A morning radio host where I live was recently suspended after posting videos caricaturing people who live in a particular neighbourhood in the city. It is a lower middle class area besieged by vice and poverty-related crime and also home to a sizeable share of the city’s Aboriginals. Meanwhile, the radio host is a white middle-aged guy who grew up in an upper middle-class white neighborhood. The optics of a white guy mining laughs at the expense of the city’s poor and disenfranchised were tragic, especially since our city was, just a year ago, rated by a Canadian national news magazine as “The Most Racist City in Canada.”
I am aware how difficult it is for regular, middle-class white men to have “political correctness,” lorded over their heads since the nineties. It’s as if society is suggesting they are all bigots, forcing the whole to make amends for the excesses of the few. As a man, I feel the instant sense of similar recoiling when confronted with the idea that I am part of the “rape culture.” But then I resist the urge to soothe a bruised ego by man-splaining to generations of suppressed female voices why their “so-called grievances” are way off base – because I said so. Instead, I try to remain open to the possibility of a worldview different than that historically fashioned by generations of self-aggrandizing dicks.
The idea of “political correctness” is to encourage us to make a mental leap out of our situated selves, and examine our words and actions as if from the perspective of the “other” person BEFORE we unleash them. If the radio host in my town had paused for one second to ask himself “would I think this was funny if I were an Aboriginal?” my sense is he would never have posted the video.
A moment of “political correctness” would have prevented him inflicting a significant insult on countless Aboriginal Canadians in my town, many of whom are rightly sitting on the fence about the merits of joining white society. It would also have prevented many from believing him to be an unabashed racist. That is the point of political correctness; not to tar white men as bigots, but to compel us all to look before we leap, because our tolerance for insensitivity has worn thin. It is a word of caution that a nasty fate awaits he who is unable to restrain his mouth from uttering whatever bigoted detritus was deposited in the recesses of his mind by the infinite possible sources in our culture.
This is one simple example of the reason why a strong social ethic that frowns on bigotry is still necessary. I’m no fan of “political correctness” because it has been appropriated by the very douchebags it was meant to counter, and they have masterfully turned it into a slur to rival the daily barrage of racist, misogynist, xenophobic slurs they unleash from their intellectual anuses. It’s a sensible idea made senseless by the those who extol their claim to “freedom” with bigoted, craven bombast like a noxious-smelling badge of honour.
The counterpoint to the idea that “freedom” bestows unbounded rights to slander and incite hatred of the marginalized, is the notion that the establishment of social norms against blatant insensitivity is necessary to protect the powerless from wanton bullying. It prevents oppressive biases in the dominant collective mind from being matter-of-factly vomited out of our mouths and victimizing innocent, disenfranchised bystanders. It is to ensure our societies are inclusive and don’t condone behaviours that alienate and exclude large swaths of its people. Insensitive, hurtful speech is a passive aggressive way to discourage the disenfranchised from opting-in to society. Mean-spirited words matter; in powerful, irresponsible hands they propagate the systematic, violent demise of those they target.
Anyone who is on the receiving end of bigoted knee-slapping has asked themselves this question at various points in their lives “is my desire to participate in society really worth the mental anguish to endure this?” In a pluralistic society that recognizes the rights and equality of all, nobody should have to face this kind of bar to their success. Since laws against bigotry are out of line, the only tool left is that of a strong ethic of social resistance to deeds that are divisive and damaging to social harmony.
I find it revealing when someone blasts “political correctness” as a bane that forces their mouth shut all the time. It says something damning about the content of a mind if every thought it produces is so offensive it shouldn’t be uttered. Here’s a test; if a part of you has to ask “is this offensive?” it probably is. This should be a source of relief; it means the part of your brain other animals lack functioned exactly as nature intended. It will continue to do so if you regularly consult it and pay it heed. The energy needed to resist the social ethic discouraging jokes that directly or indirectly denigrate women, minorities, Muslims, or foreigners, is much better spent examining why it is your mind is teeming with misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia in the first place.
On this subject, one of my favourite bloggers suggested there are a few social issues that are out of bounds for humourous treatment – rape, drug addiction, and mental illness among them. On the surface it’s hard to disagree, but my sense is there are no absolutes in this either. There is always context and intention – who is making the joke, how, and to whom. My feeling is, if you were never on the inside, don’t make the joke.
It’s why there are some jokes that, if I were a white guy, I simply wouldn’t make. True, it is your right to make the joke. The so-called dictates of “political correctness” are not trying to deprive you of those rights. But they will compel I or others to call you out as a bigot if you say something that is blatantly racist, intolerant, misogynist, or xenophobic. If you seek to poison mine and others existence with bigoted speech you should no longer expect to enjoy a consequence-free existence as you would have in another century.
I try not to make light of pain and suffering I haven’t personally experienced – it looks too much as though I’m laughing at another’s pain, which is deplorable. If I am lucky to garner a laugh at a serious social issue I see to it that it is at my expense alone. When I am lampooning any of the afflictions that dog me I try not to implicate all who share in the struggle. I talk about my issues in relation to me, and don’t presume anyone else experiences the issue similarly. I don’t know that I have always been successful in getting this right but I really try to think before I speak and hope the good part of my brain catches up when the bad parts of my mouth do the hundred-metre dash, as they are inclined from time to time.
It’s a delicate balance, but I believe it’s a risk worth taking. There are too many issues that need to be out in the open and one way to do so while reaching the widest segment of society is through humour. Avoiding conversations about the harsh truths of existence allows voices of ignorance to construct the narrative, with the risk of re-victimizing those who have drawn the short straw. I think there is merit in sharing our experiences, to reveal the truth of the human condition as, among other things, a constant engagement with calamity and despair. It’s a bummer, but it also puts the onus more squarely on ourselves to add joy wherever we can. If we can demonstrate we’ve lived through the downer moments, and do so in a lighthearted way, it elevates the hope in others that it is possible to find joy somewhere in our pain.
Blogs that explore personal subjects have been instrumental to increased self-compassion, even if the humorous approach does at times touch a raw nerve. Laughter is a non-threatening means by which people can be made to understand the pain around them, which they may inflame by their ignorance or insensitivity. The process of self-awareness is more likely to begin after a laugh than it is at the end of a righteous-indignant finger pointed. Throwing a pie in the face of your persecutor is a moral victory in some senses, it is a way to fight back without degenerating into violence.
Humour can be an effective tool to close a mind and to open it, which is why it is a double-edged sword in irresponsible hands. When we hold up the mirror to our worst selves it is the humour that will ensure we do not look away in shame. But it can also cause harm if the blade isn’t wielded skilfully when the treading needs to be more delicate. Sadly, some people just can’t help slicing and dicing everyone else around them for their own gain.
It seems we’re living in a time where society’s top notches are looking to protect their interests by recklessly sowing seeds of bigotry, giving life to poison trees that flourish in minds struggling with the perils of existence. It is important as decent human beings to resist the desperate cravings that sometimes propel us to swallow the easy meal served up as a balm to our insecurities. The indulgence in bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia is the worst of all the forbidden fruit we may choose to eat. For the fleeting pleasure of an outlet for your angst you will be reeling with ideas that rob you of your soul; that render you incapable of seeing yourself in your fellow humans; that subordinate the harm you inflict beneath the need for a laugh to quiet your tears.
Call it “political correctness” call it “decency.” Whatever you do, set your mind free from the self-serving bigotry that divides us all to line the pockets of the few. When they tell you “political correctness” is the thing that keeps you down, tell them “there is some shit I will not eat.”