We have 24 hour news and non-stop social media watching everything with the slightest public exposure. The digital revolution has value, but it also produces vultures: people seeking attention, keyboard activists, and honest people just too eager to make a difference. The people that I’m concerned about are not the racists, bigots, misogynists, or other hopeless twits whom I enjoy reading in the comments of White House Facebook posts. No, I am worried about the liberals and progressives who are working for social change.
An attitude of absolute political correctness beckons playing an impossible game of whack a mole against every perceived slight, playing word police against people that are often on the same side. I’ve seen Twitter and Facebook arguments of people with essentially identical liberal positions on 99.9% of all things–people tearing each other apart for not being behind an absolutist terminology in line with political correctness. And for what? What does this serve other than to divide liberals or destroy friendships? If you define yourself as an absolutist social crusader for the promotion of equality, you set yourself up for disappointment in a world of culture that does not change in an instant because of a request for censorship.
“It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing”- progressive blogger Freddie deBoer said recently.
One of my favorite comics, Patton Oswalt, in an interview with The Daily Beast, says:
“That is going to hurt the progressive movement in this country more than anything, is people suddenly going, we’re the scolders, we’re the shushers, we’re the ones offended by everything. Whereas one of the best weapons against conservatism is satire and offensiveness and bad taste—those were always our best weapons,”
Further, referring to excessive political correctness of comedic acts at Salon.com–
“These are people who are criticizing comedy who are not funny, who do not get comedy, and all they do is look at the separate words. They don’t look at context. They don’t look at delivery. They don’t understand irony or satire or any of that stuff. They just can look at words. So we’ll just find better ways to look at darker subjects.”
As I’ve written before, humor can be the magic bullet to dealing with tragedy (To quote my favorite film: “Is everything a joke to you?” Replied to with “Only the things that matter.”). Austere correctness does not allow for the power and finesse of satirical work, which is an artwork as critical as any other form. It does not allow for human error and correction from genuinely good people either.
It’s a great fallacy of today’s political correctness that to joke about something is tantamount to supporting it or not giving it proper respect. This is completely false, and oblivious to the intricacy of culture and language, and the variance of individuals. And yet the vultures only care about the literal and absolute.
You will hear offensive and alarming things your entire life. Insulating yourself from what can be the very harsh reality of the world as much as you can is impossible and futile. It’s like keeping a child in a bubble so that it’s never exposed to germs. The real mark of maturity is how you deal with offensiveness or difference of opinion and learning to recognize that not everything can be solved by aggressive posturing. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward moral justice.” Civil rights advanced with persistent, deliberate, unwavering, and UNIFIED commitments to produce institutional change with meaningful action. It was not with violence or hate or shushing. It was with absolute peace and openness. Emotional outrage and condescending barrage does nothing but harden oppositional stances, and alienate those who might benefit from enlightened thinking. Some people will not bend to such attempts. What do you hope to accomplish with anger?
Liberalism, that is, the school of free thought that our government is based on, does not succeed with a rejection of all offensive ideas. Righteous thinking thrives when other opinions are allowed to falter in their wake via generational change.
Jonathan Chait wrote this in an excellent piece in NY magazine on political correctness:
“Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.”
It is impossible for me to elaborate everything that I might consider too far in political correctness. A lot of it is common sense. But there is such a variety of circumstances to the context of every sentence that someone, somewhere will always have a problem with the way something is said or done.
Precision is the key. Liberals need to pick their battles rather than swinging wildly at everything, particularly over semantics. This selectiveness will give greater meaning to the fights that are waged, because there are many worth having. Otherwise liberals will exhaust themselves in the long run and risk over-saturating, even alienating the people whom are necessary to move public opinion, the only result possibly being that they (maybe) please the very people whom already agree with them. And by dividing allies and being rigid, you can only demolish the populist roots of social and economic progression which have dominated the past century.
The big things are what should matter most: legislation and policy. Bring about legal equality and egalitarianism, and the culture will follow, which is easier than the vice versa. Focus on the Rick Santorum’s of the world, for it is that breed of people that put the brakes on the progressive culture shift.
There are no movements that succeed by demanding suppression of speech. There are no organizations that survive by a demand for absolute compliance to a strict language and action, or an uncompromising ideology. It is ironic that liberals, who pride themselves on diversity and acceptance, can have such intolerance for what are often such minor differences within in its own ranks. To not recognize that the real progress is sacrificing short term wins for long term change is to set up for failure as a movement, and unsatisfaction as an individual.