America's culture wars have raged in nearly every imaginable setting, from courtrooms, to CEO boardrooms, to hospital rooms and even classrooms. But who could have possibly foretold that the battle's next frontier would be fought on the Starbucks line?
Readers are most likely familiar with the current holiday cup controversy engulfing Starbucks, and the resulting backlash from its patrons, who resent that Christmas and other holiday symbols have been removed from the franchise's paper-ware . Many Starbucks customers particularly view the coffee chain's decision as an assault on religious values and Christianity. According to The Washington Post, a recent viral video rant on the subject has amassed 11 million views online, and has led to a holiday cup selfie movement, in which people are decorating their own cups and posting pictures of them on social media.
Clearly, red cups haven't caused this much rancor since those marathon beer pong matches in college. But this particular issue latches onto our collective consciousness only weeks after many Connecticut parents launched a campaign opposing the perceived effrontery of The Milford School District's decision to ban its annual Halloween parade. The district proposed the ban to accommodate children whose religious or cultural beliefs disallowed their parade participation.
Simultaneously, we are exposed to daily images of political unrest on the University of Missouri campus, resulting from incidents of racism committed against the black student body that led to the resignation of the university's president. One professor, Dale Brigham, who refused to cancel his class in the face of violent threats, and who told his students to take a stand and attend class despite these threats, faced a heap of criticism and quit his post (of note, university administrators refused to accept his resignation).
Although no one can deny the veracity of the black students' claims to being victims of campus racism, their reaction, as well as that of Professor Brigham, who endured the scorn of students for his seeming lack of sensitivity to their plight; or the angry mothers who demanded that their children be allowed to celebrate Halloween; or the Starbucks patrons looking for a snowflake festooned on their cups, are all part of the climate of hyper-political correctness ensnaring this country. It seems as though every issue, from how we celebrate holidays to how we vocalize dissent to perspectives that we do not agree with, has the capability of being politicized; indeed, lays the groundwork for the self-appointed guardians of culture to lob accusations of insensitivity and political incorrectness against others. Or, for a much simpler and far more pernicious explanation, it seems as though our right to engage in open, constructive discourse is being stifled. The basic notion of simply disagreeing with someone else, and vocalizing it, has become unacceptable. Because Lord knows, we might just offend someone.
This particular idea was explored by Ray Bradbury in his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian masterpiece about firemen in the future who burn books in an effort to curb the acquisition of knowledge. As readers came to discover, what led firemen to begin destroying literature were the objections from various minority groups over their representation in text. The end product was a highly sanitized, PC society that was denied any form of intellectual thought or expression, one in which books were banned from all in order to placate the desires of the few.
Of course, egalitarian media outlets like the internet make it next to impossible for situations that extreme to occur, but Bradbury's novel was extremely prescient in identifying a startling trend: the whimsical suppression of anything that was remotely offensive to anyone. More startling is the fluidity and ease with which anyone could take offense to a piece of literature, or a statement, or even a mere cup. But in Bradbury's future, there will be no coffee cups to complain about, or Halloween parades to fight for; or in the case of Dale Brigham, no grounds for offering students a sobering critique of their behavior.
I certainly do not mean to undercut the severity of the threats made against black students on campus, nor did Professor Brigham. He simply encouraged his students to refrain from relinquishing their right to an education, which essentially lets the enemy win. But because he did not conform to the hypersensitivity endorsed by other UM staff members and administration, students demanded that he resign. Similarly, to return to the Starbucks and Halloween issues, the cries of a few appeared to have drowned out the voices of many, and this is part of a larger cultural tapestry in which the perspective of the few becomes a framework through which the many are forced to think and operate.
Before you chalk this idea up to libertarian or conservative rhetoric (as the hyper-PC climate is a favorite talking point of each group), consider that liberals, the very stalwarts of the PC movement, are beginning to recognize the shortcomings of living in a society where nearly anything can be construed as culturally insensitive. In a brilliant New York Magazine article, Jonathan Chait discusses the erosion of the American social and political landscape in the face of political correctness, describing it as "a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate." From this line of thinking, it follows that little girls dressing as Frozen's Elsa for Halloween were illegitimately forcing their pagan beliefs onto God fearing, Christian children, and that writing "Happy Holidays" on a cup infringes upon the religiosity and culture of Muslim coffee aficionados.
These instances beg the question: what becomes of a purported democracy that impedes the very democratic process? How does one negotiate free speech, direct students to attend class, costume their child for Halloween, even order a goddamn cup of coffee, with the looming possibility of being told that their belief systems are egregious violations of cultural mores simply because they do not coincide with the practices of others? Or are the PC police creating a climate that eliminates dissent by, as Bradbury pointed out, eradicating everything we could possibly disagree over?