Tag Archives: Political Correctness

Some of the Latest Ideas about Reducing Racism

26 Mar

Our Public Schools are Still Separate and Unequal(Image by Joe Brusky used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was A Nazi.” This is the title of this weekend’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times by Jessica Shattuck. She writes, “My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.”

I live in Germany, where many if not most of my friends and family members could have written that. Here in Berlin, if you call your grandparents’ generation “the greatest”—as so many do back home in the U.S.—you might as well slap a swastika on your chest. Or try to argue that the earth is flat. The Sixties generation in West Germany shared their American counterparts’ love of rock music and peace signs, but their top priority was to expose how many of their professors, teachers, and public officials were former Nazis. If the cost of expunging Nazi thought meant the end of both nationalism and nostalgia, so be it.

While the Sixties movement left a lasting impact on German politics, education, and the media, Germany today could hardly be considered racism-free. Last year, there were 857 attacks on refugee homes perpetrated by right-wing extremists nationwide. Plenty of non-white and non-Christian residents tell of the prejudices they too frequently face. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has joined the global nationalist movement, calling for a return to the good old days when no one had to hear about celebrating diversity.

But the AfD is considerably less popular than nationalist parties in other countries. With every party in the Bundestag having pledged to never work with it, and with its best national polling numbers peaking at only 12% last fall, it stands no chance of winning the national election in September. The greatest fear is that the once fledgling party will come in third or fourth and garner well over 5% of the vote, which is the minimum required to be granted seats in the Bundestag. Human rights activists are right to believe than any success for the AfD will be a dangerous validation of ideas no citizen should embrace. But British and American nationalists have been far more successful in their respective countries as of late. Is there something anti-nationalist and anti-racist activists could learn from their German counterparts?

No one can say with any accuracy that German society is less racist than others. Proving one country is less racist than another is difficult to the point of nearly being impossible. But it is heartening to see the AfD’s approval ratings nowhere near a majority. I have asked many Germans how they have come to stigmatize nationalism so successfully. Don’t people get touchy? Don’t most people excuse away the Holocaust by arguing that most Germans never saw a concentration camp? Don’t most people tend to understand it from their grandparents’ perspective? One German explained the approach to me as “Verstehen, aber kein Verständnis,” which can be translated as “understand (as in comprehend) but without understanding (as in sympathizing).” One could describe Shattuck’s op-ed piece this way.

Some of this could be linked to a greater willingness in German culture to talk about problems, no matter how unpleasant. While American and British children are often told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” many Germans would consider this evasive to the point of being dishonest. Germans are raised to mean what they say and say what they mean, and are thus likelier to believe that airing dirty laundry is the only path to improvement. Never does one hear, “I was just saying it to be nice.” As Sabine Heinlein wrote earlier this year in the Daily Beast:

It has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.

I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”

Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table.

Americans do generally prefer to emphasize the positive. We like to think of our ancestors and ourselves as the Good Guys. But while it is true that my grandparents fought on the opposite side of the Nazis, their generation cannot honestly claim to have been innocent of racism. Many U.S. veterans returning from the liberated concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials understood them as proof of why they had to help end segregation across the United States. Others returned and hurled tomatoes and death threats at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she attempted to enter an all-white school. To such white supremacists, World War II was not reason to consider that the Nazis had modeled many of the Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow. It was proof of America’s inherent superiority.

Some Americans face our long history of racism, some mention it as a footnote in the otherwise Great American Story, and others go so far as to question its relevance. The night Trump was elected president, I was told by one of his white supporters that discussing racism divides the country. Yet race issues have been proven to be a strong motivator among many such voters. More than age, location, religion, economic status, level of education, or party affiliation, the most common factor uniting Trump voters was feeling threatened by the fact that whites are projected to no longer dominate the U.S. population by 2042. Of course not all Trump supporters share these feelings, but they risk repeating the mistakes of Shattuck’s grandmother when they refuse to confront the dangers they pose.

White people in the U.S.—and across the Western World—are taught by their culture that their skin color, ethnicity, and/or religious background is the standard. Consequently, they often envision multiculturalism as merely welcoming some people of color into their everyday reality without altering the centrality of their role in the narrative. Getting them to question this can be hard. Dr. Robin DiAngelo has written extensively about the white fragility she often encounters when teaching anti-racism workshops in the U.S. and how quickly this fragility can unleash obstinacy and outrage. But if white people want racial equality and racial justice—if we want to practice what every democracy on earth preaches in their non-discrimination laws—then white people need to be willing to approach racism from perspectives other than their own. And in order to do that, we have to be willing to engage with ideas that may make us uneasy.

Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time is the story of a girl who grows up in a poor end of London with her black Caribbean mother and white British father. Her white friend Lily “solemnly explained to me one day as we played, that she herself was ‘color blind’ and saw only what was in a person’s heart.” But when the biracial girl wants to watch a musical with an all-black cast, Lily refuses: “Why was everybody black? It was unkind, she said to have only black people in a film, it wasn’t fair. Maybe in America you could do that, but not here, in England, where everybody was equal anyway and there was no need to ‘go on about it.’ ”

I could have thought, if not said, something like that at Lily’s age. With slogans like “one race: human,” colorblindness was hailed in classrooms in the 1980s and 90s as both the right goal for society and the right tactic for ending racism. And so I recall feeling concerned when a character on the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper talked about being proud of being black, thinking that surely any racial pride was akin to racism. I was disconcerted when Family Matters portrayed Santa Claus as black. My thoughts on the matter shifted as my brain matured to handle more nuanced ideas and I absorbed more detailed arguments from non-white perspectives. This helped me eventually understand how the predominance of white people in mainstream culture in the U.S. had blinded me to the experiences of non-whites, which were far more different from my own than my younger self had assumed. I realized I had never considered how it might feel to grow up with a Santa Claus—and a throng of national icons—who did not share my racial status.

Some white people are reticent to discuss race at all because, like Lily and I, they were taught that any generalizations about any people are just as taboo as inaccurate stereotypes about traditionally marginalized groups. Other white people may be reticent because they are terrified of ending up the butt of the joke in revealing videos or interviews about white myopia. Such wariness is well-known to activist Jay Smooth, who explains:

Anytime we are dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic… The race constructs that we grapple with in America were designed specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we are grappling with something that was designed for centuries to circumvent our best interests. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up.

If we deconstruct all that maintains the unequal distribution of power based on race, white people will find themselves in situations unfamiliar. Anxiety at such a reality should never shut down the conversation, but it too often does. Seventy years after Hitler gave racism a bad name, how many of us are willing to strive for racial justice beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones? How many of us are willing to listen more than we speak? How many of us are willing to endure this as often as necessary? How do we open the minds of those who become instantly defensive in such debates? I was recently asking these questions with friends and then, as if the Internet was listening in, this meme popped up in my feed:

Morgan M Page
What do you think? Can we do it?

 

 

This Is How You React When Someone Finds Your Stupid Little Joke Offensive (And You Know They Might Be Right)

1 Nov

From the Archives

 

Really, With the Gay Jokes?” “The Rape-Joke Double Standard.” “Has The Onion Gotten Too Mean?” These are the headlines to just a few of the several articles appearing this week about comedians and conscience. All of them make excellent points, but the problem with trying to explain why a joke is offensive is that it instantly kills the mood. Culture critics aren’t professional comedians and thus they almost always end up being viewed as the more uptight of the two, even if their arguments are rock-solid.

And yet, the best comedians are pretty good culture critics, as Dara Ó Briain proved years ago at the Theatre Royal in London. Amidst his cracks about the idiots who ask you to remove your shoes in their home, the idiots who confuse astronomy and astrology, and the idiots who think the IRA had uniforms, he talked about a time when he was the idiot:

Last year I told a joke, and this is not a good joke, I have no excuses.  It is a terrible joke, but it was about the musical Billy Elliot. And “What was the composer’s inspiration for Billy Elliot? Elton John – do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

I know. It was rubbish. I didn’t mean it as an attack on Elton John, or as an attack on the gay community. I meant it as another joke in the glorious tradition of jokes involving the word “in.” As in, “Do you have any Irish in ye? Would you like some?”

Okay, so he explained he didn’t intend to trash homosexuality. But he didn’t leave it at that. He went on to talk about the backlash from the LGBT rights alliance Outrage, who said the joke contributed to a culture of hatred against gay men in Britain. Ó Briain explained:

And the thing is, your initial reaction is when somebody does a complaint like that is to get all tough and say, “It’s only a joke, for Jesus’s sake, relax.” Swiftly followed by arguments about civil rights and comedy’s obligation to say the difficult thing and freedom of speech. Which is a fairly lofty point to bring in to back up something as bad as that joke about Billy Elliot. You wouldn’t go to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights with that as your argument: “Oh, my lords and ladies of the court, Elton John? Do you think he saw a little of himself in Billy Elliot?”

He went on to clarify his political stance, emphasizing that “there is no pedophilia-homosexuality relationship at all,” showing he was brave enough to break character as a comedian despite the risk that always carries of losing the audience. He then addressed that risk as well:

And some people think it’s very politically correct of me, but then, I’m Irish. And if anyone’s benefited from a good dose of political correctness on this island, it’s the Irish. Remember the good old days with all those jokes about how stupid we were? And then a memo went around some time in the Eighties, when you [Brits] all said, “Oh, Jesus, we’re not doing jokes about the Irish anymore? Okay, fine.” And it just stopped. And thank you very much. A bit overdue, but thanks very much nonetheless.

He went on to tell a joke about a bunch of drunk Irishmen, reveling in the fact that he was allowed to tell it and the British weren’t. He then said, “But again with the whole Billy Elliot thing, the reason I backed down so fast on that was because I received one letter of support.” Removing the letter from his pocket, he proceeded to read the message sent by a group of conservatives in Northern Ireland who applauded him for taking a stand against the forces of sodomy. “If you ever use the phrase ‘forces of sodomy,’ it had better be a gay heavy metal band that you’re talkin’ about!”

It’s rare that comedians are brave enough to admit that their joke was a fail. But I’ve never heard a comedian own up to it so fiercely and admit the ways in which he’s personally benefited from the political correctness movement. By changing his target from the group he originally attacked to himself, Ó Briain proved not only the sincerity of his regret but the breadth of his comedic skill.

And I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: Whenever comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy, it sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original. Ignoring the “PC police”—i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do—they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right? Wrong. We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t. We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique. And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?

Or, in the words of another Irish comic, Ed Byrne: “I see comedians making jokes about fat people being lazy, and I just think, well, they’re not as lazy as comedians who get easy laughs by picking on fat people.”

 

Originally posted May 12, 2013

Why Do Names for Minorities Keep Changing?

14 Jun

midget not wanted(Image by CN used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I’ve been writing about the word “midget” more than usual this month, thanks to an Irish public service announcement and then GoogleTranslate. The taboo nature of the word in the dwarf community is almost amusing when we consider that the world’s largest dwarf advocacy organization, Little People of America, was originally named Midgets of America. No lie. (You can read about why I feel that the change was hardly an improvement here and why others do as well here.)

Minority names have been changing a lot throughout the last century. This social pattern has been dubbed the Euphemism Treadmill by psychologist Stephen Pinker. Toni Morrison has pointed out that it’s all about power: “The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” But as names for minorities keep changing, many laypeople keep complaining about the seemingly convoluted nature of of it all:  

“Can’t they just stick to a name and be done with it?”

“Why should I have to be careful if they’re going to be so capricious about it?”

“It seems like they’re just looking for us to slip up so they can call us out!”

It’s not hard to understand where this frustration comes from. No one likes being accused of insensitivity for using a word they had thought was in fact accurate and innocuous. But rarely does anyone ask why the names change.

In 2010, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, classifying “intellectually disabled” as the official government term to describe what in my childhood was referred to as “mentally retarded.” “Mentally challenged” and “mentally impaired” were other terms suggested and used in PC circles in the 1990s. Already I can sense a good number of my readers wondering whether these changes were truly necessary. I can also sense, however, that few would wonder whether it was necessary to abandon the terms “idiots,” “morons,” and “imbeciles” to refer to such people.

“Idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,”  and “dumb” were all medical terms before they were insults, used by doctors and psychologists across the Anglophone world. But gradually laypeople started using them to disparage any sort of person they disagreed with. And now this is their only purpose. Instead of getting all of us to stop using these words as insults, the medical minorities have stopped accepting them as official names.

The names for psychiatric disorders and developmental disabilities are particularly prone to being re-appropriated by the mainstream to describe behaviors and tendencies that barely resemble the diagnoses. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I once heard a colleague apologize. “I have such ADD today.”

“I think you’re becoming pretty OCD,” quipped a friend upon perusing my books, which are strictly organized by size.

“That movie kept going back and forth. It had no point! It was so schizophrenic.”

For over 10 years now, psychiatric researchers and patients have been working to abandon this last one. Using “schizophrenic” to describe anything that oscillates between two opposing views or behaviors can easily lead to widespread ignorance about the intricacies of the condition. “Psychosis susceptibility syndrome” is one proposed replacement, but the ubiquity of “psychotic” in common parlance may prove to be equally problematic. “Salience syndrome” was the term most preferred by patients participating in a survey at the University of Montreal and was published in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.

This is the choice we have about labels for minorities: We either stop using minority labels to insult people, or get used to minorities asking us to use different labels to refer to them.

But if only it were that simple. Getting people to abandon marginalizing terms for minorities without fighting about it is as difficult as the word “political correctness” itself. There are two reactions all too common in any given conversation about political correctness and they both invariably botch the conversation:

  • Libertarian Outrage: “You can’t tell me what to say!  I can call anyone what I wanna call ’em and it’s their own fault if they’re upset!”
  • Liberal Outrage: “I’ll humiliate you for using an old-fashioned term because PC is all about competition and it feels cool to point out others’ faults.”

Both reactions are based on a refusal to listen and a readiness to assume the worst of the other side. Plenty of anti-PC outrage is fueled by the belief that any discussion about names and language is hot-headed and humorless, and plenty of liberal bullying is fueled by the belief that honest-to-goodness naiveté is as morally objectionable as outright hostility.

Political correctness is not a competition, and if it were, it would be one that no one could win. A human rights activist may be an LP with SAD who is LGBTQIA and know exactly what all those letters mean, but they may not know that “Lapland” and “Fräulein” are now considered offensive by the people once associated with them. And it’s less likely they know about the taboo term in German for the former Czechoslovakia.

And as someone who’s spent her life having to decide how she feels about “midget” and “dwarf” and “little person,” I can tell you that attitudes are far more important than labels. Because even if the word often matches the sentiment, this is not always the case. There’s a difference between the stranger who told my father when I was a kid, “She’s an adorable little midget!” and the coworker who told my cousin recently, “The best thing about Game of Thrones is getting to laugh at that midget!” 

I will always prefer to have an in-depth discussion with someone about the meaning of dwarfism than to call someone out for using a certain word.  I will always prefer to hear someone earnestly ask me how I feel about a certain word than witness them humiliating someone else for uttering it.

Too often these discussions are diluted down into simple lists that start to look like fashion do’s and don’ts, and this is perhaps the gravest insult to the noble intentions of those who kick-started the PC movement. As one progressive blogger pointed out years ago in The Guardian, her lesbian parents are firm supporters of trans rights and, up until recently, used the word “tranny” without any idea that it is widely known among trans people as a pejorative. Too much sympathy for the couple’s ignorance could be harmful. When the mainstream insists that no one should be expected to know about newly taboo terms for minorities, it implies that no one should be expected to be listening to the human rights conversations that are going on about these groups. But conversely, too little sympathy for sheer ignorance is equally unproductive.

Because bigotry is not ignorance. As a wise man said, bigotry is the refusal to question our prejudices.   

 

 

Political Correctness Makes You More Creative

21 Dec

Europe According to Germany(“Europe According to Germany” by Yanko Tsvetkov used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Study On Avoiding Stereotypes Smashes Stereotype About Avoiding Stereotypes. Sounds like an Onion headline. The recent study at UC Berkeley reveals that encouraging workers to be politically correct—that is, to challenge and think beyond stereotypes—results in their producing more original and creative ideas. As Olga Kazhan points out at The Atlantic, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which asserts that political correctness stifles the truth for the sake of acquiescing to the hypersensitive. Yet the study shows that truth and knowledge are obscured when facts are simplified into stereotypes.

Take, for example, the belief widely held in the West that women talk more than men do. Unpacking this stereotype unleashes several revelations about modern Western culture. All in all, women do not use more words than men on average. Women do talk more than men in certain small groups, but men talk more than women at large social gatherings. Listeners, however, tend to become more easily annoyed by women talking in such settings, so they notice it more. Baby girls in the West do start talking earlier than baby boys do, leading pop culture to promulgate the idea that female loquaciousness must be inborn. Yet more than one study have found that girls’ advantage may very well be because mothers talk more to their infant daughters than to their sons. And what about the stereotype that women remember emotional experiences better than men do? There appears to be evidence for this, rooted in the fact that American adults tend to ask girls more questions about their feelings during their developmental years, while encouraging boys to instead focus on their actions and achievements.

So while the genders may behave differently in some respects, further scrutiny shows that we certainly treat the genders differently. Political correctness demands we alter this. And then see what happens.

But instead of being seen as a great generator of progress and innovation, political correctness is more often perceived as a silencing technique, if Google’s image search is any indication. There is some valid cause for this concern. One of the worst tactics taken up by some minority rights activists is the phrase You can’t say that. It often stems from the noble idea that no one should have to endure threats, harassment and direct insults in everyday life. But simply banning bad words can lead to the destructive assumption that simply using the right words makes everything okay.

After all, avoiding stereotypes is not about shutting up but embracing depth and nuance. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researches happiness and creativity, and in his latest book, he finds that one of the best tools for innovation is not limiting our own selves to gender stereotypes:

Psychological androgyny… refer[s] to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

While the studies cited here focus on gender stereotypes, it’s easy to see how political correctness can foster productivity when applied to all sorts of minorities. For example, one way to react to  urgings to avoid antiquated terms like “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” is to ask why. This will reveal that “Hottentot” was a name assigned by Dutch and German colonists meant to caricature the sound of the Khoekhoe language, and that “Bushmen” was a derogatory name for the San first assigned to them by the Khoekhoe. This uncovers the fact that the San have been the most exploited people of southwestern Africa, primarily because their society has no system of ownership. They have been stereotyped as primitive and therefore less intelligent, but like so many non-state societies surviving into the present day, they have done so by developing skills that help them live in isolation – i.e., in unforgiving environments where other peoples have perished.

Or you can react to the urging to avoid “Hottentots” and “Bushmen” by simply saying, “I’ll call them whatever I want to call them!”  As the saying goes, stereotypes are there to save us the trouble of learning.

 

 

In the U.S., Paralympic Athletes Might As Well Be “Untitled”

9 Sep

(Via)

 

The Paralympics end today after a week of what seemed to be decent coverage, though it depended on where you tried to watch them.  The host country allotted 150 hours of coverage to the Games, Australia clocked in 100 hours, and Germany and France allotted 65 and 77 hours respectively.  Meanwhile, the United States broadcast a whopping five and half hours and no live coverage at all, as per tradition.  Yay.

Considering how little attention was afforded the Games themselves, it is unsurprising that there was little dialogue stateside about disability rights and issues of equality.  What a missed opportunity.  The British media immersed itself in it, with articles like “Is it Ok To Call The Athletes Brave?”  Indeed, disrespectful attitudes toward people with disabilities today are more often implicitly patronizing than openly derisive, and it was pleasing to see the public address this.

The Paralympic Guide to Reporting that was handed out to media outlets brought up several interesting points about language.  It rightfully asserts that disabling conditions or features should not be turned into personal nouns that define the entire person or people in question: i.e., the disabled, the blind, a paraplegic.  Adjectives and verbs—a paraplegic athlete, athletes with disabilities—are less limiting, portraying a medical condition as one of many characteristics a person has.  (This has been repeated to me ad infinitum by a friend who’s uncomfortable whenever I refer to myself as a dwarf.  “You are Emily.  You have dwarfism!” he insists.  “And you have hazel eyes and freckles and long hair…”)  Other terms and phrases to avoid noted by the guide include:

normal

able-bodied

wheelchair bound

confined to a wheelchair

suffers from

afflicted with

victim of

The last three are commonly used today.  They’re problematic because they imply that a disability is always regrettable.  Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  Suffering may have been an apt term for my achondroplasia two months ago, when severe lumbar pain made it hard for me to think of anything else during a sightseeing trip in England.  But suffering has nothing to do with all the ways in which my condition has brought me in contact with all sorts of unique people and places and outlooks.  I can’t imagine my life without it.  It’s my version of normal.  Unless the patient specifically says otherwise, any assumption that a disability is a round-the-clock tragedy is wrong.

For the sake of splitting hairs, I sometimes think the words disabled and disability are problematic because they automatically draw attention to what a person cannot do.  In the worst case, they can sound pitiful.  I’m very fond of the word typical in lieu of normal or able-bodied because it highlights that the standard by which we group people is based on a body type chosen by the scientific community.  It implies medical averages, not social values.  Typical is used in everyday speech to mean “usual” at best and “unexciting” at worst, unlike normal, which implies a state of correctness worth striving for, like in the phrase “back to normal.”  Discussions of autism and some other psychiatric conditions now commonly use the term neurotypical to refer to people without the diagnoses.  Maybe physiotypical could someday be the term for non-disabled people.

But as I’ve said a few times before, the search for acceptable terms is not about deciding what automatically classifies a speaker as Tolerant or Bigoted.  Words are only half as important as the intentions behind them, and the desire to understand another’s perspective is what separates an empathic person from a selfish one.  In the recent words of Professor Charles Negy, “Bigots… never question their prejudices.”  

The above list of do’s and don’ts is probably disconcerting to some readers.  I always feel simultaneously inspired and confused when given a list of hot-button words I’m told to avoid from now on.  Hell, I’ve written the word able-bodied before, and I’m someone excluded by it.  I find no problem with the word handicapped—I had handicapped housing rights in college and a handicapped parking sticker during my limb-lengthening procedures—but it’s considered offensively archaic in the U.K., apparently similar to invalid or cripple.  As we’ve seen in the midget vs. dwarf vs. LP debate, rarely is there ever a consensus in a given community over labels.  Labels are almost always problematic.  In my experience, the dialogue always matters more than the conclusion it comes to. 

And the inability of the U.S. media to have such dialogue during the Paralympics was pitiful.

 

 

In Comedy, It’s All About Deciding Who’s Us & Who’s Them

28 Apr

Krampus twins(Via)

 

The Guardian’s stylebook contains the greatest commentary on style I’ve ever seen in print:

political correctness: a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty right-wing smear designed only to elevate its user.”

Around the same time, while researching the back stories of Life’s Too Short for my review, I came upon the controversy over the word “mong” in which Ricky Gervais found himself embroiled this past fall.  Apparently “mong” is a British English insult derived from “Mongoloid,” the very antiquated and now unacceptable term once used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome.  Both Americans and Brits have probably heard “retard” used the same way.  Gervais eventually apologized to those who objected—including the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome who has frequently endured the insult—but not without first dragging his heels screaming at what he called “the humorless PC brigade.” 

I will never get over how many comedians insist that any criticism of their work is an indictment of all comedy; as if there’s no such thing as an unfunny comedian, only stupid audiences.  This logic sets the bar for comedy so low that no comedian need ever try to be original.  Ignoring the “PC brigade” (i.e., anyone who doesn’t live with the privileges they do), they can simply regenerate old stereotypes, mining the minstrel shows, the frat houses and the school yards, and if no one laughs at this, it’s simply because we’re all too uptight, right?  Wrong.  We don’t refrain from laughing because we feel we shouldn’t.  We refrain because, unlike the repressed who giggle away in awe, we’ve heard it a thousand times before and we know it’s far from unique.  And isn’t unique what every comedian, entertainer and artist strives to be?   

Like politics, comedy can be divided into two categories: that which confronts our problems with our own selves, and that which confronts our problems with others.  Xenophobia literally means the (irrational*) fear of strangers and the second type of comedy relies upon this fear.  There has to be a “them” for “us” to laugh at.  So Republicans laugh at Democrats.  Hippies laugh at yuppies.  Academics laugh at hippies.  Progressives laugh at bigots.  It’s fair game when beliefs are targeted because we must always take responsibility for our beliefs.  However, when the joke defines “them” as those who have had no choice whatsoever about their distinguishing quality—ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, physical traits, mental or physical capabilities, or class background—and who continue to be disenfranchised by society’s delusions of normalcy, the joke had better target those delusions to be in any way original.  Otherwise, why pay for cable or tickets to hear someone lazily reiterate the guffaws of playground bullies? 

Every good comedian, from Stephen Colbert to Eddie Izzard to Christian Lander to the writers at The Onion, knows that the best jokes mock people’s hang-ups and clumsy reactions to minority issues, not the mere existence of minorities. My beloved Flight of the Conchords frequently flip gender roles and ethnic stereotypes, exposing the absurdity of racism and misogyny.  As the following video demonstrates, 1970s machismo has been begging to be made fun of.  However, when it comes to physical Otherness, it is the body—not fearful attitudes toward it—that they choose to snicker over, 54 seconds into the video:

 

 

Hermaphrodite?  Really?  An intersex kid’s medical reality is your toy?  C’mon, Conchords.  You’ve proven you’re great at making fun of white Kiwis tripping over Maori culture.  (“Jemaine, you’re part Maori…  Please be the Maori!  If you don’t do it, we’re gonna have to get Mexicans!”)  Surely you could come up with some good bit about hipster comedians clinging to lookist and ableist jokes like teddy bears and throwing temper tantrums when they’re taken away.  Or take a tip from Mitchell & Webb and take a jab at the way the ableism of reality TV masquerades as sensitivity:

 

 

Of course comedians have the right to make jokes objectifying minorities.  But I’m more interested in why they feel the need to, why they choose to objectify some people and not others.  Being gay, disabled, trans, intersex or non-white is not inherently hilarious to anyone who doesn’t live their lives sheltered from anyone unlike them.  The American freak shows of P.T. Barnum and the racist British sitcoms of the 1970s signify not just how profoundly disenfranchised minorities were in these countries, but how absurdly provincial audiences must have been in order to be so easily titillated.  Many comedians who reiterate chauvinist jokes argue that in doing so they are pushing the boundaries, expanding freedom of thought in defiance of PC oppression, when in fact they are merely retreating to well-trod ground, relying on ideas that challenge nothing but the very young idea that minorities deserve to be included in the dialogue as speakers, not objects.  As Bill Bryson has pointed out, the backlash against “political correctness” took place the moment the idea was introduced and has always been far more hysterical than what it protests.   

Toni Morrison has said, “What I really think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define.  The definers want the power to name.  And the defined are taking that power away from them.”  Revealing that it is all about power explains why emotions run so high whenever minorities get upset by certain jokes and comedians get upset about their being upset.  But this redistribution of power can be productive.  Taking old slurs and xenophobic tropes away from today’s politicians and comedians challenges them to think beyond their own experience and to wean themselves off society’s long-held fears, to redefine “them” as those enslaved by the limits of their imagination; in essence, to really push the boundaries.  Yet too often they default to the tired claim that this challenge infringes on their right to free speech. 

Some progressive critics do bring on the censorship accusation by using the ineffective phrase “You can’t say that!” and sometimes this is indeed an open attempt at censorship because most media outlets self-censor.  For example, Little People of America has called for the Federal Communications Commission to add “midget” to its list of words you can’t say on television.  I understand the temptation to insist upon the same treatment afforded other minorities: If certain ethnic and gender slurs are banned by newspapers and TV networks, why not others?  But this tactic too easily insults those other minorities—are you claiming black people have it easier than you?—and creates the concept of a forbidden fruit that will only tantalize right-wing politicians and shock jock comedians.  Simplifying the issue into Good Words/Bad Words can be a waste of an opportunity.  Instead of limiting itself to which words are always unacceptable regardless of context or nuance, the dialogue should always aim to reveal which minority jokes truly blow people’s minds and which lazily replicate institutionalized chauvinism. 

Instead of splitting hairs over the modern meaning of the word “mong,” I’d love it if a comedian went at the fact that Dr. Down came up with the term “Mongoloid” because he thought patients with the diagnosis resembled East Asians.  Because really.  Who’s asking to be made fun of here?

 

 

* “Phobia” always indicates an irrational fear, hence arachnophobia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, etc.  Fears that are well-founded are not phobias.

Four Tiers of Fear

31 Mar

 

“How DARE you call me a racist!” 

We’ve all heard that one before, and it’s becoming ever more frequent with the debate over Trayvon Martin’s death.  Marriage equality opponents have been adopting the same tone over the past few years, claiming “homophobic” is now an insult.  In the video posted above, Jay Smooth makes an excellent argument for shifting the focus from criticizing actions instead of people in order to spark more productive dialogue about racism and this can be applied to any discussion about xenophobia. 

But outrage at any charges of xenophobia is not only an issue of grammar.  This outrage usually relies on the assumption that “racist” or “homophobic” automatically denotes a Neo-Nazi level of vitriol.  (This is why it’s frequently accompanied by the protest, “Some of my best friends are black/gay/dwarfs!”)  The outrage silences any discussion about the more insidious forms of chauvinism, and this is the very discussion that needs to happen, because the most insidious forms are the most ubiquitous. 

Most people who harbor transphobic, racist, ableist, sexist, lookist, ethnocentric or homophobic views are not Neo-Nazis.  Most would never physically harm anyone, and as Jay Smooth demonstrates, most would never admit to being xenophobic.  My theory is that chauvinism appears in society today in four different forms:

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1. Violence: Both organized and individual violence, though of course the more organized, the more terrifying.  (The Southern Poverty Law Center reports this month that hate groups are on the rise in the United States.)  A hate crime should not necessarily be punished more severely than any other case of assault or murder, but its designation is an essential counter-statement by society to the statement the violence was intended to make.  While the most horrific form of xenophobia, violence is also the least common.

2. Overt Animosity: Harassment and disrespect that falls short of violence.  It’s insulting someone to their face, knowingly using slurs, arguing in earnest against someone’s human rights.  It’s refusing to hire, date or talk to someone because they belong to a certain ethnic group, or because they do not belong to a certain ethnic group.  It’s parents disowning their children for being gay, trans or disabled.  It’s the guy I witnessed at the mall yesterday who tapped a Chinese woman on the shoulder, closed his eyes and babbled, “Ching-chong-chang!” before dashing off.  It’s the Yale Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity’s pledge, which included the chant, “No means yes!  Yes means anal!”  It’s the New Orleans cop saying Travyon Martin was a “thug and… deserved to die like one.”  Because the intention is either to provoke or dismiss the victim, it’s extremely difficult to find a constructive counter-argument.  Beyond ignoring such provocations because they are beneath us, our only hope is to appeal to any capacity for empathy the offenders may have when they are not in a provocative mood.  Such cruelty always stems from profound personal insecurities.         

3. Covert Animosity: Disrespect behind someone’s back.  This usually occurs when the speaker thinks they are surrounded by their “own kind,” and thus unlikely to offend anyone present with their slurs or jokes.  We’ve all heard at least one relative or coworker talk this way.  Often an environment encourages such disrespect and the peer pressure to join in is high.  Often someone will insult an entire minority privately but be utterly decent when meeting an individual from that minority.  A friend of mine once dismissed a boy band on TV as “a bunch of fags” just hours after he’d been raving to me about my awesome neighbor, who he knew is openly gay.  Sometimes this behavior is excused on the grounds that the speakers are from “a different generation,” an excuse I rarely accept since those with more progressive views can often be found in the same generation.

4. The Xenophobic Status Quo: The stereotypes and privilege that surround us.  Most of us have some of these prejudices without knowing it because we have been bombarded with them from birth on.  It’s the invisibility of minorities in the media and the social segregation in public that causes us to stare when we see certain people.  It’s the jokes that rely on the assumption that all heterosexuals find gay sex, intersexuality or transsexuality at least a little gross.  Or the assumption that physical disabilities, mental disabilities and physical deformities are always tragic and sometimes morbidly fascinating.  It’s the virgin/whore standard to which Western women are still held, leading us to comment far more on the appropriateness of their clothes and promiscuity than on men’s.  It’s our collective misogyny, homophobia and transphobia that converge to make us wonder why a man would ever want to wear a dress, but not why a woman would want to wear jeans.  It’s the prevalence of chauvinist expressions in our language (e.g. “Congressman,” “flesh-colored”) and of chauvinist traditions in our books, films and legends (e.g. our god is a white male) that makes them difficult to avoid and easy to reiterate.  It’s our demanding transgendered people wait for the rest of us to “get used” to the idea of their transitioning instead of questioning our belief in the gender binary.  It’s our view of every person who belongs to a minority not as an individual but as an example representing that minority with every move they make.  It’s the assumption that a difference upsets normalcy in lieu of the concession that normalcy is a delusion.  The privileges bestowed by our society on some members at the exclusion of others, rewarding those who have done nothing but be born with characteristics considered “normal,” are perhaps the most insidious reinforcement of these prejudices.

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There is a danger to placing too much emphasis on the differences between the four tiers—I never want to end up in a conversation where people’s actions are excused as being “only Tier 4 sexist”—because all four tiers feed off each other.  They don’t exist in a vacuum.  The non-violent ideas of covert animosity and the xenophobic status quo provide confrontational people with a means of choosing their victims.  Conversely, regularly seeing society’s long tradition of hate crimes and public humiliation both in our history books and in our everyday news is what leaves us all dangerously unsurprised by the less belligerent forms of disenfranchisement many of us help perpetuate. 

Yet it is important to distinguish between these manifestations of fear in order to avoid the assumption that only violence and overt animosity qualify as xenophobia.  That assumption lets millions of people off the hook.  You don’t have to belong to the Westboro Baptist Church in order to have homophobic views.  You don’t have to belong to the NPD or the BNP or the Georgia Militia in order to have racist views.  You don’t have to wait in a dark alley for a stranger in order to commit rape.  You don’t have to threaten someone in order to to make them feel unwelcome.  Our society has been built on many xenophobic assumptions, making it very easy for all of us to pick some of them up along the way.  The fight for equality aims to make it more and more difficult, but it needs to be able to recognize its targets and use tactics suitable to each. 

I make these distinctions in the hopes of facilitating the conversation on chauvinism.  Yet it should come as no surprise that chauvinism is difficult to discuss because, in the words of Jay Smooth, it’s a system that has been designed to insult and subjugate.  In other words, it’s hard to speak politely about the idea of being impolite.