The F*cking P.C. Culture Problem
How do you handle political correctness in the age of Trump?
BY Eve Peyser | Nov 25, 2016 | Culture
A year and a half after I graduated from the infamously progressive Oberlin College, The Washington Post published an article about students protesting the dining hall's own (quite literally tasteless) interpretations of Banh mi and sushi. Students weren't upset about the quality of the food, but rather, its political implications. As one junior from Japan explained, "If people not from that heritage take food, modify it, and serve it as 'authentic,' it is appropriative." An average person might consider this line of reasoning to be far-fetched, but this sounds like your typical Oberlin student to me. I identify as a leftist, but let's be real, this is fucking absurd. Not only is it a stretch to assert bad dining hall sushi is racist, but on a fundamental level, is this really what anyone wants to invest their energy in fighting? It's the perfect example of so-called "political correctness" run amuck.
The Obama years ushered in a series of ridiculous protests on college campuses, restarting the national conversation on political correctness. Since the rise of Donald Trump, people of all political leanings have been trying to figure out the best way to understand how political correctness influences our country's discourse. On last week's Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost joked about a new feature on Tinder that allows users to choose from 37 gender identity options, attributing Clinton's loss to this type of social progress. Jost directed critics of his joke to a recent New York Times opinion piece, where liberal historian Mark Lilla argues that the left's embrace of identity politics "has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored."
Identity politics alone didn't cost Clinton the election. "It indirectly had an impact," New York columnist Jonathan Chait—who's written extensively about the risks of P.C. culture—told me last week. Trump campaigned on an explicitly anti-P.C. platform, saying in one Republican primary debate, "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people and I don't, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time, either."
Chait said he doesn't think political correctness was why Clinton lost. Rather, "There is this phenomenon of categorising too many things as racist or sexist, and that makes us unable to analyse and engage with Trump. I think one of the problems with that phenomenon is that on the flipside it allows people like Trump to disguise themselves—disguise their racist and sexist beliefs among a lot of other beliefs that aren't racist and sexist."
That sentiment applies to Oberlin: Dining hall cultural appropriation protests turn us into a society where serving someone low quality sushi makes you a racist. This type of discourse, then, trivialises actual racism—like Trump wanting to put Muslims on a registry—by elevating something like a petty complaint about food to the same level as other serious racist behaviours. Republicans like Ben Shapiro—an anti-Trump conservative who worked at Breitbart until March 2016, when he resigned in solidarity with Michelle Fields—see more sinister consequences of misidentifying racist behaviors. I called Shapiro last week. "If you call me a name without evidence, that is morally bad," Shapiro told me. "I need to know somebody is doing something morally bad before I call them morally bad."
"If you call me a name without evidence, that is morally bad. I need to know somebody is doing something morally bad before I call them morally bad." —Ben Shapiro
Along those lines, Chait also takes issue with how politically correct culture doesn't seem too concerned with hurting the feelings of privileged people by calling them bigots. He told me, "This disconnect shows one of the problems that the Democrats had in this race, which is this idea that privileged people's feelings are to be ignored and discounted, which is not helpful in a country that's still 70 percent of the electorate is white, and you need to win a majority to win. Those norms inhibit liberals' abilities to have conversations that can lead to winning elections."
The very concept of leftist political correctness practiced at a place like Oberlin hinges on the idea that experiences of identity-related oppression should play a major role in political discourse. It is about language, about who gets to say what, and how we communicate. It doesn't necessarily aim to limit free speech, like some critics claim, but rather impose consequences for asserting hateful ideas. The heart of the issue isn't about making sure what you say doesn't offend, but how people with radically different beliefs should best talk to each other.
Political correctness is difficult to pin down because its definition changes depending on the political orientation of the person you ask. Instead of defining what political correctness is, pundits prefer to speak in examples of the ideology gone wrong. This exposes a major hole in the way our culture thinks about political correctness: It's not quite an ideology, but instead a way to categorise an argument about social equity you disagree with. Most people don't self-identify as "politically correct."
"It allows people like Trump to disguise themselves—disguise their racist and sexist beliefs among a lot of other beliefs that aren't racist and sexist." —Jonathan Chait
While critics of Jost's "Weekend Update" jab were labeled P.C., they saw it differently. My friend Sam Escobar, a gender non-binary writer and editor at Bustle, tweeted, "It isn't that we 'don't get the joke.' We get it, you blame 'identity politics,' but for LGBTQ ppl these issues mean everything." Those who expressed outrage weren't necessarily questioning Jost's right to make the joke. Instead, they aimed to illuminate the deeper meaning of Jost's beliefs: that social progress was responsible for Trump's rise, and that there is an inherent ridiculousness to not conforming to the gender binary. The ideas contained in this joke, critics reason, are oppressive.
Shapiro told me he sees it like this: "Trump is not actually politically incorrect, he's just an asshole on a lot of these things." Shapiro also said he believes trans women are actually "mentally ill men." He takes issue with the way people on the left talk about trans issues, because in his mind, we should actually be arguing about whether identifying as trans is valid. He told me he disagrees with people labeling him transphobic because "that's not an argument, that's a name."
"You have to explain what transphobic means, why it's bad, and why my argument is wrong," Shapiro said. "You're not arguing with my argument, you're arguing with me now. You're saying that I'm a bad person for making the argument. If you were to say that the argument is transphobic, you'd have to actually say why the argument is transphobic. You can't just say, 'This is a transphobic person and therefore their opinion is of no value here.'"
So how does a trans person reason with someone who doesn't believe in the legitimacy of their identity? Shapiro brought up a panel he did with Dr Drew about Caitlyn Jenner, which made national news. Shapiro asked trans activist Zoey Tur what her genetic makeup was, referring to her as "sir." Tur then put her hand on the back of Shapiro's neck, and said, "You cut that out now or you'll go home in an ambulance."
Shapiro explained that after Tur threatened him on live television, "The entire left [did not say] you don't get to act out violence against people with whom you have political disagreement, or people you think have insulted you. The entire left said, 'How dare you say the word sir to a person who thinks he's a woman.' And then you wonder why people are pissed off? That's why people are pissed off."
Former Gawker editor Alex Pareene—who wrote a brutal takedown of Jonathan Chait's New York cover story on P.C. culture—sees what happened between Shapiro and Tur differently. "If he's gonna go out and say 'trans people are mentally ill and should be treated for mental illness,' and then a trans person says 'I'm gonna fucking smack you,' that's one of the consequences of giving a controversial opinion in public as a public speaker," Pareene reasoned.
"If he's gonna go out and say 'trans people are mentally ill and should be treated for mental illness,' and then a trans person says 'I'm gonna fucking smack you,' that's one of the consequences of giving a controversial opinion in public as a public speaker," —Alex Pareene
The difference of opinion between Pareene and Shapiro indicates the fundamentally different worldviews of the left and the right. "On the left, there's this idea that words are filled with such meaning that they are the equivalent to violence, in some cases," Shapiro told me. And so it comes down to what you think constitutes a greater threat to society: a man telling a trans woman her identity is invalid or a trans woman verbally threatening to kick his ass because he said that.
So, how the hell are we supposed to solve this thing?
Instead of arguing over political correctness, it might benefit all of us to do away with the idea completely. "It always seemed to me that the people who complain about political correctness are the people who are angry because it necessarily coincides and brings about a more equitable society," Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, an editor at Jezebel, told me. Shepherd told me she predicts the Trump presidency will curb such petty protest. "No one's gonna have time for that shit," she said. "We're all going to be literally fighting for the rights of Muslims to not be interned."
In my conversation with Pareene, he emphasised the importance of making "certain opinions unacceptable to say." As Pareene explained, "There's a longstanding tradition in American politics of incredibly horrible things being okay to say as long as you're polite about it." Comfortable liberals like Chait, Pareene believes, indulge in a fantasy that "careful explanations will win political battles." But as the divide between the left and the right deepen, Pareene thinks we need to acknowledge that we're in the midst of "a fight between different interests and different goals." He reasoned that "it's not the job of the left to sit down and talk it out" with conservatives who are actively fighting against their interests and ideology. "You don't get anywhere with civility when you lose," he told me. "The response has to be 'fight in every available method.'"
"No one's gonna have time for that shit," she said. "We're all going to be literally fighting for the rights of Muslims to not be interned." —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
I spent hours talking to Chait—someone whose political beliefs I largely disagree with—but we were able to find much common ground. Leftism and liberalism are frequently lumped together for a reason: both have similar goals of social progress, though they believe we should achieve them by different means. In one of the first articles about political correctness from 1990, The New York Times contended, "P.C.-ness… has roots in 1960s radicalism... the view that Western society has for centuries been dominated by what is often called 'the white male power structure' or 'patriarchal hegemony.'" Anti-P.C. liberal pundits like Chait understand that these power structures create inequality, but conservatives think otherwise.
Here is where we find the ultimate divide.
Shapiro explained: "I don't believe in institutional power structures… This is the fundamental disconnect. The left wants to talk about systems of power and group identity and justice, and the right wants to talk about individuals. There are riots in Ferguson, and the right says, 'Why are these people burning down stores?' The left looks at people in Ferguson and says, 'The system is why people are burning down stores.' And the right says, 'You need to explain that to me.' And the left says, 'It's because you're racist.' And then the right says, 'Go fuck yourself.' That's how the conversation goes."
So what do we do? We keep talking. We continue conversations about inequality and identity even if we fail to find common ground, even if we hate the way the other side makes their argument.
Things really have changed in the quarter century we've spent arguing about political correctness. In 1987, former SNL cast member Eddie Murphy's released Raw, a stand-up special that includes jokes like: "Faggots aren't allowed to look at my ass while I'm onstage," "I'm afraid of gay people," and how he's afraid of his girlfriend hanging out with gay people because "one night they could be in the club having fun with their gay friend, give them a little kiss. And go home with AIDS on their lips!" This comedy had a mainstream platform 30 years ago; violence against LGBTQ people was also way more permissible. Condemning Murphy's homophobic jokes isn't about hurt feelings; it's about fighting back against a culture that believes being gay makes you a lesser person.
In 2016, this is evident. Challenging rhetoric like Jost's passing joke isn't about silencing a gag, but challenging the assumptions of a culture that makes life harder (and often more dangerous) for people because of their identity. By understanding the defense of the marginalised only as repression of speech, those who delight in punching down can pretend they're punching up.
From: Esquire US