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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Thursday, 25 February 2016

Political Correctness Is Not Your Friend

Hello hello!

Content warning: I use some pretty harsh language in this one, so if racism is triggering for you, be prepared or maybe skip this one for the sake of your mental health.

So, for a very long time, something has been sitting awry with me. People on my side of the political and rights spectrum--those who accept the reality of and want to fight social, racially based, gender-based, and ability-based inequality--keep using this phrase, "politically correct", as though it's a good thing.

Source. Where would a discussion on language be without this meme?

Why is this happening? 

Well, it started because a bunch of idiot white male comedians (that doesn't have to be a redundancy) started using the idea of being "politically incorrect" as an excuse to be sexist, racist, homophobic, and say whatever else was on their mind. This started happening because they were quoting George Carlin--a guy who fought hard against network censors.

Those of us who remember the 90s remember what political correctness meant--not just the positive benefits of avoiding racial and gendered slurs, but also the far less positive effect of not talking about controversial things. Political correctness does not mean uplifting people, it means avoiding controversy and offending people. It means painting over historically inaccurate racism--like say, the portrayal of Egyptians as white people--by casting lots of white people, so you won't "offend" anyone whose idea of Egyptian gods involves white skin. 

Not sure that's the case? Ask Google. 

po·lit·i·cal·ly cor·rect
pəˌlidək(ə)lē kəˈrekt/
adjective: politically correct; adjective: politically incorrect; adjective: incorrect
  1. exhibiting (or failing to exhibit) political correctness.
    "it is not politically correct to laugh at speech impediments"
    synonyms:unoffensive, nondiscriminatoryunbiasedneutralappropriate,nonpartisan;
    "the true meaning may be clouded by his politically correct language"


Wait, what? 

Political correctness means including black characters but never talking about racism, and having female scientists without touching on sexism. It means painting the world in an even, flat beige--not offending people, but also avoiding the rough edges of stories.

Political correctness is not about fighting discrimination, it's about avoiding offense in a way that does not fight or counteract the ruling power structures. It does not mean that being carelessly offensive, and a sloppy drunk on the stage, makes you some sort of warrior defending free speech--no matter what certain comedians and GamerGate subscribers would have one believe. Shouting slurs for the sake of shock and awe is basically the adult version of a toddler repeating swear words to get a rise out of her mother. It startles grandparents and embarrasses her mother--but is far from an actual conversation about, say, the history of farting in art, which is a valid and interesting topic.

Source. I wasn't just talking out of my ass. 

What does that mean for movies, TV, and books? 

I was talking with a friend on Facebook about old Western movies, and he shared some very interesting observations.

"Honestly there are some rather obvious divides with portrayals of the tribes, even going back to the old Westerns.

Because there's a lot of "ugh kill the white man" but there's also a fair amount of "uh, we screwed them y'know? If I were them I'
d be angry too."

There were even a few films that had Native American heroes fighting white guys trying to screw them more. These were, of course, really rare. But weirdly one of the more notable ones starred Robert Taylor, who was pretty conservative."


"...But it says something that to get positive portrayals of native americans you often do need to check out (some, not all) of the Westerns around. Some of them had problems and were tone deaf in some ways, but they were also often very honest about the validity of the anger of the Native American at their treatment. It's hard to even get an angry Lou Diamond Phillips in Young Guns screaming about his family's murder these days in most of Hollywood. Which tends to be very positive but also very "uh no, let's not talk about this" about such issues."

This really struck a chord with me, and I remembered what it was about "political correctness" that had always bothered me. On one hand, we should not be throwing around slurs and insults in some ham-fisted and thin ploy to "reclaim" them, but on the other hand, we shouldn't force non-white, non-male, non-able characters to be model minorities. First Nations people have a right to be angry, and for us to acknowledge that anger.

That doesn't mean all First Nations people should be angry drunks or 'savage warriors', or that black characters should be former thieves or gangsters. It means that characters should talk about differing experiences, such as being pulled over for speeding while they were driving at the limit, and having the sherriff size them up, worrying that he was going to raid their car, while the dude just gloried in his power over the driver's helplessness.

That also means that the burden is on those of us who create stories, especially writers, to do our research and make an effort to talk about racism honestly. Not just "as white ambassadors", as is so often the case, but as allies and advocates. Perhaps more importantly, it means supporting non-white content creators, and learning when to listen rather than lead.

So what can we do? 

Well, instead of rallying around political correctness, call our enemies by their names: racism, sexism, homophobia, cissexism, and ableism--among other things. We can fight discrimination and racism without forcing people to be comfortable, but also without throwing survivors and vulnerable people under the bus. That's why content warnings are fine. Let people know that Deadpool's movie includes sex and violence, and make it rated R--don't make a watered down, PG-13 version so that 'everyone will be happy'. Let Harley Quinn fall for the Joker and leave him for a healthier relationship, rather than just "almost kissing him" like Anna with Hans in Frozen. 

Political correctness is about comfort, but there's no reason not to have it both ways. Embrace the ugliness of a real discussion about racialized violence or disadvantages felt by First Nations people, but don't refer to the same people as--just typing this makes me cringe in disgust--"drunk Injuns". We can stop permitting people's use of slurs while still demanding complex, nuanced, authentic stories.

Seek out stories by First Nations, Latino/a/x, Desi, black, and Asian writers. When you want to relax, reach for more than another Star Wars movie--throw on that random Korean drama you'd been planning to watch. Read blog posts by writers of colour, and see if the people on a list of creative work catch your eye. Throw money at Kickstarters and IndieGoGo and Patreon projects like this one. Paranormal queer romance? Uh, yeah! Or what about this one? 

Fixing the system isn't quite as hard as we've led ourselves to believe. Be respectful and prepare to be uncomfortable. That's all it's going to take.

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