conversation. Everyone deserves to be respected, and should have the right to be addressed with dignity. I’m talking about the overreactions and demonization of certain phrases or words, or even symbols that some overly sensitive people find objectionable. Listen up: the moral of this story is this: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO CONTEXT AND INTENT. There, I made it easy for you, and now you know what to look for.
Let’s say a white linguistics teacher is teaching the powerful book, N–gger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy, (You see? Even I’m afraid to write the full word in the title of the book, for fear I may invite anger or censure!) and the very purpose is to dissect and understand the history of the word, and why it is still a powder-keg loaded word today. Some in the PC Police might condemn this teacher’s actions, and claim he has no right to use that word and is unfit to teach black students. This even happens in high schools, when well-meaning teachers teach lesson units on works like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, both which contain frequent uses of the n-word. I’m not saying this should be casually thrown around either. But rather, it should be used as a teachable moment, where the word is a jumping off place for more serious and rigorous discussion. It’s all about context and a well-meaning teacher’s intent to educate his students about all the realities of the world, even the dark and shameful parts. That’s how kids learn.
I remember when I was in high school, I read Elie Wiesel’s biographical book, Night, about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–45, at the height of the Holocaust toward the end of the Second World War. It was graphic and disturbing, and often hard to read, but it captured my attention, and taught me an invaluable lesson about man’s inhumanity to man and the strength of an indomitable spirit to overcome even the most hopeless and desperate situations. Years later, in Boston, I saw Wiesel speak, and got to meet him after the presentation. What I remember most is how firmly he locked eyes with me, and as he looked me straight in the eye, he gave me a surprisingly firm handshake for a man his age. He was so strong, even after seeing all that and losing that much. I instantly knew how a man like that could have survived. And after reading his thrilling book, I had to reflect on those few students in my class whose parents forbid them from reading the book, perhaps because it was too realistic and had things like nudity or sexuality, or some other inconvenient fact of life. If you’re sheltered from even finding life in a book, I’d hate to see how real life’s gonna treat you.
And that’s ultimately why I draw this line between political correctness, and editing, redacting, abridging, rewriting, forbidding, or banning a certain book for containing something controversial, indecent, profane, political, or rebellious. It’s when we coddle children from toddlers up through their teenage years and into young adulthood, and we send them off to college enabled, entitled, weak, dependent, helpless, and overly sensitive. And I speak as someone who was ostensibly no better, and just as connected to a psychic umbilical cord. I’m not going to start parroting some conservative meme I saw today, depicting tough cowboys fighting for their freedom of speech with weak, dainty, effeminate, delicate, and breakable ‘pansies’ or ‘whinny babies’ as they said. I’m no tough guy, and I could never tell another human to ‘man up.’ At least, not in so many words. I will say that children learn best from exploring, discovering stuff on their own, building things with their own two hands, playing with all kinds of different kids, being exposed to as many different ways of life as they can, and perhaps more important than anything else…failing. And failing often. Kids need to learn how to fail, and face challenging adversity. They need to break their arm, get lost and spend a night in the woods, build a campfire in the wind, fail an exam, not get cast in the school play or make it on to the baseball team. Kids need to have microcosms of our own adult lives, and gradually be given more and more responsibility, so that by the time they do go off to college, they’ll have failed so often, they’ll have taught themselves how to succeed.
The problem in some of the more extreme and militant corners of the politically correct movement, is many of these young college students have been raised much like the kids I described above, but the stakes are raised by the fact that they come from a diverse range of minorities: Hispanic, Arab, Jewish, Black, Trans, Lesbian, Gay, Overweight, Female, etc. They carry with them all the traits of the group above, but have an added dimension of their race, gender, orientation, religion, or cultural identity. Many of them will have been taught how to identify and represent themselves, and also learned the respect and courtesy they should expect of others. This is where the breakdown happens. Kids are still kids, and universities are more widely diverse than at any time in human history. That’s a lot of jostling cultures and conflicting belief systems to come up against each other, and try and get along. Just the sheer fact that they’re all mixing and mingling at all is a small miracle, and shows how far we’ve come as a nation. But that’s where our high expectations have to end, and we have to be realistic about the kind of results we’re going to see.
Those minority students are guaranteed by law the right to the same education as their white and homogenous counterparts. They have a right to be treated with respect and insist on a professor treating them fairly and protecting their best interests. The problem is, there are necessarily going to be times when things are said and feelings are hurt. Perhaps the professor didn’t word something right, or a fellow student said something offensive. Perhaps even racist. Unfortunately, these things happen, and we still live in a society not that far removed from slavery, indian genocide, sexist and subjugation of women, and just months out from gays earning the right to marry. This country’s just a handful more police shootings of unarmed black men and no justice served from turning into widespread race riots. They’re fed up in the streets, and white America only watch helplessly, knowing that someone should do something, but not quite realizing it’s us. These are fresh wounds, and classrooms now turn into battlefields, as Antietam, Gettysburg, and Fredericksburg are fought with words, as students try and understand what they’re learning, while trying to express themselves and not look stupid. But people always do. Because some people just weren’t raised the way you were. And the things you value might not mean anything to someone else. Should it? Sure, in an idea world, we would all demonstrate and exercise empathy, understanding, acceptance, respect, and value other people’s feelings. In that world, those minority students wouldn’t have to worry about being unfairly judged for not fault of their own, and just for being born. To those in the majority, they undoubtedly value stuff the others don’t, like the right own guns or their freedom of speech. If they’re from the south, these are cultural characteristics of many people from Dixie. There’s a rugged and rebellious streak that runs through many of those who identify from this region, and their individualism, intense love of freedom, patriotism, liberty, right to bear arms, and right to say what they please, are the values worth fighting and dying for.
Where does an honest dialogue and difference of opinion cross over and become a racist incident or hate crime? What if an offended student had accepted an apology, and opened the door for another heated conversation? It may sound funny, but there’s no telling where that relationship could have gone. But we’ll never know. Doesn’t it take two parties to fight and offend the other? If so, why does one get to shut down a dialogue and stop the free — and potentially healthy — exchange of ideas, while the other is cast as the aggressor, regardless of who said what? Modeling courtesy, treating people with the dignity they deserve, and respecting the wishes and boundaries of others you may not share views with is the cornerstone of mature discourse and healthy work and school environments. When taken to the extreme, political correctness is much more dangerous to our society, than free speech, and harms much more than it helps! We shouldn’t end up violating one group’s rights and freedom of speech, in order to take pains to protect the right of another group — NOT to not be offended or challenged. Obviously, if there’s legitimate harassment, intimidation, hate crimes, or other serious violations, than a minority, individual, or group must be protected and their dignity and rights championed. But a difference of opinion, however distasteful that opinion might be, is the foundation of interpersonal communication, and learning how to communicate with those you may not like.
To completely change gears, how about all the noise a few months back, when states were finally taking down Confederate flags from state capitol buildings. Personally, I believe no symbol of hate like that flag belongs on state or federal land, and especially a building that legislates laws for EVERY citizen, not just white racists or Civil War enthusiasts. It may be a part of the south’s heritage, but so was slavery and cross burning, but we don’t allow that anymore either. I wouldn’t allow a flag with a cross on it either, or a Star of David, or a Wiccan symbol. It’s a neutral place for everyone, so it’s only fair we clear it of stones bearing the Ten Commandments or flags that mean family to some, but hatred, racism, and forced servitude to others. Like it or not, the Confederate flag was born out of a legacy of slavery and rebellion against a nation trying to abolish the hateful practice. The first place I believe the Confederate flag belongs is in a museum (remember, it’s all about context, and a museum is a place to learn history and where such a controversial object fits into history). The second place, is wherever private citizens want to display it on their property. People have the right to free speech, and I’d never deny anyone that.
However, having said all that, political correctness played an ugly and sometimes necessary role in that whole national conversation. The country was certainly divided and mostly fell along party and regional lines. As you can see, I mostly supported removing the flag from public and advocating for the feelings and needs of those who were victimized under the Confederate flag. However, there was instance where the PC Police went too far, and totally missed the point. It wasn’t before long that people seized on the show Dukes of Hazard, and soon, certain parties were calling for the show to be pulled from the air, banned, digitally edited to erase the Confederate flag on the roof of the General Lee, and eventually, toy companies were scrambling to pull toys, edit websites, and all the rest of the mess. Here is another example of an overreaction and people blowing something way out of proportion, without taking context or intent into consideration. The Duke Boys weren’t racist, even if they did have a car named after the General of the Confederate forces and a Confederate flag painted on the roof. They were proud southern boys, ‘never meanin’ no harm’ — as the song says — and like many in the region, they showed off their legacy. Not once was there anything to even suggest that Luke and Bo were racist or had any ill will towards any group…other than Boss Hogg, the law, and authority figures, perhaps. The task of going through and digitally removing the flag from the General Lee in every episode is time intensive, and completely unwarranted. The car isn’t being used as a symbol of hate, and it’s not even prominently featured enough to draw attention to itself. Rather than attacking the show and car reflexively, perhaps they would have realized it was a sanitized set dressing, and completely neutralized within the context of the show. Furthermore, if parents were that concerned, it seems like the perfect teachable moment to discuss how the flag can have two meanings, and in this instance, it’s a source of regional and cultural pride, but take the time to tell them its more malevolent history, and why it’s still being debated today. Kids can handle it. Black Americans can handle it.
We can’t possibly scour history for every vestige of slavery or some other shameful period in our nation’s history, nor can we sanitize words or artifacts from a time we’d rather forget. We must engage with history, and put it in its proper cultural context, and see what we can learn about our ancestors, and ultimately ourselves. The Politically Correct movement has its heart in the right place, and its aims are lofty and noble. It truly is about inclusion, and giving voice to everyone, while advocating for respect and sensitivity. I just think it’s gone off the rails. It has been taken too far, and we need to use common sense, and most importantly, pay careful attention to context and intent. Each case has its own set of challenges and circumstances. I would simply urge caution, patience, and a little thicker skin. None of us use language as precisely as we’d like to.