Last week I wrote about a Twitterbombing I received for my column on the controversy at Mount Holyoke College over The Vagina Monologues. Unbeknownst to me, the debate about political correctness, which last reared its ugly head a quarter of a century ago, has been engaged in earnest once again. Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine and J. Bryan Lowder in Slate, in response to Chait, both had interesting takes on the issue from a broader perspective. My experience was being attacked by a trans subgroup of the larger progressive community, but the methods, content and tone of the attacks were all from the more universal hymnal.
There are a number of critical terms, such as "triggers," "microaggressions," "mansplaining" and its variants, "pinkwashing" and its variants, and "tone policing." Chait sums up his critique this way:
[P]olitical correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.
This reminds me of the state of civil society in Russia in 1917. Having freed itself from autocratic repression earlier in the year, the multiple attempts at creating a democratic parliamentary state failed, and control was taken by the Bolsheviks. As part of their consolidation of power, they encouraged and enabled the Red Terror, whereby mob justice, in the vacuum created after the fall of the monarchy and its associated civil services, was dealt based not on facts and evidence in the context of objective laws but simply on one's class membership. As Chait explains for today's P.C. culture:
Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing.
He later adds examples of the rules that create a prison that stifles all dissent and creates a George W. Bush mentality of "You're either for us or against us":
If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called "tone policing." If you are accused of bias, or "called out," reflection and apology are the only acceptable response -- to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous.
This behavior has already created uncomfortable moments of silence on blogs and listservs, as true allies are either afraid to say anything that might be constructive but more likely will generate an attack, or simply check out and move elsewhere.
As a trans activist, I'd like to focus on one class of these terms: "triggers" and "microaggressions." Basically these terms refer to the response by those who feel offended in even the most trivial manner. Minor slights get turned into major traumas and become subjects of blog posts. A recent example refers to an unfortunate Facebook post by Jill Soloway, creator of the award-winning series Transparent. The posting was truly offensive to many, ridiculing Bruce Jenner for his apparent gender transition, and was almost immediately taken down by Ms. Soloway, with an apology.
But it didn't end there. Some activists don't like Transparent because they believe it doesn't represent them precisely. That's true, because no program can represent all. Another critique is that the program should have been written by trans persons and performed by trans actors, because only trans persons can play trans persons. That, of course, ignores the entire profession of acting, which is fundamentally about portraying someone other than yourself. Some actors, like Jeffrey Tambor, have done a decent job. Others, like Felicity Huffman, not so much. Regardless, the criticism should be related to the art and not to some politically correct casting.
But this blogger wrote that the Facebook post hurt her, and she will "never ever" trust any cisgender person telling a trans story, because they're obviously laughing behind her back. I respect her feelings and her right to share them, but the way to deal with disappointment is to either ignore the stimulus or use it to strengthen yourself, not to compound it by emoting online. It's a cruel world, all trans persons have PTSD, and the only way to deal with PTSD is to expose yourself to the trauma in a controlled manner rather than run from it and demand that everyone treat you with respect. It also helps if you can come to a deep understanding that what others think of you is their problem, not yours.
In a similar vein, Browder's response to Jonathan Chait's column referred to an episode dealing with gender-neutral pronouns. His column offended many genderqueer persons, who demanded an apology and enlightenment on his part.
In my support-group work I encourage parents to respond positively to their children's request for bespoke gender pronouns, but I do not believe it is acceptable to demand this of the population in general. For one, there are far too many such pronouns. Secondly, most people can't remember which pronoun goes with which person. Thirdly, I'm offended when someone's asks me which pronoun I prefer when I consider it perfectly obvious (and it was obvious until the practice of demanding an accounting came into favor with certain subgroups). Finally, I, like most trans persons, and certainly most cis persons, have no desire to destroy the gender binary. I feel no obligation to assist in dismantling it, even if it means offending members of the trans community, and I know I'm not alone.
One can believe in protecting everyone from discrimination and respecting people's choice of identity without choosing to assist them in their own greater political agenda. There are always conflicting agendas, and I believe the current P.C. agenda, by demanding purity from its allies, is showcasing its inherent weakness. When people can make their point without throwing tantrums, they generally do so. Most Americans, when they desexualize their image of gay persons, whom they were trained to associate with sin and perversion, can understand and accept that gay persons deserve all the same rights and privileges. Most Americans, when they desexualize trans persons and learn that biological brain sex many differ from genital sex in a small percentage of the population, can understand and accept when a trans person transitions gender. Most Americans do not understand that there are people who accept no gender and, as a result, demand that the language be changed to accommodate them.
Maybe, after years of education and the maturation of the current genderqueer generation, the language will evolve. Maybe not, but the path is not through acting out and alienating one's allies. As Browder says, "Identity politics does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness," adding that "to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don't share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions," in the manner that they demand, is "ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome."
Boundaries are important in all aspects of life. When dealing with identity issues, one's best recourse is a support group where love and empathy are the means of engagement. When one is a political advocate, the goal is not making oneself feel better. The goal is to pass the good bill or block the bad one. It's not about "Kumbaya," and the attitude of "We're doing this so the community on whose behalf we're advocating feels loved" is dangerous when it threatens the goal of passing legislation. Legislative success may very well enable the community to love itself, which is far more empowering.
Finally, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a wise man said, apropos of a statement attributed to the great liberator Moses (who had his share of identity-politics aggravation):
To be free, you have to let go of hate. You have to stop seeing yourself as a victim -- or else you will succeed only in making more victims.
And a sense of humor is a big help too.