Thursday, August 20, 2015

To PC, or Not to PC?

I have had the privilege of knowing Les Edgerton for just short of two years now. He is a delightful man, whose good nature is infectious.

For those who lack the inquisitive nature to check the link, cons often refer to “Three strikes and you’re out” laws as “The Bitch,” affecting, as they do, habitual criminals. Les wrote a book—what I consider his finest—that depicts the weaknesses of such statutes. Cutting to the core as he does so well, Les titled his book The Bitch. Now he learns there are weak-kneed, politically correct, chickenshit editors and newspapers who will not print reviews of the book because the title is offensive.

Coincidentally, J.D. Rhodes also posted about political correctness in his weekly column. In as articulate and well-reasoned an argument as I’ve read—certainly better than anything you’re likely to get from me—Dusty writes:

There’s no hard and fast answer. But one thing to consider is: In which direction are you punching? Up, down, or sideways?

Political correctness is a poorly-worded term for something we should all be aware of. At what point does malicious—or even just thoughtless—speech become offensive? Should such offense be measured by reception, or intent? Like anything else, context matters, as does the question of degree. While, on the one hand, one should not get a pass for deliberately hurtful comments by decrying the “thought police,” anyone who’s been through counseling has heard the mantra “no one can make you feel any particular way; that’s up to you.” Where’s the line?

There isn’t one. At least not a bright one. The same newspapers that refused to acknowledge The Bitch may well print a quote from a politician referring to Hillary Clinton as a bitch. Even better—or worse—if said person gets cute with the time-honored substitute “I won’t say what she is, but it rhymes with ditch/switch/witch/hitch/pitch.” Worse yet, to quote as “she’s a b***h.” Rush Limbaugh and his ilk may think they get over with their winks and nods and denials, but they’re not kidding anyone. Those who most vociferously defend them are fellow travelers down that slimy road. Their resumes put the lie to any pleas of innocence.

Louis CK said it best, as he so often does, in his routine about how he despises the N-word. No,
not nigger; the phrase, “The N-Word.” As he so deftly puts it, that’s just a way to get me to say “nigger” in my head without you having to, refusing to accept the truth of what words are: abstract things that put specific ideas or images in people’s heads.

Context is critical, damn near everything. I say “damn near” because intent must count for something. (We could argue for weeks about whether intent is part and parcel of context, but that’s a different discussion.) I was going to link to Louis CK’s bit, but there are other references there that will be viewed as offensive if you don’t watch the entire hour-long show, because he took the time to build the context into which his use of such language, while not appropriate for the whole family, is not as shockingly offensive as it might appear.

George Carlin—the most brilliant comedic wordsmith of my lifetime—said it best as part of his classic “Seven Things You Can’t Say on Television” routine. He included “cocksucker,” but not “cock,” because, in context, a cock might refer to something completely different (“It says right there in The Bible: the cock crowed.”), while there aren’t a lot of different interpretations for “cocksucker.” (Al Swearengen may differ.) Context does matter. Sometimes it’s all that matters. It’s why a newspaper that would never print a picture of a pussy, nor allow written reference to such, can still be run by one.


JD Rhoades said...

Thanks for the shout out!

Dana King said...

My pleasure, JD. Yours was the most reasoned discussion of PC I've seen, and will become the core of my thoughts along those lines in the future, along with one I developed after reading yours: say what you want, but don't be a dick about it.

Dana King said...

My good friend Mike Dennis tried to leave a comment over the weekend that Blogger deemed to be too long. Mike sent it to me, and I'll post it as a series of shorter comments. To preserve the context of Mike's thoughts, please read the entirety of his comments below.

Good post, Dana. I read JD Rhoades' post in its entirety, and I'm afraid I must wholeheartedly disagree with him.

I do, however, salute him for writing what may be the first intelligent piece on political correctness I've ever read, despite my disagreement. He clearly put a lot of thought into it and expressed those thoughts very articulately. My issue lies with his premise.

He tries to stipulate that being politically incorrect is "racist, misogynistic, or just generally awful", and then goes on to state (without any backup) that political correctness equals "treating people with respect", a most benign activity. He then offers several examples of substituting the latter for the former, in an effort to illustrate how immutable this comparison really is.

In an attempt to showcase the other side, he goes on to mention how impossible it would be to do a comedy routine without offending somebody. He discusses this at length and finally gives comedy a pass at the PC gate, provided it lampoons only the powerful or oneself.

And the powerful are, of course, the usual suspects: white Christian straight males, on whom the season is apparently open. No one else, it would seem, is suitable for any kind of discussion, comedic or not, without constricting it to the tight confines of PC speech. Everyone else is presumably some sort of victim.

This is where I really take issue. I am a white Christian straight male, as are you, Dana, and I resent my right to free speech being seized from me by (yes) the Speech Police because some one single individual might be offended by it. We've minted a new class of the professionally offended in this country, ready to litigate at the drop of a hat over some dimly-perceived slight. And they need to grow up.

Political correctness is actually about far more than use of racial insults. The Speech Police never sleep in their efforts to ferret out every last morsel in American culture which they have determined might offend some individual. Some of the more extreme examples would include Santa Claus saying "Ho, ho, ho", the mere mention of God in a public place, the use of "master" and "slave" in the electronic gadget arena, the mainstream media's steadfast refusal to blame terrorist attacks in the US on radical Islam (despite the fact that virtually all of the terrorists are radical Muslims), the words "blind" or "fat", and on and on. I read recently where even the word "American" is considered "offensive" to someone and therefore should be expunged from the lexicon.

Dana King said...

Continuing Mike Dennis's comment:

Not long ago, I had a conversation in a quiet hotel bar in far West Texas with a black girl in her twenties and a middle-aged Latino man. I forget exactly how this came up, but I said something about my being white. She gasped and I thought she was going to faint. I said, "What's wrong?" to which she breathlessly replied, "You can't say 'white'! You have to say 'Caucasian'!"

Well, notwithstanding the improper use of the word "Caucasian", it was clear this young woman had been fully infected by the Speech Police. The Latino man then referred to himself as a "Mexican" and she nearly fell off her barstool. "No, no!" she cried. "You're not 'Mexican'! You're 'Hispanic'!" You see my point here.

As you know, there was a time when the word "nigger" was tossed around quite casually in nearly all levels of society. Nowadays, its free use is restricted to KKK meetings and few other such low-minor-league activities. Most white people today do not sanction the use of that word at all. Why is that? Do you really think they merely caved to the shrill admonitions of the Speech Police? Or do you think they looked at where society was heading, gradually realized the historical wrongs associated with that word, and began to grow as human beings? Some might say the Speech Police had a role in that growth, but I would disagree. That growth began long before the Speech Police opened their first precinct station.

Those who would impose political correctness on us all (and yes, it IS a forcible imposition), do not do so in a vacuum. That is to say, changing the way we speak is not their ultimate aim, the achievement of which will cause them to fade into the mist. Rather, they seek a more complete control over every aspect of our lives, and where better to begin than with speech?

Now, to be sure, there are the true believers who think it's all about speech, and they're the footsoldiers of the movement. But when you think about it, you come to realize those behind this effort have surely asked themselves, "Why stop here? Once we've got them speaking the way we want, why not go a little further?"

Dana King said...

Thanks for the taking the time to reply at such length, Mike. Your sentiments, and the time taken to express them, are much appreciated.

Not to put thoughts in either your mind or JD’s, but I think the keys here are still context, and intent. With that in mind, no word or expression should be off limits, given the realization of “the historical wrongs associated with that word, and began to grow as human beings,” as you put it.

I used to work with a guy who got every shitty job that came down the pike. Every task no one else wanted to do fell to him, provided any pretext could be found to dump it on him. One day we were sitting along in a break room, him obviously overwhelmed, and I asked if he was getting tired of being the office nigger. (My friend is white, by the way.) To me, that was no slur on blacks, or him, but on those who kept piling their work on him. Even at that, I was careful to make sure no one else was around, if only to avoid the possibility of someone hearing that one sentence out of the context I’d built with this guy over a couple of years, and putting two-and two together to get five.

I’ve said before, as a young man growing up in a virtually all-white, working class environment, I’ve said things without thinking that appall me today, and I’m genuinely sorry for them. How much society has grown as human beings can be debated; I’ve at least made an effort. Still, the entire vocabulary should always be available for appropriate usage. I suspect there will always be some disagreement about what is appropriate.

There is one point on which we disagree: while males (our assigned demographic) still have no reason to complain. To quote Louis CK once again, white people are not better, but it is clearly better to be white. We get little advantages every day that make things better for us, and are far less likely to have misfortune befall us merely because we are white than does someone of color. As Louis said, if we had to re-enlist every five years, I’d obviously choose white again, but I still feel an obligation to acknowledge what others have to face every day.