A few weeks ago I wrote an opinion piece for The Miscellany News critiquing Vassar’s culture of political correctness. The newspaper’s most recent edition featured not one, but two responses to my article: one a letter to the editor from Jonathan Nichols, the other an opinion piece from Noble Ingram. Both of these articles are very well written and I would highly recommend giving them a read-through. However, I feel the need to provide some clarity on these issues.
Jonathan Nichols’s letter to the editor centers on a point I made towards the beginning of my article in which I defended Meryl Streep from individuals who claimed that a shirt she was wearing to promote her newest film was racist. The shirt had on it the quote “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”
Mx. Nichols begins by saying that just because a phrase has historical roots does not excuse it from examination. I completely agree with that. It’s always worth engaging in a critical examination of such things. And had that truly been what occurred, I would not have bothered writing about it.
However, that’s not what happened. Instead, activists cried racism. This particular response referred to the statement as being “anti-black.” Those are two very strong statements that go beyond a critique of the words used. They imply a level of intent, as if the producers designed the photoshoot specifically to alienate the African-American community. This is especially silly since this is a British film about the British women’s suffrage movement conducting a photoshoot with a British paper designed for British audiences. The idea that the producers would cater their message to an American understanding of slavery is culturally ignorant.
There is always a place for intelligent critique, but that does not mean that we have to immediately jump to racism every time we see something questionable without engaging the historical context.
Noble Ingram’s opinion piece is a more holistic view of my argument. But sadly, he mischaracterizes it within the first two paragraphs.
Mr. Ingram writes, “No one wants to double think everything they say.” That’s not my argument. Everyone should think before they speak. Most of our parents probably taught us that from a very young age. But thinking before you speak should be a matter of intelligence and maturity, not fear.
The author goes on to write that “we need to put an end to this narrative that targeting someone for who they are and who they have struggled and fought to be isn’t always an attack.” While I do find that the word “attack” implies a level of intent that I’m not exactly comfortable with, this is a completely valid argument.
It also has nothing to do with what I wrote. No, we shouldn’t be okay with statements that target certain individuals and groups. But we are so overly sensitive to anything that could possibly offend someone that we’ve taken to censuring and condemning statements that merely mention words like “sexual orientation” or “race” or “slavery” regardless of their contexts.
For example, take this joke: “Donald Trump is so in love with himself that he’s turned narcissism into a sexual orientation.”
This joke does not target the LGBTQ+ community in any way. Most reasonable people look at that joke and understand that it targets Donald Trump and nobody else. But because it so much as mentions the words “sexual orientation,” it becomes homophobic. Not because it targets anyone, but because it might.
Mr. Ingram made a fair point in response to this, saying that it’s not up to me to decide what’s offensive to the LGBTQ+ community. In theory, I would agree. As a white cis-gendered male, who am I to approach a person who’s been seriously hurt by someone and tell them that it’s not offensive? Wouldn’t it just be common human decency to stop telling a joke that is bothering someone?
I’m sad to say that particular fantasy is not one we can afford to live in. Some objectiveness must be allowed when determining what is bigotry.
For example, suppose I argued that the use of the word “transparent” is insensitive to transgender individuals? Or what if a vegan finds the consumption of meat morally reprehensible and wants it banned? Or what if I felt that parents who gave their children non-gender-neutral names were committing child abuse? You might think these are all nonsense, but I found examples of all of these online (specifically on Tumblr). But who am I to tell any of these people that they’re being stupid? Everyone, to some extent, objectively draws the line between what’s offensive and what’s not.
In addition, the author links oppressive language to violence. I find this to be not only demeaning to victims of actual violence, but dangerous to the preservation of the democratic state.
Firstly, linking language to violence is laughable, especially language that is not explicit or obvious hate speech. To equate my joke or the explicit and obvious hate speech of Republican candidates like Mike Huckabee and Dr. Ben Carson to the actual violence that is committed against the LGBTQ+ community every day is to do the later two injustice.
Secondly, how can a democracy function in which any person may run to the administration screaming that they feel unsafe because of oppressive language?
I have already heard that argument used against the existence of the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Organization, any of the pro-Jewish organizations on campus and Social Justice for Palestine. How can we possibly argue that political correctness has not gone too far when right in front of us we hear it used as an excuse the shut down clubs?
You may think this goes a bit too far, but it has happened in both this school and other ones.
Ten or so years ago, Laughing Stalks, the oldest comedy group on campus, was defunded and forced to change their name after a comedy sketch caught the ire of the student body. And only a couple weeks ago Wesleyan University defunded a student newspaper for publishing an article critical of Black Lives Matter. How can any independent journalism or comedy group function when they are constantly looking behind their backs, knowing that any politically incorrect article or comedy sketch could be their last?
The defenders of political correctness like to draw the line between being a decent person and being a jerk. But it’s actually the line between democracy and dictatorship.
Mr. Ingram’s article fails to draw that line. He’s willing to make these sacrifices if it means furthering his cause.
All I’m asking is why can’t we create an environment that is actually accepting rather than merely conformist? I propose that we can do more good by getting a thicker skin than we can through what we’re doing now.