Monday, March 22, 2010

Politically Correct

I've become sort of used to hearing people, often intelligent, fair-minded people, saying the phrase “politically correct” as though it's some awful bit of food, something nasty and rotting that's been foisted on them, constraining their speech and leaving a terrible taste in their mouths. How are we supposed to keep up with what they want to be called now? But I know [fill in the blank-women, black people, gay people, etc] who are just like that! Or, and perhaps the worst, can't you take a joke?


Here's the thing. I'm a straight, white, cisgender, middle class, citizen of the US. I have only minor, inconspicuous conditions (near-sightedness, for example), not the kinds that make life especially difficult or get me stared at. In other words, I've got heaps of social privilege. But I am also a woman, and that means that I am one of the many people for whom “politically correct” is personal.


Hey, baby, why don't you smile?”

When the man who takes my bus ticket calls me “sweetie” and grins at me, I don't think how nice he is, or how old-fashioned. Instead, I realize that he is trying to make our relationship more intimate than it should be by using a cute nickname*, and I wonder whether he will try to “accidentally” rub a hand against my body as I walk by him. When I ignore a man on the street who looks me up and down and whistles, and he calls me a cunt, bitch, or cocktease, then I have reason to be even more wary of him than I am of ordinary strange men.


What these men do, what makes it so harmful (even if they don't touch me), is that they try to control me, expect me to accept or even like their come-ons, to appreciate the compliment of being hooted at and groped. And when I don't, when I act like an independent person instead of a body for them to enjoy, they get angry. They say vicious and disgusting things, they invade my personal space, and I always have to wonder whether they will assault me.


You wanna hear a funny joke? Women's rights.”

The jokes are sometimes worse because they are more subtle and often come from people we know well. “When your wife leaves the kitchen to nag you, what did you do wrong? Made the chain to long.”What's the worst part of getting a sex change from male to female? When they remove half the brain.” “What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.”


When your friend, your relative, or the guy at the bar or on the plane tells these jokes, he expects you to laugh, to agree, “Haha, silly woman belongs in the kitchen!” or “Yeah, women are dumb!” or “Haha, you hit her! What an unexpected twist!” If you don't, he'll say you have no sense of humor, that you take yourself to seriously, you humorless feminist. Guess what, world? I don't owe you appreciation when you objectify me on the street, and I don't owe you laughter when you make a joke that demeans me and makes light of violence. And saying “I don't mean anything by it” isn't really good enough, because you know what that tells me? That it really doesn't bother you that your behavior is hurtful. (PS. Guess what lack of empathy is a symptom of?)


The personal is political.

But what happens when I call these men, the whistlers, gropers, and jokers, “politically incorrect”? It sounds so innocuous, as if they had made a mistake on a government form or something. Perhaps half the problem with “politically incorrect” is that it waters down behavior that is offensive, hurtful, even dangerous, into something that's only technically wrong. Like parking in a no-parking zone instead of running someone over.


The thing is, this is not just about me and my experiences, and these behaviors are not just minor infractions. These men (especially the jokers) think of themselves as harmless. “Sticks and stones, right?” But there are consequences. What misogynist jokes and cat-calling do is normalize the violence and psychological abuse experienced by women on a daily basis. They say, “because you are a woman, I don't have to respect you. And it's okay for men to harass you, pay you less, grab you on the bus, rape you, or beat you. Because that's what women are for. It's what they deserve for being shallow, stupid nags.” And even if a joker doesn't consciously think that way, the attitude gets overheard, and repeated, and replicated in the behavior of other men and boys, who will insult, and harass, and assault women because they have learned by example that women don't deserve respect.


Politically Incorrect” does not mean “Courageous, Independent Thinker.”

People use “I know it's not politically correct to say, but” to give their ideas the aura of difficult truths and exempt themselves from submitting to oh-so-controversial mandates like, “respect other people.”


What these people won't understand, what they really need to get on a personal level, is that their willingness to make fun of, say nasty things about, abuse, assault, or shun entire groups of people based on stereotypes does not make them brave. What it does is make them the kind of people we (women, people of color, people with disabilities, people with non-traditional gender expression, men who love men, women who love women, people with accents, and others) cannot trust. Because to them, we aren't really people.


That's the heart of “politically correct” for me. It means making an effort (and not a very strenuous one) to respect the humanity of those who have traditionally been made to feel less than human. Maybe it means changing the language we use to object to offensive behavior, because "politically correct" really isn't doing the trick. It certainly means calling out this kind of behavior in people around us, even if we do get called humorless feminists from time to time. I'd rather be called that than “sweetie” any day.


*A young feminist explains why terms of endearment can be problematic.

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