I’m a public servant. I work in a public building. Today, I was in the workspace of a coworker I don’t usually interact with. The very first thing I noticed was the (I counted) eight pictures of John Deer tractors hanging up. I thought it odd, but, okay, whatever. I guess she has John Deer fetish. I mean if I had eight pictures of Yamaha motorcycles up in my workspace you might (correctly) assume I have a fetish for them. (I have only one hanging up, thank you very much.) The second thing I noticed was the Christian poster and the four laminated Bible quotes on the wall. Personally, I think that’s inappropriate in a public building. Just in general, I’m not big on public displays of religion. I mean, even bumper stickers and such, I’m like – why!? Why do you feel the need to put that out there? I mean, if you really believe in an omniscient god, then isn’t your faith between you and that god? I don’t know…
Then… Then, I noticed the Duck Dynasty mouse pad.
Now – just in case you don’t know, Duck Dynasty was this so-called “reality” TV show about a family of rednecks in Louisiana that (for some damn reason) was very, very popular before the network (A&E) pulled it after the “cast” made some public statements that were derogatory toward gay people.
“Political correctness” (PC) has a bad rap in America. Sure, like many things PC can be taken too far. My mom (who usually has very good taste) doesn’t like Mel Brooks b/c almost all of his humor is chauvinistic, racist, and ethnic. There is nothing PC about Mel Brooks! But… I love him. He can get away w/ it b/c he’s Mel fucking Brooks, and the old rule of humor still applies: humor and irony trump everything – IF you can pull it off (and Mel always does). But maybe I don’t really think Mom is taking PC too far; maybe that’s just her tastes. I guess the stereotype of taking PC too far is being soooooo overly-sensitive about offending anybody that you go way, way, way out of your way not to say anything even remotely offensive. I can’t think of an example right now, but you get the idea.
But I got to thinking, and I think that exaggerated caricature of PC is maybe not what it’s about. Here’s my theory: PC is about what is considered acceptable and what is considered shameful to say in public.
I can actually remember the first time I encountered racism, which is probably unusual for a white guy. I was very small, maybe even just 5, and we were on vacation at the beach, and my Dad asked some guy for directions. The man replied (I can still hear it all in my head), “Well, like the niggers say, you can’t get there from here.” Big laughs. Mom laughed. Dad laughed. My brother and I laughed b/c our parents were laughing. Later, Mom told us that we shouldn’t repeat that b/c nigger was not a nice word. Okay, clearly this guy was no Mel Brooks, but let me say, in my parents defense, neither of them were particularly racists people – but Dad was born in the ‘37 and Mom in ’44 – that was their generation, and c.1980 that was still acceptable for people to talk like and joke about.
But that’s the point. See, today it would be wildly unacceptable for casual (white) strangers to just toss off a “nigger” joke – unless they are full-on, KKK-type racists. Obviously lots of people still talk like that in private, but in our public discourse that has become so unacceptable and shameful that you don’t see that anymore. Witness: Paula Dean.
Another example. I love James Bond. I love Sean Connery as Bond. But holy crap, there is a lot of stuff in the Connery movies that is so “rapey.” He frequently goes beyond chauvinistic to misogynistic. In Goldfinger he physically rapes Pussy Galore – pins her down and rapes her. In Thunderball he blackmails his nurse into having sex w/ him. And in several movies he literally smacked girls around and beat them in cooperating w/ him. Sure I love those movies, but they are so a product of the 1960’s, and thank ye gods that would be totally unacceptable today. Not that I want to see a fully PC James Bond; Bond should always be a bit of a chauvinist b/c that’s his character – that’s who he is: an arrogant, sexist prick who uses women and tosses them away – he’s meant to be an anti-hero, after all. But could you imagine a scene in which Daniel Craig smacked a girl around or raped her? No. Not in 2014.
One more example. Just 5 or 6 years ago it was very common to hear “gay” used as a general pejorative. “That is so gay.” “This is so gay.” (i.e. It sucks; I don’t like it.) I still hear that from time to time, but nowhere near as much as I used to. Gradually, it’s becoming socially frowned upon. 10 years from now, it may even be downright shameful.
So that’s what PC is about. It’s not about: you can’t laugh at Mel Brooks. Hell, yeah, you can laugh at Mel Brooks b/c he’s hysterical. And, yes, you can still enjoy watching Goldfinger and love Sean Connery – despite it being very rapey, you can take it for what it is and when it was made. But what PC is about is the way the limits of socially acceptable discourse have shifted. In the 60’s, 70’s, and ‘80’s, people openly did and said things that would be too shameful today. That’s positive movement.
And maybe in the not distant future someone would be ashamed to have a Duck Dynasty mouse pad on their desk in a place where they work w/ the public – including, of course, a lot of LBGT people.