Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Problematically Correct

A spiritualist vegan friend of mine did an unusual thing the other day; he went into bat for Donald Trump with the line: "If there is any reason to believe that Hillary or Obama are any less racist or sexist than Trump, I have never come across it." He did it on Facebook and there began the expected long threads of discussion, outrage, confusion, anger and stubbornness. I chose not to participate in that melee mainly because I've fallen into that muck before and it's not easy to get out. Last time I even dropped in a neutral comment into one of his "discussions" it was read as contrary. But this discussion itself bred a few interesting bones to chew on.

The vegan contended that Trump was merely being honest and that the slurs against him and those that voted for him were a "politically correct" response. He bemoaned the effect of this as stifling of debate, that immigration isn't a racial issue. There is an ounce of truth to this but I wanted to elaborate a non-partisan way of understanding political correctness in the pluralistic world.

Political correctness developed its current meaning in the 1990s and is used often in a pejorative way to indicate an excessive consideration to minority groups and to make everything safe, physically and psychologically, for all people. For conservative New Zealanders, it manifests itself in the entrenchment of the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori council seats, reactions to racial and racist comments, OSH, gay marriage, anti-smacking, and a host of other trends that make them groan. As they groaned though, so did others around the world at the acceptance of refugees, racial and gender quotas, white guilt, evolution and climate change. It all fell under that same label, "political correctness", even when much of it wasn't political; in fact, it was hard to really narrow down the definition of what was PC and what wasn't - it seemed an amorphous catch-all. Then with the rise of PC, whatever it was, the response against the encroachment of this phantom rose too. Just as people were shouted down for their non-PC opinions, so was heat directed to "the PC brigade".

The "PC brigade" must be up there with Luminati as a shadowy group of people that no-one knows but have power beyond all of our democratic institutions. Even if you ask those who decry the invasiveness of PC, if they name the people who are part of this movement in NZ, they're invariably people on the fringe, who by definition cannot hold much sway.

If you indulge me with a chance to hypothesise for a moment (and others may have said the same or disproven it while I've been occupied with life), I'd say political correctness is the response of the former mainstream to the general social changes since the "good old days". The good old days weren't particularly good: child abuse was hidden; sexual and domestic assaults weren't reported; workers died from a lack of safety; bars were full of second-hand smoke; black characters always perished first in the movies; gays were persecuted; sexist beliefs prevented female career progression; historical wrongs continued to ferment social and racial ill and disparities; and so on. And importantly, the mainstream socio-racial group was the power, the standard and the bedrock of values. She'll be right.

Society changed though and the power moved from a cultural monolith to a pluralistic society. The people with purchasing power, with the vote, with the memes to spread were increasingly not those who identified with the post-Christian white middle-aged male conservative views. Values and systems became more democratised. It's not hard to imagine how if feels to see the erosion of your own position from the group at the top of the natural order, to see values other than your own rise, and even those values in complete contradiction to your own values. This is where the phantom of political correctness came. It wasn't a single trend; it was all change away from that old standard.

Society has a spectrum of views; the median has moved along away from what it used to be. Some though are "ahead of the curve", impatient with the inertia of change. They are the powerless radicals that are often seen as the PC brigade - but actually the increasing majority of society is the PC brigade. If you ask most people they would agree that people should be hired based on their qualifications and experience not their sex nor ethnicity; that workers should have rules to mean they have the same chance of returning home alive and well as others; that not all stereotypes are true; that crimes should be punished; that historical wrongs should have some redress.

I agree with my friend that decisions to reduce immigration or the number of refugees needn't be an issue of racism, that if can and should be a pragmatic decision relating to the needs of the country, the ability of the country to accept people and its obligations. But whether Trump is any more racist (let alone sexist) than Obama and Clinton is a completely different question and Trump's documented words and actions speak volumes.

Interesting another case came up at the same time. A brochure from the Running Clinic advised: "Unfortunately, it's the reality that, even in Wellington, women need to take extra care when running.
"Find a running club or regular running buddies ... wear loose fitting clothing, run in the day in well-populated areas and interpret whistles as compliments (all the running is obviously paying off)."
There was an outraged Twitter response and an apology from Shoe Clinic to say that this had a shadow of victim blaming and positively framed a form of sexual harassment.

Obviously, women shouldn't be assaulted nor harassed on runs. Women have every right to run in the attire of their choosing. But there are had people out there and bad things do happen. Suggesting prudence in clothing is not a bad thing in my mind. Advocating prudence of any sort is not supporting misfortune, in the same way that I'd recommend my Chinese students not to carry cash (a common tendency) and not to work through parks at night while using a cellphone. Gay men have the same rights to express their affection for each other in the same ways that heterosexual couples do, but it isn't the best thing to do in certain communities. Some behaviour is ahead of the trend, regardless of the fact that it is in the right direction. Of course, the point about wolf-whistling seems behind the times and in the wrong direction.

Happy New Year! It's been a refreshing end to a horrendously busy year. And it is promising to be even more of the same for me in the first working weeks. I've been glad to travel, have quality family time and a good time for my health. Regrettably work thoughts invade my sparrowlight dreams, even while away on holiday. I hope the coming days give me a proper rest.

1 comment:

Crypticity said...

An interesting case: http://nzh.tw/11776258

He has freedom of speech, especially in a private capacity, but was imprudent with his expression. If the conversation was as he recalled it, I'd say the same about what she said.

Saying Waiheke is a white man's island (with thus white laws and police) is clangingly unacceptable to most now. The dichotomy of white and tangata whenua is not accurate and misapplied.