It’s the eternal cry: ‘political correctness’ acts in service of liberal thought control and is a threat to the freedom of speech which must be countered by ‘strong’ voices and unrepentant actions. Recent examples abound: Trump’s supporters’ adoration of their candidate’s propensity to ‘say what he thinks’ regardless of personal or socio-political consequences; Clint Eastwood’s recent tirade against today’s “kiss-ass” generation; the defence of the orchestrated trolling and cyberattacks on Leslie Jones in the name of freedom of speech; and Australia’s latest case of blackface in defiance of “so many politically correct extremists”. Undoubtedly, freedom of speech is an inalienable human right which must be protected and ‘thought police’, on either side of the political spectrum, are most definitely to be discouraged. However, the war on ‘political correctness’ is not a new phenomenon and it is often a defensive reaction by those who feel threatened by the growing voices of ethnic minorities and gender groups, and ultimately is used to excuse discrimination.
Last week in a post on Facebook, a mother gloated at overcoming politically correct critics, while inadvertently highlighting Australia’s continued struggle with the issue of race. She achieved her victory over the PC brigade by sending her son to a dress-as-your-hero event in blackface to represent Australian Football player Nic Naitanui, who is of Fijian descent.
I was a little worried about painting him (So many politically correct extremists these days) he is pastey White (sic) and if I just sent him in a wig and footy gear, no one would tell who he was. So I grew a set of balls and painted my boy brown and he looked fanf——tastic
In spite of her hinted expectation, the following day she expressed surprise and hurt at the backlash her actions received. This is not the first case of blackface in Australia in the recent past and points towards the country’s still troubled relationship with its indigenous people and racial minorities. Part of the problem seems to be a general lack of education, with many Australians seemingly still unaware of the extremely troubling aspects of blackface. The reason that blackface is increasingly becoming unacceptable in many other parts of the world is raised awareness of its disturbing past. The history of the use of blackface in performance, or ‘minstrelsy’, has ties to slavery and the later continued subjugation of freed slaves in the US. In the early 19th century, performances were given by black slaves for their white masters and this was eventually appropriated by white performers, made up with burnt cork, portraying black characters. These performances in ‘plantation dialect’ highlighted demeaning stereotypical characteristics such as naivety, untrustworthiness and lazy, stupid & infantile behaviour, for the entertainment of white audiences and profit of white performers and producers. Such portrayals of black stereotypes were used to justify slavery & discrimination and American historian Alexander Saxton called the mid 1900s minstrel shows, “half a century of inurement to the uses of white supremacy”.
In Australia, Naitanui has defended the boy involved in the blackface case from criticism, calling for more education on the history of race relations to prevent the repetition of such incidents.
It’s a shame racism coexists in an environment where our children should be nurtured not tortured because they are unaware of the painful historical significance blackface has had previously.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this latest case, and one which has received little media attention with the blame being heaped upon the mother, is the fact that the child went on to win the school’s competition. If lack of education is an excuse, this is a sad indictment of those in charge of an educational institution.
The term ‘political correctness’ is generally used pejoratively, predominantly by those on the political Right, to criticise what they see as liberal interference and attempts at cultural control. It has been used to undermine policies, particularly in academia, which aim to protect people from discrimination and victimisation, such as supporting multi-culturism, “canon-busting” within curricula and sanctioning hate-speech. Those on the Left have accused the political Right of using the term as a distraction to divert discussion away from the genuine problems of discrimination within society. Societal changes and challenges to the white, male domination of the political and academic spheres can trace much of their existence today to the advances that have been made since the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 70s, in which the voices of women, blacks, indigenous peoples and homosexuals were raised, demanding recognition and respect. These movements have been faced with a constant backlash against them ever since by more conservative sectors of society. This can be seen clearly when new, democratic methods of communication arise, as vividly illustrated nowadays by the Internet and particularly social media. There are countless examples of the phenomenon of trolling, or verbally abusing other online users, but much of it is predominantly aimed at women and ethnic or religious minorities. The most recent public case was that of the orchestrated attacks on the female-cast remake of the 80s classic movie Ghostbusters, claimed hyperbolically by some to be the ‘destruction of their childhood’. Amongst the female cast members, the worst abuse was reserved for the black lead actress, Leslie Jones, eventually resulting in her withdrawal from Twitter and the hacking of her website to display private information and photographs. Those attempting to defend such abuse and protesting the closure of one of the key orchestrator’s Twitter account, did so by citing ‘freedom of speech’. Co-ordinated attacks on people based on their gender, sexuality, race or religion are not paragons of free speech; they are blatant attempts to make public communication spaces so unpleasant for certain groups of people in order to force them to withdraw and to ultimately silence them. Freedom of speech should never be used as a justification for blatant misogyny, racism and hate speech.
In a recent interview with Esquire magazine, Clint Eastwood joined the attack on PC culture:
…he[Trump]’s onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.
Eastwood displays a generational aspect of the issue, where things were not ‘racist’ in his day but are now. And he is right, society HAS changed, thanks to equal rights movements giving voice to many minorities, be they gender, race, religious or sexuality-based. In general, people have more knowledge of others and a greater understanding of the historic struggles these groups have had for recognition and respect. With such knowledge and understanding comes less excuses for the use of language or practices which cause offence. But inequality and discrimination still exist, so it is important that we continue to listen to these voices and if something offends, we must consider the explanations of why and not drown them out in a blanket dismissal of all that is ‘PC’. Eastwood’s longing for a simpler time, when you could say whatever offensive, demeaning thing you liked without censure, echoes Trump’s campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. This is a nostalgic hankering for a return to a ‘golden age’, before global communication, multi-culturalism and anti-discrimination laws made the world so much harder to negotiate for those who wished to retain their positions of privilege.
The war on political correctness is a symptom of this dissatisfaction with the multi-cultural, diverse complexion of modern society. Ultimately, for some, the struggle by others for equal rights is viewed as a threat to, or erosion of, THEIR rights. As a result, the protection of the white, male hegemony that still exists in society today will always demand the suppression of other voices, and central to that is the minimising or rejection of the insult and injury that ‘un-PC’ sentiment and actions can cause.
30th August 2016