In this episode of NFC, we talk about artistic integrity, political correctness, NOT Donald Trump, and David Foster Wallace.
Yes, political correctness comes from fear, and ignoramic dissonance, but also, one other fundamental human characteristic. Laziness. And not necessarily, but a little necessarily, the laziness of the individual, but mostly the laziness of the categorical boxes of language that suffocates said individual’s speech. The stem of this problem exponentiates, like the invite list of a high school house party, when shining a light on the human tendency to organize the world (jocks and nerds rejoice), and the linguistic limitations with the categories at hand. Most people don’t come up with new words, or phrases, or categories, or constructs. They follow. What’s the latest insta-gentrification filter? And it doubles down when considering the satisfaction of putting an object in it’s correct box. Tick. Job’s done. Ah, I solved the problem. Su Do Ku finished. Rubik’s cube solved. Proof QED. And it’s built into language. We say “this is that”, or “these are this way”. We don’t say, “given X, Y, and pink bananas, this has a 95% confidence interval of being correlated, while causational connections cannot be drawn”. Grey, nuance, contexts of situations, and complexities of concepts, are challenging, unnerving, and don’t lead to a happy neatly wrapped up world that can be tucked into the universe of blissful calm sleep. It leads to more questions, discomfort, and sometimes, actually most times, a feeling of injustice. A feeling that needs to eventually become a comfortable one, or at least accepted, when dealing with the nuance of seemingly everything.
This sparks an earlier discussion we had on the free will continuum (briefly: most behaviour is explained through environmental genetics, and genetics genetics, and less so through free will, existing on a continuum rather than a binary of determinism v free will). In the year since we swam in those thoughts, I’ve tried to internalize that sentiment and give less credit to free will and more to the aforementioned factors, and in doing so, it has allowed me to become more of a passive observer, seeker of context in people, environments, situations, etcetera. And this is where I think the solution to political correctness is, the seeking of context. Hey, so you notice an uncomfortable trend across a certain subset of the population. Maybe find out that there are underlying historical reasons to explain said behaviour, or the interminglings of local individually specific reasons, perhaps in concert with historical reasons. (And of course the duh, the trend doesn’t include everyone in the group, duh). If you accept that most behaviours don’t come from a conviction of free will, and often is explained with context, political correctness resolves as an unnecessary overreaching disguise that leads to fearful sentiment, and unsolved questions. Open free discussion of context is king.
We’ve taken tons of jabs at political correctness, so lets take a moment and ponder the roots, and find some *ehem* context of the stems of it’s usefulness. One fundamental problem that it addresses is stereotyping in institutionalized power domains. Here’s a quick example: a 2009 study that asked black, white, and latino participants to send out identical resumes to a variety of entry level positions. What came of it, “black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison”. Throwing aside outwardly abrupt, idiotically ignorant HR managers, what’s most enlightening in these situations is that the HR managers are being racist on an unconscious macro level. And lets look at that word ‘macro’ for a second. The use of that macro word highlights the trend of stereotyping, without necessarily blaming individuals for it. When pressed, I’d guess the non-abruptly-ignorant HR managers would be appalled at the thought of this discrimination. Political correctness of thoughts here is almost a self reflective mechanism of “hey, was I being unfairly judgmental without knowing it?” or “what are my predisposed biases and how do they reflect my decision making”.
When spewing in the arena of idealism, refreshing yourself with a reality check, or an expectations calibration, is as necessary as wiping your butt after a gleeful number deuce. As much as I preach about being a Kontext King, a reflector of your thoughts & biases, the underlying madness that lies beneath any idealistic mumblings is the ugly nature of our reality. And this is most poignantly reflected through the lens of the attractiveness bias. As in any general advice thread we’ve seen on reddit, Step 1) Be Attractive. In a species, even an intelligent one, arrived at through billions of years of sexually charged evolution, the playing field of privilege will never be fair. Accepting that fate at least allows the nuance of context to be swallowed with a gulp of expectation, rather than harshly down, mean and jagged. Political correctness can’t solve that.
Political correctness as a sort of linguistic cultural gentrification is a brilliant analogy. Our generation has been obsessed with gentrifying every place we visit, and everything we do. Does this come from fear? From ignorance? From the same cognitive dissonance that allows people to enjoy beef and chicken burgers every day while simultaneously tweeting their unabashed bewilderment over the unnecessary killing of one gorilla? Maybe.
I just watched Bo Burnham’s brilliant Netflix special: ‘Make Happy’. In one of his bits, he talks about how he worries that maybe his shows won’t find an audience because they are largely about what he knows best: performing for other people. But our generation is different, we’ve grown up performing. Social media is non-stop performance art for our friends. We have been cleaning up our lives into nicely packaged square pictures since we were teens: linguistic gentrification is just a natural extension of Instagram filters.
Political correctness has clearly been around for much longer than sepia toned selfies, but are we now more susceptible to its most pernicious elements? I think so. Humans are now, more than ever, living in urban, cosmopolitan cities that require real collaboration and not just polite tolerance. Does token inclusion really lead to commonplace inclusion, or is it just the Wizard of Oz curtain that is begging to be opened? In his essay, The Soul of Man under Socialism, Oscar Wilde pointed out that ‘the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it.’ Are we hiding societal issues under the gentrified veil of Instagram filters and euphemistic words?
If Political Correctness has been around for a long time, exactly how is our current version different to what came before it? We are more informed and connected than any of our predecessors, but that also comes with a burden: we are acutely aware of a million perspectives. How do you build a society with a million perspectives? It seems that lately many people have turned to political correctness as the only way to stabilize a cosmopolitan population. But maybe, like Slavoj Zizek thinks, the only way to fight issues like racism, is with progressive racism. To what extent can racist jokes build bonds within a diverse society as we realize that we can laugh at our differences? Instead of hiding behind our filters, can we instead be honest about our strengths and weaknesses? Maybe we don’t need to gentrify our lives, but we need to share honest perspectives that open our eyes to the problems and solutions that exist around the world.
Look out world, the NFC boys are back in town, and we’re ungentrifying your perspectives, mannn.
It’s been a while, so I’ll start easy, with familiar territory … a big bad B word that we love and hate. But before we get to exploring the intricacies of the question you raised of how to observe with precision without being mean, lets begin with discussing a pressing divide in the discussion surrounding political correctness. But even before then, as scarily difficult as it was to write the two sentences above, it’s nice to be back on a no concentrate diet.
This divide I eluded to earlier separates the people in the game of democratic politics, and the average citizen participating in the socio-economic framework of a free market society. The former deals with political correctness as a set of rules to a game, to please the masses, to not get caught in a bad sound bite, and ultimately to collect delicious votes when the time comes. The rules of what is PC and what isn’t may change through time, but in the world of politics, it will always continue to be a game of whoring to the populous and not offending a large demographic voter base. The latter part of the divide is far more fascinating. It involves how the average citizen interacts with the rest of society and the inner-workings between the marginalized and privileged. Part one of this video on the philosophy of South Park perfectly articulates this. A theme in the video that I think is central to the component of PC culture is inclusiveness. The point he makes is that false inclusiveness of PC culture only provides a means to appeal to more demographics, and also to shed a sense of guilt of the privileged, rather than to actually include and solve underlying problems. A quote from South Park itself:
“What is political correctness but a verbal form of gentrification, spruce everything up, get rid of all the ugliness in order to create a false sense of paradise”
While I think fundamentally this is true for the current state of our Western populous, what it doesn’t take into account, is the benefit of that this false inclusiveness will have for generations to come. Although it may not solve the underlying problems of marginalized populations, and even if PC culture is a hot commodity to market to the privileged, what currently is a token inclusion, will end up being a normal occurrence. Although the change is ugly, at least it’s change, and for the same reasons that people stereotype to begin with, if the norm is inclusive, the stereotype will be too.
Political Correctness. For a long time, the concept of being politically correct seemed to me like an inconsequential formality – a courtesy that we as humans living in a cosmopolitan, inter-connected developed world simply must try our best to adhere to. But even as I write that definition down, it somehow seems condescending and pernicious – a thin veil that hides the ugly reality of our opinions. But that rebuttal seems like too much of a swing towards the other, cynical side of the spectrum. Surely words and phrases that people call ‘politically correct’ are more like euphemisms, rather than outright lies. So where on this spectrum does your opinion lie? How much political correctness can a society handle before it crumbles under its own feeble cowardice to call a spade a spade?
I’ll start off with a few observations of my own. I’ve been following the American primary race quite closely. In a recent debate, Marco Rubio responded to Donald Trump’s accusation of politicians being politically correct with the line ‘I’m not interested in being politically correct, I’m interested in being correct’. Rubio’s implication is that because Trump has made his entire campaign about electing a political outsider who is ‘not afraid to tell it like it is,’ he has completely ignored actual facts in favour of simple pandering rhetoric that demonizes the status quo. True as that may be, Trump’s strategy has worked wonders for him, and his message of ‘don’t listen to the politicians, I see it the way it is’ has resonated with many people across the U.S. So what’s wrong with ‘telling like it is’? Here’s the problem: most political issues are complicated, nuanced, and boring. What Trump does is turn political correctness on its head. He accuses other politicians of hiding the truth under the PC blanket, and then uses his anti-PC rhetoric to do the very same thing! In essence, both the Clinton’s and the Trump’s of the world project complicated issues onto bite-sized talking points. One does it with flowery, inclusive (yet fundamentally deceiving) language, and the other with exclusive, hateful speech. Which is more harmful? I don’t think it’s completely clear.
Here’s a point against political correctness. One of my favourite living philosophers, Slavoj Zizek, has a great reason why being PC can hurt society: it makes it harder to rebel. For example, imagine that you are an employee stuck in a mindless, unfulfilling job. In a PC-free culture, a boss creates no illusions that he is your boss. If you dislike them, that’s too bad for you, but at least there is a clear target against whom you can target your rebellion: ’this awful boss is making me do this mindless work!’ In a PC culture, where your boss may be much more friendly to you, you may suddenly have no one to blame for your predicament. Often, you instead end up blaming yourself. But what’s wrong with being friendly? Doesn’t that improve your work environment? Well, I see it as a local-global discrepancy. On a local scale, sure it improves your interactions day-to-day, but globally, the PC boss is actually doing you a disservice by removing a natural drain into which you can funnel your discomfort. Instead of rebelling and effecting change within the company, you instead sink into a self-loathing misery.
Of course, I am describing extremes of the spectrum. To help find the balance, I think it’s poignant to look at the most observant people in our society: comedians. Take Louis CK’s Saturday Night Live monologue from earlier last year, where he spends the season finale opener talking about the middle east, modern racism and pedophilia. He walks a tight rope (for a national broadcast) between being honest and unnecessarily pushing boundaries. During an audible groan from the audience, he quips ‘how do you think I feel? This will be my last time hosting..’ Yet, somehow, he manages to remain the quintessential Louis, making poignant, PC-free observations, without overtly offending anyone. Can we as a culture find the same type of balance?