Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The F*cking P.C. Culture Problem

A year and a half after I graduated from the infamously progressive Oberlin College, The Washington Post published an article about students protesting the dining hall's own (quite literally tasteless) interpretations of Banh mi and sushi. Students weren't upset about the quality of the food, but rather, its political implications. As one junior from Japan explained, "If people not from that heritage take food, modify it, and serve it as 'authentic,' it is appropriative." An average person might consider this line of reasoning to be far-fetched, but this sounds like your typical Oberlin student to me. I identify as a leftist, but let's be real, this is fucking absurd. Not only is it a stretch to assert bad dining hall sushi is racist, but on a fundamental level, is this really what anyone wants to invest their energy in fighting? It's the perfect example of so-called "political correctness" run amuck.

The Obama years ushered in a series of ridiculous protests on college campuses, restarting the national conversation on political correctness. Since the rise of Donald Trump, people of all political leanings have been trying to figure out the best way to understand how political correctness influences our country's discourse. On last week's Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost joked about a new feature on Tinder that allows users to choose from 37 gender identity options, attributing Clinton's loss to this type of social progress. Jost directed critics of his joke to a recent New York Times opinion piece, where liberal historian Mark Lilla argues that the left's embrace of identity politics "has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored."

Identity politics alone didn't cost Clinton the election. "It indirectly had an impact," New York columnist Jonathan Chait—who's written extensively about the risks of P.C. culture—told me last week. Trump campaigned on an explicitly anti-P.C. platform, saying in one Republican primary debate, "I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct. I've been challenged by so many people and I don't, frankly, have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn't have time, either."

Chait said he doesn't think political correctness was why Clinton lost. Rather, "There is this phenomenon of categorizing too many things as racist or sexist, and that makes us unable to analyze and engage with Trump. I think one of the problems with that phenomenon is that on the flipside it allows people like Trump to disguise themselves—disguise their racist and sexist beliefs among a lot of other beliefs that aren't racist and sexist."

That sentiment applies to Oberlin: Dining hall cultural appropriation protests turn us into a society where serving someone low quality sushi makes you a racist. This type of discourse, then, trivializes actual racism—like Trump wanting to put Muslims on a registry—by elevating something like a petty complaint about food to the same level as other serious racist behaviors. (...)

The very concept of leftist political correctness practiced at a place like Oberlin hinges on the idea that experiences of identity-related oppression should play a major role in political discourse. It is about language, about who gets to say what, and how we communicate. It doesn't necessarily aim to limit free speech, like some critics claim, but rather impose consequences for asserting hateful ideas. The heart of the issue isn't about making sure what you say doesn't offend, but how people with radically different beliefs should best talk to each other.

Political correctness is difficult to pin down because its definition changes depending on the political orientation of the person you ask. Instead of defining what political correctness is, pundits prefer to speak in examples of the ideology gone wrong. This exposes a major hole in the way our culture thinks about political correctness: It's not quite an ideology, but instead a way to categorize an argument about social equity you disagree with. Most people don't self-identify as "politically correct."

by Eve Peyser, Esquire |  Read more:
Image: uncredited