Oscar night, a few days ago, incendiary actor Sean Penn and good friend of the corpse of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, presented the Oscar for Best Director to Mexican-born Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu for his new film “Birdman.” While presenting the award he shouted into the mic: “Who gave this son of a bitch his greencard?” something which, predictably, caused an uproar all over social media. Of course when you read it dry, it sounds like he said something terrible, or at least inappropriate. For most people even in the audience, the (lighthearted) insult felt flat. But before you, yourself, gasp in horror at just how Penn reduced the Mexican director to just another illegal, perhaps the situation calls for some context.
Penn and Iñarritu are both good friends in real life ever since their collaboration in the film 21-Grams, and like all good friends they would rather show their camaraderie by hurling insults at each other rather than expressing mushy feelings of brotherly love. Iñarritu himself said that he found the joke hilarious and that him and Penn were cracking jokes backstage where the director himself was saying some pretty terrible stuff not camera-appropriate.
As I watched Penn say the words, from the tone of voice alone I knew that Penn was not only joking, but that he must know the man personally. Later on I confirmed it from several news reports who cashed in on the racial slight while ironically explaining that they are in fact good friends. I particularly didn’t find anything wrong with the comment, and it’s not because I am a Mexican that immigrated to the U.S. at 13 (a Latino endorsing that kind of insult doesn’t mean it’s okay to say it), but rather because I honestly didn’t find anything particularly offensive, or amusing. It was a lighthearted jab at a friend and I understood it as such. The situation is in fact so ridiculous that all anybody can talk about is what Sean Penn said instead of focusing on the politically charged speech that Iñarritu delivered about equality in our native Mexico.
If there’s a lesson to be learned here is that while it may not be appropriate to joke the same way you would with your friends at a gala party, even one full of liberals as Hollywood parties clearly are, it’s an even worse thing to take such trivial things out of context. What if Penn had been at an office party? There’s no doubt in hell he would’ve faced disciplinary action or been labelled a racist, a career-destroying allegation, all because the man cracked a joke.
It seems that nowadays it’s all about political correctness. But if we can find the distinction between respect and political correctness, soon we see that what we do is all for the wrong reasons. Most people know that we live in a diverse world that has had a historically tarnished reputation with minorities (and by minorities I mean EVERYONE, including white people), and that most of the time saying the wrong thing- or even the right thing to the wrong person- can land you in hot water. So in order to avoid the discomfort of dealing with other people or awkward situations, we often resort to not saying anything at all, or saying something that might be insincere but pleasant. In effect we’re being nice, not to not be assholes as it should be, but for fear of the repercussions. Some will undoubtedly say “Well, but you’re being nice and that’s what counts,” but that is not what counts. Not only are people avoiding talking about real things, their fears, their prejudices, etc, things that need to be discussed precisely to avoid repeating this shameful past, but they are actually avoiding conversations altogether! And that surely cannot be good.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that political correctness is a good thing. It is. It’s a safeguard from running our mouths amok at family dinner parties and from saying things that shouldn’t ever be said out loud. In a way, political correctness has helped with the bullying problem that we have in our schools and it has also done its part in the acceptance of immigrants and different racial groups into this melting pot that is America. So yes, political correctness is something that this country needs to keep. But how far is too far? The question then becomes (and there’s always a question): Where do we draw the line?
Ever since the first person on Earth articulated intelligible words that were understood by others, that person surely said something that somewhere down the road began the first war between humans. Of course language did not magically appear one day, it evolved through gradual changes in human psychology and physiology that spread over seas of time and land; and of course it would also be stupid to attribute all our problems to language, for even in the animal world there is wordless conflict. This doesn’t mean that mother nature hasn’t devised her own form of language, but the kind of language that we devised for ourselves has not only put us at a perhaps unfair advantage over most other creatures on Earth, but with the power to express anything we want, it has also created conflict, an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of language itself.
Let’s consider for a moment if everyone actually expressed what was going through their heads and said exactly what they meant to say. If humanity had somehow made it this far, it would still be total chaos! At best, diplomatic relations between countries wouldn’t be as widespread as they are, you would have a lot less friends than you do, and everyone would be living like characters out of the movie “Liar Liar”. At worse, I can assure you there would be a lot more laws against violence. Congress would seriously consider changing the Second Amendment.
In a world where you’re not the only one around, political correctness exists mainly to keep our mouths in check. Whoever claims that they always speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is for people to hear it is either lying or they have made a lot of enemies over the years. It just simply isn’t viable to tell people exactly what one thinks. That’s what children are for. If it doesn’t work in close tight-knit families with people you’ve known your entire life, don’t expect that little experiment to fare any better with the other people you haven’t known all your life.
As I mentioned earlier, the United States has a rather embarrassing history of treatment to other human beings who are not white and Christian. But even whites have been discriminated in the United States since always. At one point or another, Germans were considered the inferior race, then the Irish, then the Italians, and so on. Xenophobia in the United States is a rather particular phenomenon. It’s not so much that we expressly hate one race or another, rather the hatred seems to be not only transferable but rather brief until the next group sets foot onto this land. And then there’s slavery. Embarrassingly still in place until a little over a hundred years ago, the separation of people for the color of their skin was still happening at a time when mankind was already peering into the depths of the universe, a time when incredible scientific advancements were already under way.
Why is any of this relevant you may ask. Because it forces a perspective on us. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination form part of our history. But in truthful consideration, no one alive today (save for people who still hold such ignorant positions) can truly be blamed for the crimes of those who came before us. Political correctness has done its small part integrating different races and different ideologies into our communities, and in providing our children the rules of decorum. Integration is perhaps one of the best things a society can do to ensure its survival and prosperity.
While it’s a wonderful thing to teach our children to be tolerant of others as it forms the necessary base for clearheaded adults, it seems that we often forget to also teach them to think critically about its adverse effects, and there are adverse effects to being too tolerant, remember that everything in excess is bad. This is the part where being politically correct gets tricky.
But does political correctness really protect against hate speech, or does it merely cover up the smell of shit with the smell of roses? As cynical as it might sound, does it really matter?
When we’re condemned to talk about the obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious problems facing our societies today and identify those problems when and where we see them, then political correctness is actually harming honest conversation in lieu of tact and politeness.
Let me offer a few examples where political correctness is doing more harm than good.
The military is one of those subjects in people’s minds that should be left out of the conversation for respect of those who fight to protect our freedoms, including that of allowing me to write this article without the fear of getting flogged 100 times, or getting executed for heresy or treason. In fact I could bash each and every member of the armed forces and I shouldn’t expect any real punishment from the government- I would from each and every member of the military but that’s another story.
Over the years the military has almost achieved a level of mysticism comparable to some religions, and to talk about the military in the wrong context can turn you in people’s eyes into anti-American, a traitor, or if you’re a politician it can even mean political suicide. There is a lot of interest in keeping the integrity of the military pristine, and yet it wouldn’t be wrong to say that there are a lot of visible problems in the ranks. These range from the trivial like lying about personal history, or minor drug offenses, to serious issues that have irreversibly harmed the reputation of some of those in charge, problems like sexual harassment, credible allegations of abuse not only against civilians but within the military itself, corruption, etc. I’m not talking about a soldier or a marine getting yelled at during basic training or boot camp, I’m talking alarming levels of abuse and severe incompetence on part of the leadership, not to mention of course cover-ups that make politicians and civilians lose trust.
We have avoided talking about such things because the fear of offending one of the most sacred institutions in our country overpowers the necessity to enforce a little oversight.
What about race-relations? Although we have come a long way since the Civil Rights Movements of the 60s, race-relations in America do not seem to be any better than they were in the 90s, and in fact if it’s possible they seem to be deteriorating in light of recent events (I would post a link but I don’t think it’s necessary). While its fair to say that our police forces share some of the blame, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that a lot of the blame also lies with a population who thrives on keeping this fire alive- opportunism at its worse. For what purpose though? It’s a never-ending cycle that is self-replenishing. Police forces militarize to keep protesters in check and as a consequence the number of protesters balloon and soon you have a time bomb waiting to go off. As a defense against this fear, the police become even more aggressive. There’s no end to it. This problem does not originate in either side, it’s an issue that goes deeper than that. But until we have an honest conversation, we are just dogs chasing our own tails.
And what about religion? I don’t really have to tell you that one of the most destructive things I see today, and one of the most threatening things to our future free societies, is the radicalization of religion- okay, I guess I just did. The case of religion is a peculiar one though because it is the only subject that even groups who are not associated with it, will defend. And it is not a defense based on the freedom to profess or to believe or even to speak out, but rather it is a defense to censor those who speak out against it. Somehow someone decided that it’s against the rules to inconvenience non-adherents of a specific religion- or of no religion at all- by talking badly about them. But defending censorship (including self-censorship) is nothing more than cowardice dressed up as valor. Again, it’s an action based on fear.
If we were having this conversation in the 17th century, I’d be talking about the perils of Christianity. But as it happens it seems that Islam has now taken its place suppressing knowledge and ideas and at its most radical, it has become the placeholder of barbarism and backwardness. We often fail to recognize that the radicalization of Muslims around the world is a serious problem that has to be dealt with, but for some illogical delusion, even the would-be victims of its intolerance defend it, quite literally to the death.
Islam in its most pure and unadulterated form is practiced in the Middle East right now, and especially in the territory controlled by those nice guys from ISIS. And just in case you haven’t been watching the news lately, the Middle East is still not the best place to live at the moment. Or to be a woman in, or a child, or to like music, or color, or to be gay, or to think differently. Basically if you’re not a man willing to follow the most barbaric edicts of the Quran, you have absolutely no business in the Middle East. Right now, ISIS is basically the Arab equivalent of the Khmer Rouge, and yet there are groups even here in America that defend its right to declare open war against any Westerner that dares oppose the divine rule of Islam. At this, the leaders of many free-world nations, including our own, have the tenacity to say that religion is not the motivator for these crimes and these people are not true Muslims. Try explaining that to them, provided you don’t get beheaded first.
Political correctness in this context is so extremely dangerous to contemplate that it seems like a given to get rid of it altogether. It wouldn’t be such a far off idea to have people in street corners challenging others to open discussions where nothing is off the table and where literally anything can be said about this or any other controversial subject. If you think that this will not bring about any benefit, it surely cannot be any worse than what we’re doing now. It appears that some of my fellow liberals would rather see the heads of children roll down the mosques of ISIS on television rather than ask about the religious convictions or those who did the beheading. This is not racism and it certainly isn’t the fault of moderate Muslims. I wouldn’t dare blame all the problems of the Middle East on religion, that would be ridiculous, unfair and untrue. After all, we don’t have the right to pretend that industrialized nations’ interest in a fruitless desert that we wouldn’t otherwise occupy if it weren’t for its resources is just an accident. But the problem of radicalization has already eclipsed the issue of occupation and even imperialism, it has in fact become the bigger problem to deal with.
Religious radicalization is just another form of political ideology run amok, gone completely haywire and infecting everyone in its sight. And you may ask yourself, why do we protect religion the way we do? What special privilege does it have that whatever rules dictate that any religion is to be unspoken of?
People often make the case that we have a responsibility to be respectful of people’s beliefs. But the question stands, where is it written that beliefs- anyone’s beliefs- are unquestionable?
In most other aspects of our lives we often question things to find out cost versus reward, and we rely on the power of observation, rationalization, and careful thought to arrive at the beneficial element. Yet we omit this process when we start on to specific paths that predate our formal educations, those that were- through no choice of our own- taught since birth. As a means of their survival, along with those unsubstantiated rules, we are also taught to refrain from questioning those rules- politics, religion, and even prejudices enter into this category. And of course, they are protected with a Kevlar-strong argument that persists to this day: political correctness.
Perhaps you have seen the following argument somewhere, but would you say that you respect Hitler’s beliefs just because he’s entitled to them, even after knowing that Nazi Germany sparked a war that took more than 60 million lives? Can we be as callous and irresponsible as to not ask why the Catholic Church incinerated thousands of women alive simply because doing so would be infringing on the beliefs of the few? What about slavery? Substantial evidence exists to prove that slavery in the United States was justified and rationalized by religious reasons more than any others. Of course we’ve all heard the religious adopt the very boring position that “those people were not real Christians,” but the fact is that they were real Christians in accordance to their times, and the fact that Christianity has evolved- yes evolved- to survive in our present environment doesn’t take away from the fact that some of most religious people back then were bigots.
How about the recent waves of extremism in the world? People’s religions and political ideologies should be put into question, they need to be put into question, and we need to stop pretending that beliefs, as sacred and ancient as they are, don’t cause real-world harm because they do. A side asterisk. Doesn’t the fact that those were ancient beliefs and thus not fit for our current model of the world ring any bells?
We have made it politically incorrect to question people’s beliefs, and as a consequence public discourse seems to be diminishing in some forums and increasing in others. Make no mistake, I do not advocate for people’s right to believe anything they want, just what they actually believe.
And this is the ugly part of political correctness, a grey area that no one seems to understand.
After the murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, many people who had no connection to Islam or to radicalism sided with the terrorists saying that the people at the magazine had it coming (the bad of political correctness) because they had insulted something so dear and personal for Muslims, one of those being the pope. A lot of them were fellow liberals who had an erroneous idea about what the questioning and criticizing of a person’s religion meant. While many others simply refused to talk about it (something possibly even worse).
If you keep up with this blog, you might actually be tired of me quoting author Sam Harris, but in his podcast shining light on the hypocrisy and fear of Western liberals Harris said: “…here’s one sign a person, whether he’s on the left or the right politically, has completely lost the plot here. The moment he begins to ask ‘what was in those cartoons? Were those cartoons racist? Was that a negative portrayal of Muhammad?’ To ask such questions is obscene. People have been murdered over cartoons! End of moral analysis.” The man is absolutely right. Political correctness has led us astray in the road to enlightenment. We have gotten to a junction where we can no longer recognize what our priorities are for fear of offending one party or another. A lot of people have allowed fear to take over the rational parts of their brain and make irrational decisions.
But this isn’t the only area where people call for a drawback to freedom of speech.
Some say that freedom of speech does not- and should not- protect hateful speech. The problem as I see it is that with a couple of lawyers and a few pages full of legal jargon, any speech can be turned into hate speech, not just the words every foreigner learns first- curse words.
The ugly truth about political correctness is that it has such a broad definition that it can, and does, include ideas and thoughts to censor speech. Laws have been drafted in order to limit just what and how much a person can say and about what. In fact that’s what classified documents are about, state secrets that no one is allowed to divulge, and to do so can mean severe penalties.
No speech should ever be sanctioned, including hate speech. People should know that they have the right to say whatever it is they want to say, with the full knowledge that consequences will arise from exercising that right. However, no human in any society (especially in a free society) should ever fear for his/her life for speaking out.
To quote Harris again, later in the conversation in that same podcast he speaks of Germany’s law against denying the holocaust. Every rational person would agree that anyone who denies the holocaust is at best ignorant of the facts and at worse a bigot, but Harris notices the flaw in that logic quickly. At this he says that “A person should be absolutely free to deny the holocaust, which is to say he should be free to destroy his reputation. And others should be free to ridicule him and to boycott his business. There shouldn’t be a law against this kind of idiocy…” Again, he is right in that speech should never be hindered in any way, but people should also be aware that there are always real-life consequences to what their mouths spew out.
To conclude, the ugly truth about political correctness is that there is no discernible line between politeness and ignorance, it is a matter of common sense in a realm that belongs to the analytic mind to determine if what we’re talking about is more dangerous than not talking about it, or vice versa.
To be or not to be… politically correct?
To be politically correct you first have to acknowledge that there is essentially a culture of previous political incorrectness. When a society has gotten used to throwing around words that denigrate and offend individuals or groups of people, then it’s important to see that something has to change. In our everyday vernacular words like “nigger” (and its variants), “gay”, “fag”, “retard”, “geek”, “whore”, etc.- these are all hateful words that are used to put down others not based on ideology but on things none of us have any control over. But who gets to decide where and when to draw that line? Why is it okay for actors in a funny movie to say these words but not okay for someone in a social situation to do the same? Who decides what’s permissible and what’s not between a Comedy Central Roast and the White House Correspondents Dinner? When do we acknowledge when the situation calls for a joke and when it is a serious issue we need to pay attention to? Are religion, politics, or people protected from verbal critique? How can we remain objective and recognize when something is merely humor and when it isn’t. What about using humor (as in the case of Charlie Hebdo) to talk about real-world issues? And what do we do when the definitions become muddled?
It seems that the questions outnumber the answers but as I mentioned in the beginning, political correctness has a lot to do with how you say things and not merely what things are being said. People need to acknowledge that certain situations call for political correctness to be suspended, while others call for it to be recognized, but above all we should remember that even horrible things said in a nice way are still horrible things.
More than anything else we should make use of a little device more important than political correctness, common sense. We should exercise common sense in all situations in life, I cannot stress this point hard enough. If logic and common sense formed part of our everyday lives, perhaps there would be absolutely no need to be politically correct in the first place.
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