Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Political correctness

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”

Freedom of Speech Part Two: Not a crime but not okay

Do we really have as much freedom of speech as we think? Do we have more than we realize? Or have we misunderstood the whole concept? Two weeks ago, I started a series of posts on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Last week I discussed “When Speech is a Crime,” exploring the exceptions to the First Amendment.

Now might be a good moment to remember what the First Amendment actually says.

The text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many thanks to Indivisible Door County WI

In my first post of this series, I asked, “Is the First Amendment an aspiration, or a reality?” I got some pushback in comments online. As one commenter put it, “Of course the First Amendment is a reality. It’s the law!

But that might be an “alternative fact” in daily practice. The founding documents also say “all men are created equal,” and there’s a culture-wide concept that “equal justice under law” is a guiding principle. We haven’t even come close to getting those right, yet. Kinda like with the slaves in Texas between the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth. Just ‘cuz they wrote it, that “don’t mean we got it.”

Freedom of speech, and its limitations

As with all broad declarations of principle, the devil lurks amongst the details. Turns out, freedom of speech is a thorny issue, even (or perhaps especially) in the USA. The section of the First Amendment relevant to today’s post says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . .

This quote from Benjamin Franklin, reversed out of a painting of Franklin, reads, “Without Freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech.”
Courtesy of “Relatably

That all seems pretty straightforward. But even when the speaker is not committing a crime, s/he may hesitate to say something. There are times when even protected speech may technically be legal—but it also may be socially “not okay.”

Political correctness and “Cancel Culture”

In recent decades several terms have bubbled up from the cultural ferment: “Politically correct,” “cancel culture,” or “call-out culture.” Sometimes people abuse their new power gained through “the leveling effects of social media.” But still I agree with Spencer Kornhaber that it’s less a matter of “cancellation” than accountability.

Whatever you call it, these terms are used defensively. They push back against a changing social norm that abhors racist, sexist or gender-identity-denigrating speech or actions.

The definition for “Cancel Culture” given in this image reads: “Cancel culture is a form of public shaming that tries to hold someone accountable for their actions by publicly calling out their behavior as problematic.”
Courtesy of Parentology.

The pushers-back complain that these shifting social norms result in a climate that stifles freedom of self-expression. An excellent recent example of this can be found in a letter that, while set to be published in the October 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine, has already found its way into wide circulation. The inevitable response to this pushback also is easy to find.

Many, including several prominent comedians, have protested that political correctness “kills humor.” Those who disagree counter by saying what’s dying is out-of-date schtick that relies on bigotry for humor. More on that below.

Thought police? Really?

The complainers also say the country is more and more pervasively dominated by “thought police.” That to step out of line, especially on college campuses, is to risk scorn, ridicule, and ostracism. The critique of campus culture has some merit, as far as it goes. Sometimes unpopular speakers, especially those who support white supremacy or are known for hate speech, are booked for events on some college campuses. Almost inevitably, students have raised loud protests.

This back-and-forth has led to conservative-leaning students saying they feel unwelcome in some classes. They report being afraid to speak their views in classrooms or campus forums, for fear of being shouted down or shunned. The liberal-arts ideal of a “marketplace of ideas” never included this.

This quote from Noam Chomsky says, “If we do not believe in freedom of speech for those we despise we do not believe in it at all.”
Might note that Chomsky signed the Harper’s letter. (Courtesy of Minds Media.)

A short “Political Correctness” debate

Lest this discussion get too heavy, let’s pause for a short “political correctness” debate in the form of a meme war. Contemporary social media culture seems awash in such soundbite messaging. And memes fly in especially thick flurries and flocks when it comes to political correctness. Why not let the memes duke it out?

This photo montage consists of three photo-based memes. 1. In the upper left photo, an angry young woman seems to yell. The meme says, “Judging people by their race and sex is wrong . . .  I wish you privileged white men would get that.” 2. The upper right photo shows a snarling miniature schnauzer dog. The meme says, “That moment you realize . . . that “political correctness is the P.C. euphemism for censorship.” 3. The third is a photo quote from comedian George Carlin that is often used as a meme. It says, “Political Correctness is Fascism pretending to be manners.”
(Clockwise: Politically Incorrect Humor, Lather, via MemeCenter, and Meme Generator)
This photo montage consists of two cartoon images and a photo-based meme. 1. In the upper left image, from Some EE Cards, a man and a woman in old-fashioned clothing embrace each other. The words say, “When I complain about ‘political correctness’ what I’m really saying is that I want to be able to act like a douche without people pointing out that I’m acting like a douche.” 2. In the upper right photo-meme a man gives the camera a squinty-eyed look. The meme reads, “Claim to be against political correctness . . . Call torture an enhanced interrogation technique.” 3. The cartoon at the bottom is by B. Deutsch, titled, “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden.” It shows a slender young white man with a day-pack on his back, yelling at four other people bending with effort beneath much larger, bulkier bags. His listeners are a man with a prosthetic, a short-haired woman, a person with vaguely Asian or Hispanic features, and a Black man. The young man with the small pack says, “Why are you people complaining? Can’t you see I’ve got a burden, too?”
(Clockwise: SomEEcards, and “Chris1787763,QuickMeme, and Claire’s Passion Blog/Ampersand by B. Deutch.)
In this photo-based meme, the puffin struts across a grassy surface. The meme says, “Just because your (sic) offended doesn’t mean your (sic) right . . . Just as much as being offensive doesn’t mean your (sic) right either”
(“unusedimgur,” via Imgur)

There now. Who says humor is dead? There are times when we may be tempted to side with the Puffin. Unfortunately, the puffin meme supports a false equivalency.

The philosophical throughline: underlying bigotry

As far as I can tell, there’s one huge problem with the arguments against political correctness. It lies in the kind of “truth” and “humor” they defend.

That “freedom” they desire? It often turns out to be the freedom to use racist or homophobic language. The “truth” they defend? All too often it’s not objective truth, but instead derisive racial or gender-identity stereotypes. The “humor” they want to keep alive boils down to racial slurs and ethnic jokes.

Dig down to the bottom of the “anti-P.C.” arguments, and you’ll mostly find white privilege defending hate speech.

You may be surprised to learn that hate speech normally is protected speech—at least, in the United States. Mind your expressions of racial hate in other parts of the world, though.

Hate Speech, the ultimate “not a crime but not okay.”

Defined as “distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear,” hate speech truly does offend. But as long as people stop short of hate crimes, they can say pretty much any awful thing they want to.

And they definitely do say despicable things. There are lots of reasons why, but it all boils down to one. White privilege doesn’t want to concern itself with others’ problems and feelings, because it’s never had to do that before. Well, sorry to all you white snowflakes in your gated communities. That’s got to change.

Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.”
Outside her St. Louis mansion on June 28, 2020, Patricia McCloskey points a handgun at Black Lives Matter protesters, one of whom also appears to be armed. Her husband Mark McCloskey stands farther back behind a hedge with a rifle. Later, Mark McCloskey said he was “scared for my life, protecting my wife.” (Photo: CNN).

An unaccustomed concern

I understand. Always having to accommodate another culture takes a lot of effort. You must always think about the other culture’s standards, ideas, perceptions, and understandings. Even if you don’t “get” them.

It’s really hard. You’ll get things wrong, and there’s a price to pay when you do. Sometimes you’re wrong, no matter what you do, just because of what you look like, or where you came from. And you never, ever, get a break from it. That’s uncomfortable and exhausting.

I can almost hear all the Black folks out there saying, “Mmm-mm, you know that’s right.” Because that’s the reality they live every day.

But white people’s moans about “political correctness” are whimpers of a dying privilege. Sooner or later—actually, about 2045 or so—demographics will have their way with this country. No matter how many pathetic little (I’m sorry: “Big, beautiful”) walls we build.

Rather than huddle inside our compounds, if we white people are wise we’ll start expanding our horizons, and working for justice.

This illustrated quote from author N. K. Jemisin says, “If the first words out of your mouth are to cry ‘political correctness!’, chances are very, very high that you are in fact part of the problem.”
Courtesy of Gecko And Fly.

IMAGES:

Many thanks to Indivisible Door County, WI for the First Amendment’s text. I am grateful to Relatably, for the quote-image from Benjamin Franklin, and to Parentology for the “cancel culture” definitionDeepest gratitude to MindsMedia, for the Noam Chomsky quote-image.

MEME-WAR: I’m grateful to Politically Incorrect Humor for the “Judging people” meme, to Lather, via MemeCenter for the Schnauzer image, and to MemeGenerator (no legible additional credit) for the George Carlin quote.

I’m also grateful to SomeEEcards and “Chris 1787763” for the “act like a douche” image, to QuickMeme (no additional credit) for the “P.C. but Torture” meme, and to Ampersand by B. Deutch, via Claire’s Passion Blog on the Penn State University website, for “The Straight, Ablebodied, Cis, Rich, White Man’s Burden” cartoon.

Many thanks for the peace-puffin meme to “unusedimgur,” via Imgur.

MORE IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN for the photo of the McCloskeys confronting BLM protesters, and to Gecko and Fly for the image-quote from the wonderful sf author N. K. Jemisin.

Representation Matters

The power of portrayal

What is the power of portrayal? Why is it important that we see ourselves in the pictures, the fiction, and the media that surround us? 

Because people define themselves in reaction to, and in relation to, what they perceive around them. All of us are suggestible, to one degree or another. We react to peer pressure, and to social norms.

The messages we send

This quote from Salma Hayek says, "It's hard. They go by stereotypes. sometimes it's hard to put me in a box. I am so many things . . . [but] in their head, I'm not quite the typical Latin woman, in many ways, or the typical Arab woman, or the typical American woman, so it's hard for them to pin me."
This quote-image from Salma Hayek is courtesy of The Huffington Post.

All creative people should consider the issue of representation. Our creative products, be they songs, visuals, stories, or other things, send messages. I’ve considered aspects of these in two recent posts, Who gets represented, and Owning our “own voices.”

Unfortunately, for many years the only messages our dominant media have been sending about diverse groups are tropes and stereotypes

This quote from Nate Parker says, "So few [roles for black men have] integrity. As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do."
Many thanks to The Huffington Post for this quote-image from Nate Parker.

While all too many of the reasons for these arise from overt racism, I’m convinced that a lot of them come from a profound lack of awareness by creatives or gatekeepers, and falling back on unthinking clichés. I blogged about this a while back, too.

What kind of clichés am I talking about?

In this quote, Rita Moreno says, "I made movies for a long time when I was young and I always had to have an accent. But that wasn't the worst problem. If I played a Latina, I always had to be too sexy and too easy. I hated that."
Rita Moreno has been dealing with negative stereotypes for decades. It’s not a new problem. (Quote-image courtesy of The Huffington Post).

I mean the stock characters that always seem to come with an ethnic tag. The Muslim terrorist. For a long time (at least since 9/11) there’s hardly been any other kind in the US media. The undocumented Mexican. How about the inscrutable Asian? Or the hostile Indian (Native American). The list is seemingly endless, and it skews sharply negative.

Thank goodness, we’re becoming more aware that these are bad. No, I’m not just being “politically correct.” That’s a term invented by easily-frightened people who are afraid of losing their privilege, or at least their perceived “right” not to care how others feel. In an interconnected society like ours, lack of empathy is an insidious social poison.

This quote from Octavia Spencer says, "Little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves. Who cares if the lead is an Asian male? If this is the best actor for that role, why does the role have to be indicative of a person's ethnicity?"
Many thanks to The Huffington Post for this quote-image from Octavia Spencer.

Negative stereotypes and stock characters are bad because we tend to believe what we see. Even if we are confronted in our daily lives with examples to the contrary, repetition of a negative trope/message can interfere with our perceptions. And believing harmful things about others in our society weakens society as a whole.

The power of portrayal


It’s not “harmless,” just because it’s fiction
. On the contrary, we craft fiction for a powerful emotional impact. Negative messages are actually more harmful when when clothed in popular fiction, because of their intensity and reach.

The power of portrayal lies in its pervasive, persuasive impact. Children are more susceptible to harm from negative portrayals, because they are less sophisticated and more impressionable. But negative depictions harm all of us, no matter who we are or what groups we belong to. They tear at the fabric of society, and can devastate self-image.

Bottom line to creative people in all media: educate yourself, so you’re not caught unaware. Understand that you are more powerful than you may think. Respect the power of portrayals in your work.

In her quote, Sarah Kate Ellis says, "When the most repeated ending for a queer woman is violent death, producers must do better to question the reason for a character's demise and what they are really communicating to the audience."
Many thanks to GLAAD, for this quote-image from Sarah Kate Ellis.

IMAGE CREDITS: 

Many thanks to The Huffington Post, which published the features that provided two of these posts. They are “18 Times Black Actors Nailed Why We Need Representation in Film,” and its sidebar slide show (scroll to the bottom), “16 Times Latinos Were Brutally Honest about Hollywood’s Lack of Diversity.”  The quote-image from Sarah Kate Ellis is courtesy of GLAAD.

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

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