A morning radio host where I live was terminated 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 indigenous population. 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.”
Some applauded the termination. Others believed it was yet another instance of “political correctness” run amok. On balance, no serious, legitimate media organization wants one of its highest-profile celebrities, the face of its “brand” essentially, to be the guy who gets a laugh at the poor and disenfranchised; whose actions were so blatantly ignorant of the city’s decades-long, divisive racial politics.
I am aware how difficult it is for regular, middle-class white men to have “political correctness,” lorded over their heads for so many years. It feels like a broad-brushed accusatory finger pointing at every single one, forcing the whole lot to atone for the sins of the few. I am not white but like most white men I consider myself to be a decent man. I feel an instant recoiling when I hear broad-brushed criticism of our society’s “rape culture”; an allegation that implicates me in these acts just as “political correctness” implicates white men in bigotry. I’ve never raped anyone. Most men have not raped or sexually assaulted anyone. It seems unfair to then implicate all of us men with the rapists and serial sexual predators.
All the same, can I honestly say the experience of something mundane, which I take for granted, like walking to my car after an evening out on the town, is the same for me as it is for a woman? No, I absolutely cannot. I tell my petite, female partner to never dare do such a thing at night.
Can any man who reads the news, even intermittently, honestly assert that victims of rape and sexual assault have seen these crimes punished in the justice system, so as to feel the law acts as a deterrent? No, we absolutely cannot.
Can I assert that as a young man I spoke up when I was in the company of male acquaintances boasting about their rapey sexual escapades? I was disgusted by the lack of contrition and never considered these men as anyone I would want to befriend, but I did nothing to make them aware their behaviour was unacceptable; did nothing to ostracise or punish them; to ensure there were meaningful social repercussions to increase the odds their victimizing behaviours would cease. I kept quiet and pretended it was fine.
With just a little imagination, I have halted in its tracks the urge to soothe my bruised ego with dismissals of the lived experience of countless women. I have also acknowledged my own culpability in perpetuating this problem. It is a hard truth to face about oneself, but also necessary if we want to be real allies; to bolster our claims to being “good men” with specific acts that ensure fewer victims. We risk becoming complicit in normalizing this kind of victimization if we discount the critical narrative meant to change the culture of male entitlement and impunity that combine to prolong the victimizing behaviours.
As a person of colour, I know what it is like to have the ugliness of countless racist encounters I have endured brushed aside as, “not that bad.” In the aggregate, they add up to a feeling of oppressiveness, more so because there is nowhere to turn for redress in a culture that denies its existence. This feeling is especially acute when the denials fuel self-congratulatory tropes about what a land of progressive, tolerant, and unabashedly people we are in the eyes of the world. Canadians especially get off on this delusional reputation. I was profoundly hurt and angry by the numbers of my fellow Canadians who dismissed “Black Lives Matter” just because they were not ardent racists.
This national-pride fueling hypocrisy is a cognitive dissonance white men in most Western countries never have to square. Freed of this emotional burden they are left with the physical energy and psychological fortitude needed to “pull up their socks” when confronted with life’s trials and tribulations. I do not doubt for a moment many white men have had a hard life. What they have not had is a hard life plus instances of being victimized – raped, sexually assaulted, beaten, harassed by law enforcement, or subjected to racist slurs – and then not only being unable to seek justice for the injury but being subject to disbelief that such things occur. It is incredibly damaging to a psyche.
The idea of “political correctness” encourages a mental leap from our situated selves to imagine what it might be like for the marginalized living among us. The exercise forces us to hold a mirror up to ourselves, if only to ensure we are not part of the problem; assuming we aim not to be part of the problem. If we are as “good” as we say we are, it’s a minor gambit, a small change in habit that adds up to maybe a few moments in a day.
The act of subjecting our words and actions to a small dose of critical scrutiny BEFORE we unleash them can spare someone the additional blow after a lifetime of taking such undeserved blows. If the radio host in my town had paused for one second to ask himself, “In the context of a systemic racist history so notorious it has led to the labeling of our city in national media as ‘The most racist city in Canada,’ would indigenous people, would people struggling economically, would people living there think the video is funny?”
The radio host may harbour more ingrained bigotry than he was aware – it is a common disease in my town, which is mostly made up of good, honest, hard-working people. They believe the bromides etched on our license plates about being “Friendly.” They fail to realize friendliness is not just a label; it is a comportment that, to be claimed genuinely, must be fortified with commensurate deeds. It is a baseless claim if in reality it is, “Friendly, except to indigenous people and others who aren’t white.”
The radio host is clearly an otherwise intelligent man, bigotry aside. Unfortunately for many competent, capable people, bigotry is an affliction that readily bypasses the intellect in ways that quickly undermine a reputation built on stellar career achievements. Had the radio guy allowed his intellect to have a say in his ill-fated scheme to entertain the fans, he would likely never have posted the video. It is a shame for him. He paid a heavy price for his moment of thoughtlessness, though the cost will not leave him legitimately traumatized. The same cannot be said for the countless victims of racism or misogyny unleashed in a bigoted moment of thoughtlessness.
Most of the white people in my town who do happen to harbour bigoted views – in respect of indigenous people in particular, it is a sickening majority – are not rightly described as ardent racists. What many do not realize is how quickly “minor” acts of bigotry add up when they are cavalierly unleashed with a racist comment here, a racially-inflammatory news story there, a blind-eye turned to a blatantly racist deed there. Such little cuts of bigotry prick the skin of a marginalized person day after day, year after year and add up to a gaping wound of oppression over time. It results in the death of a spirit by a thousand “little” cuts.
A moment of “political correctness” would have prevented the infliction of a significant insult on countless indigenous Canadians in my town, many of whom I suspect are sitting on the fence about the merits of joining white society. It would also have prevented many from believing the radio host to be an unabashed racist. The point of “political correctness” is not to tar all white men as bigots, but to compel us all to look before we leap, because our collective tolerance to see a shred more damage caused by insensitivity is exhausted.
We know all the “little” bigotry-induced misdeeds are in fact a “big deal” because of how they cumulatively wear out the psyche of those subjected to them. It may be true, the reaction to insensitivity may at times be a little more reactive, resentful, and a little more disproportionate than warranted by the deed. However, we also know bigotry has been an indelible feature of our culture for too long, even if in the past it was unwitting. We know it has been an oppressive force in the lives of the millions subjected to it. Since we are committed to the idea of freedom for all, systemic bigotry must end now, at least if our claim we are a society of good people who value liberty is to have any merit.
This is one simple example of the reason why a strong social ethic that frowns on bigotry is necessary. I am no longer a fan of the term “political correctness” because it has been appropriated by the champions of bigotry as an infringement on “free speech”, which is an insidious come-down for the legacy in which the concept of “liberty” is rooted. Ideas about the right to “free speech” as paramount to a citizen’s freedom blossomed in a time when criticism of the Church or the ruling tyranny was a grave crime. The modern troglodytes who wield “free speech” like a bludgeon against immigrants, people of colour, and women have villainously assailed a democratic virtue won with the blood of our ancestors.
They have turned “political correctness”, an ethical corrective to our inexplicable, increasing willingness to overlook vile, criminal behaviour, into a slur that amplifies the daily barrage of racist, misogynist, xenophobic slurs they unleash from their intellectual anuses. Those who extol claims to “freedom” in order that they may freely champion bigoted, craven bombast like a noxious-smelling badge of honour are traitors to liberty and ought to be pilloried for the moral depravity they foment.
On that note, we must take care not to direct too much punishment at those who are reeled in by the hucksters and charlatans. Yes, they should know better, but they are suffering too, in their way, economically. The insecurity leads them to trust the Corporate shills who, like pied pipers, wilfuly lead their fellow affluent white men and women down a garden path to a drop-off into the ethical abyss. They do so to fatten the pockets of their robber-baron benefactors, who are not just “affluent” but “filthy” rich. We must not de-humanize and blame the legions of powerless dupes drawn in by their so-called cultural allies; their fellow white male political pundits who tout bigotry to keep their nations divided.
Certainly, the white, male legions who drink the bigot-flavoured Kool-Aid are more powerful than women and people of colour, but they also are victims of the same powerful forces that have distorted our economies and made everyone worse off. The problem is these legions have been co-opted as political allies of the super-rich, thanks to the persuasive force of bigoted propaganda. These messages are crafted to deflect responsibility for economic stagnation and inequality away from its origins in over concentration of wealth and power towards easy targets for scapegoating; those unable to defend against the insidious accusations of being a drain on society: poor people, immigrants, and the disenfranchised. It is a powerful, persuasive message, but not because it is rational or imbued with fact. It is convincing because it is asserted with the blustery, smug, confidence of the snake-charmers who appear to share a cultural affinity with the white, male audience targeted for incitement. The money at stake buys a slick, familiar propaganda campaign meant to indoctrinate white men with racist tropes to shift the blame for their diminished economic existence.
Dear white, middle- and working-class men:
You may share the skin colour, love of Jesus, guns, genitalia, and love for the “American Way of Life” with the CEOs funding libertarian, Ayn Rand cultist PACs to dupe you into making them richer. In reality, the CEO and billionaire’s “American” way of life is lived on a yacht, a private jet, an exclusive, six-figure-membership-costing golf-course, a ten-thousand square foot compound, and vacation cottages in Europe. Your day-to-day reality is nothing like theirs. It is almost identical to that of the immigrants and people of colour you have been convinced to fear and hate. They get up every day and work their asses off for less money to make ends meet, just like you; all while the multinational business owners who pay working slave wages to everyone are swimming in profits. Many of these so-called threats also love Jesus, guns, and really, really want in on The American Way of Life, not to usurp it with Sharia Law as you’ve been told. Don’t listen when the billionaire-funded talking head says “political correctness” is setting you back, listen to the economist who says monopoly-induced market failure, tax evasion, and offshore capital flight – the things billionaires and their Corporations do – are setting you back.
To any objective political theorist it is obvious bigotry has been the tactic de rigeur to undermine democracy. It has rendered Americans, once internationally renowned for their democratic spirit, into docile, lazy, apathetic peons in the face of fascist Corporatists who spend much of their excess capital corrupting politicians to enact policies to screw millions of their fellow citizens. It has rendered many Europeans, who would be wise to remember the pitfalls of racist nostalgia, daft to the ethnic nationalism that stunts their senses. How many people in the UK are going to vote for Brexit because of Islamophobia and, in their bigoted fury, will fail to consider how EU membership has been a boon for millions of UK nationals for decades? The pied-pipers, the ones with the soap-boxes and podiums with a captive audience of fellow whites telling them progressive causes are evil are the true villains. They are knowingly dragging their fellow white citizens of a once glorious nation into the gutter where the robber-barons’ power goes unchallenged.
Progressives are wise to remember this. The white dupes – yes, many of whom may be bigots – are victims in their way. They are slaves like women and people of colour. They are future allies in the fight to wrest control of our democracies from the corrupting forces that foment bigotry as a convenient tool of division to keep themselves flush with cash.
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 oppression. 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 aspires to recognize the rights and equality of all, nobody should have to face this kind of bar to their success. Since laws against minor 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.
It is revealing when someone blasts “political correctness” as a bane forcing their mouth shut. It says something damning about the content of a mind if every thought it produces risks such offense. Does this not in itself confirm the criticism of Western society’s inherent racist bias? 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 the brain other animals lack is functioning exactly as nature intended.
The mind’s intervention in this instance has fortified proof of its reputation as the most sophisticated biological machine on the planet. It will retain this mantle so long as you regularly consult it and pay it heed. It will resist the early-onset of atrophy as long as you refrain from spending your leisure time in front of titillating, neuron-leeching screens where racist pundits conspire to bamboozle you with dog-whistles fabricated to dull your wits; to make you oblivious to the dubious ethical sludge that wins your compliance to enslavement by the Corporate stooges who pay their salaries.
Imagine the intellectual energy freed up when junk media is avoided. The din of bigoted punditry is like steroids for the amygdala; one that concurrently shrinks the pre-frontal cortex with a barrage of rage and fear into a peanut-sized, perfunctory appendage barely possessing the functional capacity of an amoeba. Now that your mind is on the path of recovery, you could read a book. Or, start slow, perhaps with a short article from a reputable periodical. It will be filled with actual facts rather than the vitriolic opinions you have been hoodwinked into believing are the same as facts. You could examine why your mind was teeming with misogyny, racism, religious intolerance, and xenophobia that necessitated your effort to wean it off the dog-whistle diet purpose-built to render it dull and witless. You are encouraged to spend your time in dogma-deprogramming rehab cultivating a mind that is as spry and intelligent as it was meant to be.
This is all to say, there are some jokes that, if I were a white guy, I would steer clear from making. True, it is everyone’s right to make whatever joke they feel might garner a laugh. The so-called dictates of “political correctness” are not trying to deprive anyone of those rights. But the adoption of the ethical principles behind it will compel I or others to call you out as a bigot if you say something blatantly racist, intolerant, misogynist, or xenophobic. Those who aim to poison the culture with bigoted speech should no longer expect to have such behaviours form part of a consequence-free existence. It does not matter that such behaviours were acceptable in another century, or just ten years ago. That acceptance, that normalization of complete indecency is how we got here; to the point we need to slam the door shut on it once and for all.
It is best not to make light of pain and suffering that has not been personally experienced – it is garnering a laugh at another’s pain, which is deplorable. It is at times a delicate balance, but it is a risk worth taking. There are several issues that need to be out in the open because sweeping them under the carpet has perpetuated the problem. Stigma normalizes oppression, a truth for all kinds of social phenomena. Women were made to feel shame for coming forward – the answer to the vicious question, “How come you’re only speaking up now, when it is convenient.” Because it was shamefully inconvenient in the past; the slut-shaming another oppressive tool that kept the ubiquity of these crimes from our consciousness. It was always there. It is not new.
It is incumbent upon all of us to hear the stories that have been silenced for too long. We must take stock and consider the implications, without instinctively shutting down those who bring the truth because of guilt or shock; because we dislike hearing truths that contradict our rosy self-image, that poke holes in our founding myths. These stories reveal the truth of the human condition as, among other things, a constant engagement with calamity and despair, something we all experience in our lives. If we demonstrate as a society we are not just hearing what those pushed between the cracks are saying about their marginalized experience, but changing our collective behaviour to end it, then we have done our part to instill hope; to help lift feelings of alienation that weigh heavily on those historically confronted with society’s disparagement of their humanity.
It is doubtful the radio host’s intention was to make the city’s indigenous people the butt of a racist joke. Because he did not think – did not use his imagination – he could not see the various sides, none of them positive; he could not see how the stunt would be received as a slur. Even if he did not mean it, he should have given it more thought. For too long such thoughtlessness was overlooked and it caused too much harm. If not owing to the racial dynamic, then the poverty underlying the phenomena touted for ridicule should have impressed upon the creators that their gag might not be at all funny to those who endure it. Poverty is not something a white, upper-middle class man who has never experienced it should lampoon.
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.” Think more critically about what you eat and you will not have to worry so much before you speak. The pools of toxic discourse lingering in your mind will be remediated by the new-found lens of intellectual discernment. It will increase the odds intelligence is what accidentally spills from your mouth, rather than something to earn the label of indecency.