issue 249 - November 1993
Of Big Brother and Buffaloes
Is ‘political correctness’ Big Brother in drag –
or a laudable attempt to give the oppressed a chance?
Nina Silver takes a level look at the raging storm.
Recently at the University of Pennsylvania, student Eden Jacobowitz, roused from sleep by some noisy, drunken classmates, shouted to the group that they were worse than a herd of water buffalo.
An innocuous remark spouted in the ire of being awakened? That’s one side of the story. The other side challenges: Was the remark really innocuous, since everyone in the group was black? The result: this man was censured by the university as racist – while those accusing him of racism were denounced by his supporters as the ‘PC police’.
The media in North America – and now increasingly in the UK and Australasia – is abuzz with stories about ‘political correctness’. In Hollywood, AIDS activists recently clashed with actors wearing red ribbons to show solidarity for people with AIDS. The activists argued that ribbons defused the seriousness of the issue, lulling people into believing they were fighting AIDS when actually their activity only supported companies making money from ribbons, enamel pins, mugs, and tattoos. Meanwhile, actors sympathetic to the AIDS struggle, but who remained unribboned, were reporting threats and harassment – for not following the ‘politically correct’ position.
One article, Navigating the Nineties: a PC Survival Guide, declared: ‘Part of the foundation of PC theory is the belief that every instance of political incorrectness, no matter how small, adds up and is therefore catastrophic. The universe is a philosophical-karmic ecosystem; if you piss in your sink, it will end up in the drinking water in Chile.’1
So what does it really mean to be politically correct, and why are we reading so many bad things about it?
The term ‘political correctness’ probably originated in the 1970s. But according to writer Barbara Epstein, it was widely publicized by the media in October 1990, when the Western Humanities Conference held an interdisciplinary forum entitled ‘Political Correctness’ and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She explains that what started out as a wry self-deprecating joke on the Left became a rigid standard against which both liberals and conservatives were being measured.
The actual ‘politically correct’ agenda introduced to the universities consisted of curricula whose values, historical perspectives, and standards were not white, male, and heterosexual. Not only were students exposed to literature that presented the views of people of colour, feminists, and gays; they were also asked to apply this multicultural outlook to how they treated people in their daily lives.
Just as models of racism, sexism, and homophobia were being ruptured – attacks against political correctness started up. One prominent view claimed that so-called radicals, by injecting multiculturalism into the schools, were displacing scholarly ‘objectivity’ with their own biased orthodoxy. There were reports about how PC behaviour was getting out of hand. Black students at the University of Pennsylvania, reacting to a conservative columnist in the school paper, confiscated 14,000 copies of the publication before it could be distributed. At the University of Wisconsin, a student was suspended simply for telling an Asian-American, ‘It’s people like you - that’s the reason this country is screwed up’.2
Some college professors even stopped teaching courses on sensitive topics like race, ethnicity, and sexuality for fear of being fired. If they did teach, they taped the classes in case they were accused of something later. ‘Being offended has become a political agenda, even a full-time vocation for some people,’ wrote one journalist. ‘They are “thought vigilantes” on the prowl to punish people guilty of thinking proscribed thoughts.’2
Nor did the fundamentalist Right hold fire. Dr James Dobson, guru of the Christian organization Focus on the Family, contended that ‘Traditional standards of morality have crumbled under ... “politically correct” thinking’. And he declared: ‘There is no evidence that homosexuals as a class are discriminated against in the present society... they have far higher average income than most Americans, and significant political influence. ...[They] have Hollywood, the press, the media, the universities, the publishers, the professionals and the judiciary enforcing [their] “politically correct” agenda.’3
Christians were, he claimed: ‘stranded pretty much on their own... our opposition to the gay and lesbian tidal wave is not an expression of hate, but one of social justice and common sense.’
There were some calmer criticisms, like that of Roger Draper, for example. He wrote: ‘The heart of the radicals’ case is a moral one that cannot be wholly conjured away by a practical argument. For centuries, they tell us, the West has murdered, dispossessed and exploited people of colour, and it is now unworthy of its victims’ cultural loyalty. The claim to victimhood is perfectly legitimate. Yet the moral argument is faulty because it is based on a sentimentalized misreading of history. Before the inhabitants of what is today Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia were conquered and oppressed by the Spaniards, they were conquered and oppressed by the Inca. The Aztec empire in Mexico was so intensely hated by its subjects that they provided most of the soldiers Cortes led against Montezuma. Slavery was endemic in West Africa long in advance of the white man’s arrival in the fifteenth century, and the international slave trade prominently involved Arabs, Africans and Latin Americans, along with Europeans and North Americans.4
In fact, this author continued, if the PC police were realistic, they would admit that ‘American blacks often resent Caribbean blacks. Third-generation Japanese-Americans have little in common with recent arrivals from mainland China. Puerto Ricans are sometimes astonishingly hostile to Dominicans.’4
This data may be reasonable but it does not demonstrate that efforts to create racial or sexual harmony are invalid – regardless of what did or didn’t happen in the past.
Those critics who charge that the ‘PC police’ are becoming as dictatorial as what they are trying to rectify are ignoring one rudimentary detail: a governing body that routinely and by design discriminates against minorities, and one that attempts to redress the injustices to those minorities through implementing affirmative action, are hardly comparable. The first, which continues to oppress, signifies corruption and cynicism; the second, at worst, merely imprudence.
Poem about my rights
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
Extracted from ‘Poem about My Rights’ in Lyrical Campaign by June Jordan with kind permission of the publishers, Virago (UK).
It is true that misunderstandings happen and PC can run amok. This was, I suspect, the case with Jacobowitz and the water buffalo. While supporters of multicultural diversity applauded his censure no-one seemed to take account of Jacobowitz’s own Jewish background. Had they, they might have discovered that in Hebrew the word ‘behama’ – which means water oxen – is slang for ‘dolt’.
But, at the heart of ‘political correctness’ is a desire to ensure equity and tolerance by familiarizing people with viewpoints that do not subscribe to a prevailing powerful norm. If multiculturalism does not assume that all ideas are equal, that is because it’s appropriate – and necessary – to favour the ‘idea’ of equality over that of exploitation.
And equality does not mean a lack of objectivity, or the inability to discern between affirmative action and stultifying codes. Equality means that attempts to remedy situations harming many will inevitably make a few uncomfortable: notably those whose power is based on the subjugation of others. For instance, white men who whine about economic injustice because women and blacks are stealing ‘their’ jobs are using the attack on political correctness to justify their bigotry and maintaining of the status quo.
Sometimes ‘affirmative action’ can be taken too far, when oppressed minorities over-identify with their labels. Then, what merely should have corroborated the need for restitution becomes a defensive posture that emphasizes difference, separateness, reinforces alienation – and discrimination. Pride over one’s heritage can become a prison.
Yet despite the problems in attaining multiculturalism, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We are only at the beginning of a process, and are bound to make mistakes. True, university administrators steeped in a scholarly tradition of linear thinking sometimes exacerbate what they are trying to rectify. But it is also true that the media often presents a partial and distorted picture.
The Left, in its desire to eliminate oppression, has sometimes avoided discussing racially- and sexually-based differences between people for fear of being thought abusive. But those of different races, sexes, and sexual orientations do have disparate experiences and histories. We should be able to discuss social change in relation to these.
I think that to effectively launch multiculturalism, we must be clear that there is an immense difference between a private conversation and publicly-sanctioned, institutionalised hatred and prejudice. Students should have the right, either publicly or privately, to speak their minds. Tolerance and open-mindedness cannot flourish in the presence of fear. But it is the responsibility of the institutions, the schools and colleges not to maintain prejudice but to provide curricula based on including and appreciating diversity.
Feelings can and will be hurt. But the essence of political correctness is genuine respect for others. We should be able to talk openly about our disagreements and misunderstandings instead of being afraid of them. In that way we can learn where we need to develop tolerance – and discernment.
It helps never to forget to ask: ‘Who has the power? Based on the need for genuine equality on all levels for everyone, which group is becoming disadvantaged at this time, and how can their needs be met?’ – for the balance of power constantly shifts and we must be sensitive to who is affected by the changes – and how they are affected by them.
Democracy is a living, breathing thing that transforms with people’s needs and conditions of life. Unless those who advocate social change are prepared to deal with the oscillations inherent in any viable social system, they will end up as rigid and intolerant as their critics.
New York-based writer and psychotherapist, Nina Silver, has a volume of poetry coming out soon, entitled Birthing (Woman In The Moon Publications, PO Box 2087, Cupertino, California).
1 Playboy, January 1992: Peter N Nelson, ‘Navigating the Nineties: a PC Survival Guide,’ p111.
2 Newsweek, May 31, 1993: George F Will, ‘Compassion on Campus,’ p66.
3 Focus on the Family, August 1993, p10 and July 1993, p7.
4 The New Leader, April 6, p17.