My Apologia for Political Correctness

Posted: March 3, 2010 in Braak, Politics
Tags: , ,

This is going to come out of nowhere, it will seem to you (as it seems to me), but I need to write something, and so today this is what I’ll write.  Over on Gawker, they’ve got a little bit about UCSD’s racism problem (hint:  it begins and ends with douchebags).  In the comments section, someone posted – as someone always does on articles like this – the lyrics from “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the musical Avenue Q.

I hate that fucking song.

The problem that I have with it is that it presents the idea that it’s not racism that’s the problem – a little bit of casual racism, it says, is only natural and therefore perfectly understandable.  The problem is that everyone is always so PC.

This is pretty stupid on the face of it, because no one who’s “too PC” goes to see Avenue Q.  The entire success of their musical belies their very premise.  But there was that thing in Colorado, we do have a puritanical streak in our society, it can be a problem, whatever.

The fact of the matter is, though, that “Political Correctness” is not the problem.  “Political Correctness” is a social philosophy that is tantamount to saying “Hey, let’s be polite to strangers.”  Maybe black people prefer to be called African-Americans; maybe a guy in a wheelchair would prefer you refer to him as handicapable, or something.  So?  Is it such a challenge to your intellect and moral philosophy that you’d find it offensive to call people what they would like to be called?

Oh, it’s possible to go overboard with it, of course – but what is overboard PCism?  It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s be EXCESSIVELY polite to strangers.”  Can that be a problem?  Sure.  Is it the worst problem facing our society?  Not even fucking remotely.

It’s not even worse than the problem that it’s meant to prevent – what opponents of “Political Correctness” call “being a regular person,” but what anyone with one eye and half an ear can easily recognize as “casual racism.”  Here’s where that stupid song is actually correct:  everyone probably is a little bit racist.  We’re racist in small, easy, often unnoticeable ways; in ways that we’ve been since we were kids, ways that we inherited from our parents, ways that were the norm in our social circles.

“Political Correctness”, as a social and political movement, was meant to help us recognize these small offenses to human dignity so that we could, you know, stop doing it.  Naturally, there was objection.

I get the objections, I really do; I know I’m a good guy, right?  And I know that racism is bad.  Ipso fucking facto, I must not be racist.  Any movement, therefore, that ACCUSES me of racism must be in error.  (You have to make sure you say “ACCUSE” with as much venom and vitriol as you can muster, as though the worst thing one person can do to another is suggest that they may be responsible for something.)

PCism ACCUSES me of being racist.  Me!  Even though I’m educated and moral and I go to church and I have a number of friends who represent a wide spectrum of ethnic minorities!  Shit, it looks like the Burger King kids club up in here, some days.  I’m not racist.  Strom Thurmond was racist.  I’m just a regular guy.

Well, maybe I’m a little racist, you know, but not in a bad way, in a regular guy way.  The way everyone is.  Since everyone is a little casually racist, isn’t it encumbent on you, black/African-American/negroes, to not get your panties in a twist every time someone makes a joke about watermelon?  Sheesh, guys, everyone is like this, it seems to me that you’re the ones that need to relax.

That’s obviously absurd, because you could make that same argument with literally every affront to humanity you could think of.  “Guys, come on; everyone wants to kill the Jews a little.  If you just accepted how much you want to do it, we could all live in harmony.”

Well, I guess you could call it a kind of harmony.

The point of all this is, why wouldn’t you always err on the side of Political Correctness?  Isn’t it implicitly better to go farther out of your way to be polite to a stranger than it is to not go far enough?  If we’re going to unintentionally do something excessively, isn’t excessive politeness a little better than excessive casual racism?

Because excessive casual racism is just regular racism, and we’ve done that before.  It’s a shitty time for all concerned, in my opinion, but maybe things were different where you grew up.  Maybe you grew up in the 50s when everyone lived happily; everyone had a ranch house and wall-to-wall carpeting, two cats in the yard, women knew their place, and if there was racism it happened in far away and exotic locales like Alabama.

Here is my conclusion:  I’m mistrustful of anything that says something doesn’t need to be improved.  Politically, socially, morally, personally – anyone that tells you you’re exactly right the way you are, and the problem is someone else’s, that person is lying to you.  Probably they want your money.

Avenue Q certainly does; tickets are $30 for an obstructed view.

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Comments
  1. Moff says:

    You may be right, but I still don’t like white people.

  2. Carl says:

    I’ve never seen AVENUE Q, and so don’t entirely understand the font of this rant, but I’ll throw my support behind anything that civilizes the discourse between people in an increasingly uncivilized world. In the aggregate, I think political-correctness has advanced the ball in several regards in our society. Still, I find myself torn on the subject because it can obscure problems as frequently as it addresses them. It might be fun to kick that around a bit. Let me advocate for the devil.

    Appropriate sensitivity to strangers is a virtue sorely underdeveloped in our society, but the mechanisms that shape and mandate these PC-terms can be dysfunctional in fairly spectacular ways. Three concerns:

    First, it is frequently the case that those who wield political-correctness and shape its use are not those that should be speaking on the subjects it concerns. The battle over Native American and American Indian points this up. A large majority of indigenous people in the United States continue to make use of (and generally prefer) the label “American Indian”. (A Department of Labor survey says 50% prefer the label “Indian” while 37% go with Native American.) The UN Conference on Indians in the Americas is so named because it reflects the collective judgment of the participating tribes. Check out what Russell Means of the American Indian Movement— the most radical Indian advocacy group on the scene— has to say on the topic. Meanwhile, academia, still heavily-dominated by well-meaning uberliberal males of European-descent, determines that Indian is an insensitive-pejorative and disseminates this new “Native American” label it concocts, and the government seizes on it, and here we are. For whose benefit has this re-branding program been undertaken? Does the shift, adopted without the input of the very people it concerns, empower Indians or just assuage white guilt? Does it lead unnecessarily to a proliferation of divisive, imposed categorizations. These questions are very much up for grabs.

    Second, the currency of restriction in which political-correctness trades can make honest discourse difficult, put certain topics off-limits, create double-standards, and generally obscure meaning. Isn’t everybody born in America a native? Aren’t these people being entirely mislabeled as Americans, since they preceded Amerigo Vespucci’s arrival? Is it really about sensitivity? Who has to be sensitive to whom on the basis of what, I wonder. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I have a lot of problems with the term “white”. I’ll confess that won’t identify as “white” on government forms. I mean, I’m not white. I’m olive-colored, dammit. My ancestors were Calabrians (the toe of the Italian boot)— they lived on the Med, they interbred with North Africans. I’m not white. Even if I were of pure Nordic ancestry, I wouldn’t be white, I’d be pinkish (and I’d going skiing. Probably by a fjord. [Was that racist? Does anybody care?]). Understandably, of course, no one is polling me for my feelings on the subject, nor are think-tankers concerning themselves with the fact that the term makes me uncomfortable. The obvious reason is because I have it VERY, VERY good as a “white guy”. There isn’t a lot of energy expended on how it feels to be a white guy, because, you know, it feels good, generally. But then it isn’t really about sensitivity to strangers, is it? It’s about which nuanced identities should be valued and which identities it’s alright to smear together into an indistinguishable paste, and that seems problematic. Moreover, it’s very difficult to talk about these things once a PC-wall goes up around a particular concept. It discourages discourse on anything that might make anyone uncomfortable, and so frequently it’s easier to just shut your stupid pie-hole than try to resolve a social problem at emerges. In the same vein, I think political-correctness can create a false sense of progress. Somehow we feel like we’ve actually accomplished something if we moved from the catch-all term “black” to the specificity of “African-American” and “Hispanic” and “Cuban-American” and that feeling of self-satisfaction insulates our racist-selves from exposure. Just use the right words, you see, and you’re off the hook. You used the right label, now feel great about yourself. Meanwhile, the percentage-change in family net income among African-Americans over the last half century is essentially frozen. Progress!

    Lastly, I think this is absolutely correct:

    I’m mistrustful of anything that says something doesn’t need to be improved. Politically, socially, morally, personally – anyone that tells you you’re exactly right the way you are, and the problem is someone else’s, that person is lying to you. Probably they want your money.

    But I have to add that I’m equally mistrustful of any project whose goal is a limitation on freedom of speech— even if the object is noble— even if the means are seemingly innocuous— even if the speech in question is abhorrent. What begins as a well-meaning, loosely organized attempt to use guilt to protect one person from another’s disdainful language can quickly descend into a well-organized Orwellian project to use law to restriction what can be said on any number of topics, by anyone, under a variety of circumstances.

  3. RickRussellTX says:

    Holy crap this got interesting fast.

    I will add slightly to Carl’s advocacy of the devil by saying that, it strikes me that many cases where Political Correctness is called out by name, it’s a fairly blatant case where one party is attempting elevate itself at the cost of another. The elevating party calls it “multiculturalism”; the debased party calls it “political correctness”. It may be a pure zero-sum power play that reflects no racism whatsoever on the part of either party.

    I remember long ago when the term was new, and I introduced a Model UN resolution regarding equal rights for South Africans (at the time, I was model delegate for model Zimbabwe, which wasn’t clusterf*cked beyond recognition like it is today).

    One of the delegates took instant offense that my bill did not explicitly call out equal rights for the BLACK south africans, the BROWN south africans, the ASIAN ORIENTAL south africans, the south africans of SOUTH INDIAN descent… and that by calling for equal rights for all, my bill was WHITEWASHING over the broad cultural landscape of that great land, etc. etc. etc.

    This person had clearly been “schooled” in the use of multiculturalism as a weapon to a degree that I was almost unable to comprehend.

  4. Moff says:

    It’s interesting to look back over the past twenty-some years and realize how much political correctness has, y’know, “shaped our discourse.” The immediate public reaction after Sept. 11 to acknowledge that Islam wasn’t synonymous with terrorism seemed and still seems to me like a total result of what critics of p.c.-ness would call indoctrination. It was indoctrination—or, you know, education. In any case, it was right.

    Carl’s right that political correctness has created its own set of problems, mostly in that it can render certain subjects off-limits; but if you think of its role in the ongoing process that is Figuring Out How to Live, it’s less like censorship and more like a brake.

  5. Carl says:

    @Moff: True. As I said above, I think its hard to deny that there are practical benefits to the project. I’m griping about the application of labels and language and yet… we’re not arguing about whether cigar-store Indians are racist or not (because, you know, clearly they ARE) and I think we all have the PC-project to thank for that.

    Also, listened to a “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and I take Chris’ point.

    And finally (loathe as I am to bring this up, Chris), if we’re predicating the value of political-correctness on the basis of identity-sensitivity, I am compelled to direct our collective attention back to the old “Who does Christmas belong to” discussion and consider a re-reading of it in light of this conversation.

    https://threatquality.com/2009/11/17/i-will-give-you-a-war-on-christmas/

  6. braak says:

    So, everyone:

    Yes, agreed, Political Correctness causes it’s own set of problems, just like every other damn thing. Though, in the case of American Indians — that’s a little weird, isn’t it? If the real principle of Political Correctness is that we refer to people according to how they choose to define their identities in order to promote racial sensitivity, then calling them “Native Americans” is actually racially insensitive, isn’t it?

    And, certainly it’s true that people go to far with it, as Rick mentioned — I agree that that’s kind of ridiculous. I’m certainly not saying that it’s an unalloyed good, that it doesn’t bear watching, and that there aren’t times when it needs to be wholly dispensed with; only that the consequence of excessive racial sensitivity is preferable to the consequence of excessive racial insensitivity. We can all concur that too much PC-ness is less than ideal, but it’s still better than the alternative, which ought to help us suss out some guidelines here.

    And, likewise, PC-ness as a movement in social and political discourse is one thing; federally-mandated PC-ness is something else altogether. I am in favor of as few legal restrictions on speech as possible; I don’t want the government arresting people for being just regular douchebags — but I do want to support the social pressure that brands them as douchebags. I support this, under these circumstances, because it is basically the only way to get people to stop being douchebags.

  7. braak says:

    Now, just Carl:

    All right. I call your holiday Christmas. I don’t show up at your Mass and ask for free liquor, I don’t piss on your Nativity scenes. I don’t get involved in your holiday in any way at all, do I? I don’t see how this changes anything, at all. You do your Christmas in your way, and as long as you don’t tell me how to do my Christmas, we shouldn’t have a problem, right?

    But let’s say that you did want to tell me how to celebrate a day in my calendar, and you wanted to decide how I discussed that day in public, despite the fact that the day is equally as meaningful to me as it is to you. And let’s say that, for the sake of argument, I conceded that Christians deserved a bit of a break here on the grounds that it must have been completely exhausting to control political, moral, social, and identity-discourse for fifteen hundred years. That their disproportionately-high control over politics and popular culture entitled them to even more control of the social sphere.

    Fine. I’ll give you back everything to do with Christmas that you guys didn’t steal from someone else in the first place. I mean, it’d be disingenuous to say that you have a proprietary right to something that’s been borrowed, right? Which means basically just Jesus. I’m okay with that — I promise, I won’t support putting pictures of Jesus all over the place during Christmas.

    But maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you want the very word “Christmas” back, too? Okay. I mean, I only call it “Christmas” so that people know what I’m talking about, and because when I called it “Yule” it was actually Christians who were offended by it, Christians who felt that my having a holiday around the same time as theirs — even though it had a different name and was different in almost all respects — somehow threatened their holiday. Christians, of course, who mocked my religious inferiority. Fine! Hey, fine, you guys want the word back, you can have it!

    But you’re the one that has to write to the AFA and tell them that having stores say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” that having “Holiday Parades” instead of “Christmas Parades,” that teaching kids about the many different ways to celebrate love and generosity instead of just about how great Jesus is — you need to write them and tell them that this is actually the plan. That achieving exactly the opposite of their stated goals is really their goal.

    I’m willing to go with you guys on this. I promise that I will stop devaluing everything to do with Christianity the second Christians stop trying to ram it down my throat.

  8. Moff says:

    Heh. Jesus getting rammed down someone’s throat. Elton John is LOVING this.

  9. braak says:

    Elton John loves Jesus in his own, really, really gay way.

  10. Carl says:

    I detect a slight change in the temperature of the proceedings. No matter. I feel like we should press on here.

    All right. I call your holiday Christmas. I don’t show up at your Mass and ask for free liquor, I don’t piss on your Nativity scenes. I don’t get involved in your holiday in any way at all, do I? I don’t see how this changes anything, at all. You do your Christmas in your way, and as long as you don’t tell me how to do my Christmas, we shouldn’t have a problem, right?

    You certainly don’t do those things. I appreciate that. No we shouldn’t have a problem. As agreed in the discussion from November, I thought.

    But let’s say that you did want to tell me how to celebrate a day in my calendar, and you wanted to decide how I discussed that day in public, despite the fact that the day is equally as meaningful to me as it is to you.

    I don’t want to tell you how to celebrate that day or any other day.

    And let’s say that, for the sake of argument, I conceded that Christians deserved a bit of a break here on the grounds that it must have been completely exhausting to control political, moral, social, and identity-discourse for fifteen hundred years. That their disproportionately-high control over politics and popular culture entitled them to even more control of the social sphere.

    So, okay, some sarcasm here indicating the opposite of what is explicitly stated, to mean that Christians are NOT entitled to claims to identity-sensitivity under political-correctness, owing to their having had the historical benefits that you mention (much of which contributed to the culture that makes a conversion about identity-sensitivity possible, by the way).

    Alright now I’m confused. So after a long and generally unqualified defense of sensitivity to strangers based on their identities, you seem to have introduced qualifiers into the discussion. Some people are more deserving of politeness, sight-unseen, than are others, depending on how much of the cultural conversation they have historically monopolized? Do I have that right? Did you just demonstrate one of the very charges I was leveling at political-correctness in my Devil-advocacy?

    Fine. I’ll give you back everything to do with Christmas that you guys didn’t steal from someone else in the first place. I mean, it’d be disingenuous to say that you have a proprietary right to something that’s been borrowed, right? Which means basically just Jesus. I’m okay with that — I promise, I won’t support putting pictures of Jesus all over the place during Christmas.

    This extreme charge of complete cultural theft is a HIGHLY debatable subject and could theoretically occupy a very large conversation unto itself, but what would that profit us at this point but to derail what we are on about here. I do, however, want to return to the larger notion of cultural misappropriation in a moment.

    But maybe that’s not enough for you. Maybe you want the very word “Christmas” back, too? Okay. I mean, I only call it “Christmas” so that people know what I’m talking about, and because when I called it “Yule” it was actually Christians who were offended by it, Christians who felt that my having a holiday around the same time as theirs — even though it had a different name and was different in almost all respects — somehow threatened their holiday. Christians, of course, who mocked my religious inferiority. Fine! Hey, fine, you guys want the word back, you can have it!

    When did this happen? Is this a theoretical occurrence or did this actually happen to you? Who mocked your ‘religious inferiority’? I didn’t do that, did I? Well, if it was perception that I did, I apologize. If it was someone else claiming to be Christian, I apologize on behalf of those who wear that moniker.

    But you’re the one that has to write to the AFA and tell them that having stores say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” that having “Holiday Parades” instead of “Christmas Parades,” that teaching kids about the many different ways to celebrate love and generosity instead of just about how great Jesus is — you need to write them and tell them that this is actually the plan. That achieving exactly the opposite of their stated goals is really their goal.

    I am certainly not ‘the one’ who does this. And I think we all agreed in November that this business of desperately clinging to Christianity in the post-Christian age leads to some pretty unchristian behavior on the part of those who call themselves Christians, which, if memory serves, we collectively admonished.

    That said, you can’t have it both ways.

    This entire discussion of Christmas grows out of the very education in political correctness that Moff was talking about. The language of cultural-misappropriation is the language of identity-ownership, the language of identity-sensitivity, and identity-cloister. It IS political correctness. I can only feel defensive of Christian tradition and identity in a world that has (I think for the better) moved beyond being uniformly Christian into a world of small, individualized identities. I want to see Christmas out of the damn stores and back in Church where it belongs. That should be a victory for your side. And rather than antagonizing Christians by co-opting it and saying “sorry, you don’t get it back, we don’t recognize that identity and the things that belong to it as valid, it didn’t pass our identity-sensitivity test” plow ahead with your Yule Celebration and let them fade gently into the night of history. They can write their letters. They can make their noise. They’re on the wrong side of history, right? Its only a matter of time anyhow.

    I’m willing to go with you guys on this. I promise that I will stop devaluing everything to do with Christianity the second Christians stop trying to ram it down my throat.

    I think, all sarcasm aside, that’s an entirely reasonable proposal. One thing, though. With regards to the universal adoption of political-correctness that you’re advocating, how would you respond to the following statement offered by an African-American guy in the context of this discussion:

    “I promise I will stop devaluing everything to do with being white the second whites stop trying to ram white culture down my throat.”

    He wouldn’t be wrong, but that wouldn’t be very PC of him, would it?

  11. braak says:

    “I promise I will stop devaluing everything to do with being white the second whites stop trying to ram white culture down my throat.”

    I think, “Hey, that’s a pretty valid point,” would be my starting point. Maybe, “agreed, that’s pretty shitty”? Or…wait, how is this even pertinent? Why wouldn’t it be PC of him? What are the circumstances here that resulted in this situation? Did he just walk up to me out of the blue and say this? What does it even mean “devaluing everything to do with being white”? We were supposed to be doing that anyway! Being white is comparatively valued too highly. And it does try and ram itself down his throat–it tries to ram itself down everyone’s throat! White American Culture is the culture of ramming things down people’s throats! I’m not sure in what way the situation is analogous.

    Partly because I’m not sure how I was devaluing Christmas in the first place. I mean, yes, clearly I was being sarcastic about a lot of things, but I thought my point was clear: not I, and not anyone else, was doing any of the things that I thought we were talking about when we were talking about “devaluing Christmas.” I don’t put up pictures of Jesus, I don’t interfere with the way you celebrate your holiday, no one was doing that. So, Holland’s point, in the previous post, that people like the AFA and Bill O’Reilly who come on television and yell and scream with their outrage are waging a war against a people that aren’t doing them harm — they are really trying to control the identity of everyone else in the country under the guise of protecting their own identities.

    Is that not still the case?

    And, look, I’m sorry because I clearly lost my temper a little bit there. But look at it from my end. Gay people don’t come to my house and try to convince me to become gay. Black people don’t come to my house and try to convince me to become black. The Dutch don’t do it, the Jews don’t do it, Muslims don’t do it, Buddhists don’t do it.

    It’s not the gays that lobbied to get me saying oaths to their principles every day in school, black people don’t lobby to get their slogans on money, the Dutch don’t raise a furor every time someone puts up a plaque that doesn’t mention William of Orange, the Jews don’t tell me I should permit civil injustice for the sake of the Torah.

    So, yeah, I think differently about things that are different. I get mad at the idea of Christians being offended that their cultural traditions (and you can debate about whether or not flying reindeer and evergreen trees are original to your religious celebration if you want to, but I think it’s a pretty muddy hill to build a fort on) are appropriated because our culture and society is already thick with their identities, projected outward and imposed on the rest of us for so long and so thoroughly that half the time we don’t even realize it.

    Of course Christianity contributed to social, cultural and political discourse. I don’t have a problem with Christians contributing. But I don’t think you can rightly deny that the control that Christianity had over that culture was the fact that it either stamped out or syncretized basically everything else. That’s the thing that I have a problem with, and that’s why I think it’s grossly hypocritical, after spending so many years and still spending so much energy trying to convince me to believe these things to claim that, after a lifetime saturated with them, I’m not entitled to them anymore.

    You guys are in the majority here, and if Christmas is everywhere, it’s because you were the ones that put it everywhere. Or, maybe not you, personally. Maybe the people who did it didn’t count as real Christians, I don’t know, that’s a thing you guys have to sort out on your own. Whatever the case, I have the right to embrace it if I want to, or reject it if I want to; all I want from you is room to make my culture out of what society has given me.

    You tell me, then; what do you want from me?

  12. Carl says:

    I’ll return the ball, Gogo, after my study and teaching duties are discharged this afternoon!

  13. Carl says:

    First, to political correctness generally:

    “I promise I will stop devaluing everything to do with being white the second whites stop trying to ram white culture down my throat.” …how is this even pertinent? Why wouldn’t it be PC of him?

    Maybe I am confused about how political-correctness works, then. Because I explicitly said that this theoretical statement on his theoretical part— a paraphrase of your declaration about Christianity— would be absolutely valid and true, just that it wouldn’t be politically-correct. What’s the criterion for what’s politically-correct? This thread exists because you were defending the value of “a social philosophy that is tantamount to saying ‘Hey, let’s be polite to strangers.’” Of consideration of people’s feelings on the basis of their identities, of their sensitivities related to those identities— quoth the Braak, “recognize[ing] these small offenses to human dignity so that we could, you know, stop doing it.” Not on the basis of who is nice to you first, but on the basis of general human dignity and sensitivity. That is to say, I thought political-correctness had nothing to do with what is true, only with what people are sensitive about.

    For instance, at the risk of digging myself in deeper here, I’ve worked in restaurants my entire life— since I was a teenager. More than a dozen restaurants in the Jersey-Philadelphia area. It is an indisputable fact that kitchens in this country are OVERWHLEMINGLY staffed by Hispanic workers, many of whom do not speak English and are in the country illegally. (They are also spectacularly underpaid and generally abused in terms of work hours.) I know this to be demonstrably, observably true. In-and-of-itself, it’s not racist to state that fact. It is, however (I think quite understandably) a sensitive topic and so politically-incorrect to emphasize it in any way. It makes people uncomfortable. Thus, we observe in a (generally unwatchable) movie like WAITING, set in this world and written to send-up all of the other aspects of working in the food-service industries, or in the restaurant scene in ROCKY VI, the complete lack of Hispanic actors cast among the kitchen staff. Why did the producers make these choices? Clearly, it’s because it’s a sensitive topic and it would be politically-incorrect to cast their movie in a fashion that reflects that notion, true or not. Should the statue of the flag being raised at Ground Zero that sits at the museum dedicated to 9/11 be altered to reflect the diversity of the City and our culture rather than reproducing the picture of the three white firefighters from which it was drawn? Absolutely it should.

    To the theoretical statement that I posed, then: why is it not PC? Because it’s fucking rude to say that. It’s completely true and entirely fair, but it would undoubtedly make people uncomfortable, and so, by the criterion you established, would be politically-incorrect. I feel fairly certain that any person entering into this discussion and reading my racially-reprocessed version of your statement about Christian-culture would easily conclude that it was not politically-correct on the basis of tone, at least.

    Now, I’ve thrown a bunch of questions at you in the course of this thread about who has to be sensitive to whom under what circumstances, and you’ve ignored them all. The reason, I suspect, is that you conceive of this dynamic as a one-way street. The oppressed non-Christian doesn’t owe the Christian sensitivity any more than the oppressed racial minority owes the racial majority sensitivity. It’s not about a broad notion of human dignity and people being civil generally, it’s about leveling the playing field. And that is a perfectly valid and entirely reasonable argument to advance— one I can get behind— but not at all how you packaged your defense of political-correctness in the original post.

    Now, to Christmas. I fucking regret bringing it up. But I want to trace how we got here, real quick, in an attempt to figure out how the bee got in the bonnet.

    After a long diatribe in which I completely affirmed the conceptual absurdity AND tactical error of “Christians” throwing fits because The Market isn’t Jesus-ing hard enough at Christmas, I floated the idea that the real rub for them was that something important to them— something deeply bound up with their identities— was being devalued through its commercialization, and that this process of devaluation was not unlike the values held among progressive, secular thinkers about other aspects of culture that they value, also under assault by The Market. Just looking to establish a little common ground, right? I thought that was an interesting and constructive thought. Then I wrote this:

    CARL:

    The substitution of commercial value for…intrinsic value IS perverse. Course, as usual, the Christians have only themselves to blame for this development (both because they acquiesced to the transformation of the holiday into a gigantic, pervasive, shopping leviathan AND because they are responsible in the way they conduct themselves for the decline in the numbers of Christians who would be disposed to treat the holiday with seriousness. Double-whammy, WOCers.) However, I have to agree that trying to boycott your way into re-sanctifying Christmas is a stupid course of action. Speaking as a Christian who tries to take the holiday seriously, I kind of want it back. I say, let the ACLU sue Christmas out of the public square. And then The Market can peddle Solstice-Pants and then, maybe, Christians can focus on putting the Christ back into Christmas itself instead of expending energy trying to get him into Christmas Pants.

    Clearly, in saying “I want it back” I meant “In conjunction with the secularization and multiculturalization of our society, I would like to see Christmas exit the public square, avoid all this controversy over its proper treatment, and return to its roots as a celebration inside the Christian Church of Christian things.” This is a broad, vaguely expressed wish. It has to do with a larger process of secularization of our culture and of the proper sphere of what was once shared cultural property, filtered through this identity-cloister lens, which grows out of political-correctness. It wasn’t a policy-pitch. It certainly wasn’t a demand that you do anything in your private life. It was the expression of a vaguely defined hope on my part for the future of my religion and attendant practices. You came immediately back with this:

    BRAAK:

    @Carl: Hey man, my family’s been celebrating Christmas continually since my parents both thumbed their noses at the Church. You guys have lost that fight. There is not now anything intrinsically valuable about Christmas. Sorry.

    Identity-shmidentity, senstitivity-shmensitivty, too fucking bad, iron-clad. Well, you know, to ME— and A WHOLE LOT of people— there is something intrinsically valuable about it, you’re protestations notwithstanding. This put me a bit on the defensive because I honestly wasn’t lobbing anything at you personally. And I had no intentions to lay any special claim to making decisions about Christmas. But this matter of political-correctness did occur to me in the context of that discussion. And so I tried to tackle the way in which political-correctness is directly related to the question:

    CARL:

    As far as who should and should not celebrate Christmas and why, it’s entirely up to the individual to celebrate whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned….But there is something to be noted about the fact that we’re increasingly growing into a healthy, heterogeneous, multi-cultural society in which the Christian tradition as the assumed paradigm has moved to the background to make way for a multiplicity of coexistent traditions. In this multi-cultural society, it is almost always the case that the small groups that comprise it have very strong ownership over their own traditions and identities— they sort of keep that for themselves. I don’t celebrate Kwanza. Not on my own with just my family. It would be weird if I did. And it would be weird if I were making assertions to black people about what it ought to be and what it ought not to be. Because it doesn’t belong to me. Any more than Ramadan does. Anymore than Arbor Day belongs to the logging company execs. Its just an odd dynamic.

    I ascribe to this notion of identity-sensitivity that I thought political-correctness is all about. Clearly Christians are sensitive about Christmas as evidenced by the fact that many have taken to ranting like lunatics about boycotts and letters, and so on and so forth, all of which I have condemned. But if the expectation is being made that these people adopt identity-sensitivity to towards others, it’s a reasonable expectation that, at least in theory, they should get it in return. You know, lead by example. Do as I do, not as I say (which Christians are simply TERRIBLE at historically, but which, I’d hope, reasonable, progressive-minded folks might be able to manage).

    As far as your criticism of Christianity as the only interest-group in society that agitates for its agenda, I think that’s kind of a silly claim. There are more of us, yes, and lots are ill-tempered and ill-mannered, but not a proportionally larger number of us than in any other group, I’d argue. As far as proselytizing goes, particularly door-to-door, that’s fucking annoying, and I’ll extend an earnest apology on behalf of all Christians for that, if it helps at all.

    Now to the heart of the matter:

    BRAAK:

    I think it’s grossly hypocritical, after spending so many years and still spending so much energy trying to convince me to believe these things to claim that, after a lifetime saturated with them, I’m not entitled to them anymore.

    You guys are in the majority here, and if Christmas is everywhere, it’s because you were the ones that put it everywhere… Whatever the case, I have the right to embrace it if I want to, or reject it if I want to; all I want from you is room to make my culture out of what society has given me.

    Totally. Reasonable.

    You tell me, then; what do you want from me?

    I have been thinking about that question all day (when I was supposed to be teaching the teenagers how to make-good the acting). I don’t want you to do anything in particular (except continue engaging me in these questions from time to time so I can think through them with well-reasoned resistance). What I was challenging was a contradiction in logic that I saw underlying the secularization project, and I guess I want to know exactly what the project is after, to figure out how my goals relate to it. Because, look, I think this is a tough pitch to the people in the majority:

    “Listen, we want to give up hegemony. Stop with the letters and the noise already, quiet down a little, quit forcing your will. Yeah, there are a lot more of you, but this is a post-Christian age and you have to live with that. There is room for lots of ideas and perspectives and traditions here, and yours (which were assumed as universally shared for such a long time) are now just one perspective among many. So, you know, make room for other traditions, celebrations, points of view, value-systems, and ethics. And show some respect, okay? Hands off. Be sensitive.

    What does that mean for your interests? What’s in it for you? Well— if you give up cultural hegemony and fade into the background a bit, uh, no, you don’t get your own private sphere of identity-sensitivity. No, cause, see, you were in forefront for so long, that these things you hold as important to who you are— sorry, they’re everybody’s now. Not just yours. What do you get? Uh, well, can’t really offer you anything.”

    This doesn’t seem like an argument I am going to have a lot of luck advancing with the evangelicals. And I’d like to have a pitch they’re likely to swallow when I am in their company. To move the ball forward. To help things progress, not fuck things up more. I think faced with this proposition, they’re likely to redouble their efforts. And Holland (or whoever) will redouble his. And then, boy, he’ll give you a War on Christmas. And they’ll give you an even bigger War on Gap. And that doesn’t seem to me like the path to a more civil, more reasonable, more polite-to-strangers cultural future. And that’s really what I am after.

  14. braak says:

    Maybe I am confused about how political-correctness works, then. Because I explicitly said that this theoretical statement on his theoretical part— a paraphrase of your declaration about Christianity— would be absolutely valid and true, just that it wouldn’t be politically-correct. What’s the criterion for what’s politically-correct? This thread exists because you were defending the value of “a social philosophy that is tantamount to saying ‘Hey, let’s be polite to strangers.’” Of consideration of people’s feelings on the basis of their identities, of their sensitivities related to those identities— quoth the Braak, “recognize[ing] these small offenses to human dignity so that we could, you know, stop doing it.” Not on the basis of who is nice to you first, but on the basis of general human dignity and sensitivity. That is to say, I thought political-correctness had nothing to do with what is true, only with what people are sensitive about.

    Yes, but you’re not a stranger. You’re Carl. It follows that I talk about my problems with the dominance of Christian culture in a different manner with you than I would if I were in the government or on national television. My thoughts on the issue, as my thoughts on everything, are complex, and do not always yield themselves to uniform descriptions, but only to contextually appropriate ones.

    Paraphrasing what I said to you robs the statement of any kind of useful declarative context. Are you suggesting that it would be inappropriate for a person to say something like that on national television? Or would it be inappropriate for a guy I know and with whom I have had regular conversations on the subject to say that to me?

    It is, of course, true that it was rude of me to say it regardless of to whom I was speaking; I was mad, and I apologized for that. I am sometimes uselessly oversensitive on such subjects, and for that I apologize again.

    The oppressed non-Christian doesn’t owe the Christian sensitivity any more than the oppressed racial minority owes the racial majority sensitivity. It’s not about a broad notion of human dignity and people being civil generally, it’s about leveling the playing field. And that is a perfectly valid and entirely reasonable argument to advance— one I can get behind— but not at all how you packaged your defense of political-correctness in the original post.

    True, a fair point — I didn’t package my post quite that way. As a general rule, no, I don’t think that if you’re part of the dominant cultural paradigm, then you get to complain when your feelings are hurt. I don’t think people should go out of their way to hurt them, but, frankly, I’m not worried if people ridicule me for being white or male or something like that. Ridicule is a thing, in fact, that specifically exists to be used against whoever is in charge; it’s distasteful to use it against the people that aren’t.

    However, it’s more complex than just that, because I do believe in a broad notion of human dignity–it’s just tempered by a painful awareness of often disparate practical dissimilarities. I guess, think of it this way: if there are two groups of people, and one group has all the guns and money and power, and one group doesn’t, my thought is–“Hey, everyone, let’s all be polite to each other. BUT ESPECIALLY YOU GUYS WITH THE GUNS.”

    So, all right. I’ll admit that I was a little over-sensitive here on this whole Christmas subject. Part of this is your fault! You were vague (that was your fault); and when you’re vague, I kind of…fill in the details myself (that is definitely my fault).

    But I think there are some essential problems here: one is that it’s never been the heathens that want to put “Christmas” all over everything at the holiday season. When we’re kids, we actually kind of enjoy having our own little holiday. Except, you know how kids are. Obviously, I’m being a little disingenuous here–yes, absolutely I knew people who were defensive about their religion (during my teenage years) and objected to me talking about Yule at all. But, also, teenagers are fucking idiots and defensive about everything, and if they weren’t fighting me about that, they’d be fighting me about something else.

    To be clear, though, I am not necessarily trying to say that Christians don’t deserve the word “Christmas” (though I do kind of feel like it was squandered, as far as sacredness goes), but that it is not practically possible to take it back. It’s like Xerox trying to keep the trademark on their own name–the genie is, as it were, out of the bottle.

    Again, though, the important parts of Christmas (and I’ll still debate with you about just which parts of Christmas are intrinsically valuable) are still mostly yours. The heathens don’t really want them, anyway. We just want to put up pine trees in our living rooms and lights on our houses and spread some good will towards men and women; everyone of any kind of reasonable intelligence is at least mildly disgusted with the way the Christmas holiday works in the retail sphere.

    I think my problem with this is that I must have assumed you specifically wanted something like me not celebrating Christmas in my way, since all of the other stuff–not talking about Christmas all the time, not making a big deal about Jesus everywhere we go to everyone we meet necessarily, not commercializing every stupid thing in the world–we, the heathens, were already doing that. It’s only been Christians who, in trying to affirm their identities, felt the need to impose those identities on others.

    Now, obviously, that’s not a thing that’s unique to Christianity, per se. It’s more like it’s unique to America. And it’s certainly not universal among Christians, and I don’t want to imply that I think that it is.

    But, frankly, the basic premise of, “If you want it to be sacred, you need to keep it to yourself” is at the core of my feelings about the Christmas holiday, and about religion in general. I think there’s even some certain biblical support for it (I guess I’m thinking of Matthew 6:6, I don’t know how big a thing most Christians think that is).

    I don’t know how to sell it to the evangelicals. I don’t know how to sell anything to those guys, except to put a sticker of Jesus on it and claim it’s based on principles derived from Deuteronomy. But I do know this: when a marginalized culture tries to protect itself, it’s trying to protect its existence; when a dominant culture tries to protect itself, it’s trying to protect its dominance. I want to be nice to the evangelicals, the same way that I want to be nice to everyone. And I hope there is a way that I can get what I want and still we can all be nice to each other. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and all the firebrand lunatics will kind of die off and peter out. But what am I supposed to do, if I’m willing to compromise, but the other guy isn’t? If I keep making room, but the evangelicals just keep demanding more room? What am I supposed to do then?

  15. Carl says:

    Yes, but you’re not a stranger. You’re Carl. It follows that I talk about my problems with the dominance of Christian culture in a different manner with you than I would if I were in the government or on national television… Are you suggesting that it would be inappropriate for a person to say something like that on national television? Or would it be inappropriate for a guy I know and with whom I have had regular conversations on the subject to say that to me?

    Ah-ha! So I did misunderstand how political-correctness works— at least in this context. I think of your blog— a broadcast point for your and Jeff’s inimitable musings on a wide variety of subjects to a worldwide audience— as not unlike television or radio or any other publicly transmitted source of thought and opinion. Certainly I’m not the only reader. But it sounds like you clearly conceive of it more in terms of a discussion among friends over drinks. And under those circumstances, I would absolutely expect there would be no-holds-barred in discussing anything worth discussing, and that a premium always be placed on honesty, and free-flow of information about what is true.

    It is, of course, true that it was rude of me to say it regardless of to whom I was speaking; I was mad, and I apologized for that.

    You did. I should have acknowledged it. Thanks, don’t give it another thought. And hey, for what’s its worth, I am genuinely sorry that people are shitheads and that folks calling themselves Christian more often than not seem to be about the devil’s business.

    Part of this is your fault! You were vague (that was your fault); and when you’re vague, I kind of…fill in the details myself (that is definitely my fault).

    Yes I was vague— I’ll entirely take that on me. Sometimes when I am not entirely clear about what I’m concluding I just throw things out that I know are moving me in the direction I am heading, as in this case, figuring it’ll congeal appropriately when I arrive at the fully-formed thought. In addition, I realized today that we had a conversation in the neighborhood of last Christmas in which I think I expressed surprise (not consternation or opposition, but definitely surprise) that you celebrated Christmas, what with your outspoken opposition to Christianity and all. And that, as a precursor to all of this, could very easily have created a false impression that I somehow pissed off about something Christmasy. Short-sighted on my part.

    AND, for the record, my wife (who I generally trust in considering matters of this sort) is entirely with you on this. She thinks I’m nuts to have even raised this issue. She said something today along the lines of it being like the Greeks complaining about Plato being misinterpreted by modern, Western philosophers. True or not, that ship has long since sailed, and Plato and his affects are now universal intellectual property. The copyright expired so long ago that any claim to him by anybody is patently absurd. So, maybe I am barking up the wrong tree entirely with this identity-cloister business. Maybe there is an asterisk next to Christianity for the purposes of this discussion. Maybe whatever is wrong with the Christian celebration of the birth of its Principal Figure (and with the Christian community’s practice of its faith in general) is going to have to be sorted out in public, in plain view, amid whatever static is created by the input or criticisms laid on the discussion by those outside the community. Maybe that’s just where we are because of where we’ve been and I just have to deal with that.

    But, frankly, the basic premise of, “If you want it to be sacred, you need to keep it to yourself” is at the core of my feelings about the Christmas holiday, and about religion in general. I think there’s even some certain biblical support for it (I guess I’m thinking of Matthew 6:6, I don’t know how big a thing most Christians think that is).

    As I am sure you’d guess based on our private discussions about the ways in which religion and theatre function, I don’t agree that the sacredness of thing is intrinsically connected to its secret-ness. But, the efficacy of a person’s engagement with the sacred may very well be. The passage you cite seems to be pointing us very strongly towards a preference for that over the alternative, anyway. Good point.

    But what am I supposed to do, if I’m willing to compromise, but the other guy isn’t? If I keep making room, but the evangelicals just keep demanding more room? What am I supposed to do then?

    Yeah, that’s very tough, and the reason I was trying to assemble a pitch that makes sense and can disarm that kind of opposition. I am coming at it with a negotiator’s mentality of give-and-take. Clearly, the answer is you have to push back. The question is how, exactly; what’s the approach, what’s the strategy? My response to the question will unavoidably reflect my philosophic colors, which I am offering as a disclaimer of sorts, because otherwise what I am about to write would read as very flip, given the preceding discussion.

    The best course of action I can figure is to turn the other cheek.

    If we consider how the dynamic of minorities fighting for their fair share of civic and social justice, expanded to its most extreme forms, played out in near-history, and the ways in which the towering figures of social-change in the 20th century overcame that kind of opposition, this principal seems always to be in play. So, I’m thinking Ghandi, King, Romero, Mandella, etc. These guys took an awful lot of shit and turned those cheeks almost incessantly. In those cases the opposition literally had all the guns, money, and power, and yet their causes won out because they stood on principal, secure in the knowledge that they were right, declaring firmly that they wouldn’t stand for injustices, and demanding their due social and legal space. BUT, their approach wasn’t really combat, it was unflustered reasonability. They were unfailingly the more humane, more compassionate, more unflappably peaceable of the parties, and put those in the majority to shame. Intolerance can’t sustain an assault on that kind of vocal, unshakable campaign indefinitely. At least, I don’t think it can. So the principal essentially is, stand for what’s fair and do it being the bigger man, the more noble of the parties— be MORE HUMAN than the other guy and keep it up— and over time what’s true will bear out. Of course, with one exception, all those guys got themselves killed. So there’s that to consider. (Is there something ironic about this conversation that I’m failing to mention? I feel like there is. Huh. It’ll come to me.)

    And I am not implying any kind of parallel between the ways in which anyone who is reading this might have ever conducted themselves in trying to advance the cause of justice and the tactics of guerilla fighters vs civil-rights agitators. As you rightly pointed out Chris, you haven’t pissed on anything. I am just trying to establish a broad contrast in approaches, to try to think through the question you pose, as a first-step towards creating behavioral parameters for this revolution. And if you think this is too soft an approach, well, you’re not alone. That’s why Marx didn’t like religion, right? Opiate and all that. Anyhow, I’m not sure how to reduce that principal to the appropriate level for this particular confrontation, but certainly the language and tactics employed in the project has to reflect our conclusions on the question.

    What I do feel confident saying is that minorities don’t generally overcome majorities by combat of any kind, but only by applying a greater, sustained will to truer, more humane reasoning than those who hold power.

  16. braak says:

    Ah, right. Well, and you can’t see the reader statistics for the site; I think maybe if a post like this had more than twenty people looking at it, I’d moderate my language a lot more. Certainly, if this was the kind of site that had a lot of viewers, that occasionally saw my and Jeff’s opinions picked up and quoted somewhere else, or that was constantly being referred to in public arguments about religion and atheism, I’d probably consider that my responsibilities on use of language had shifted somewhat.

    Though I was just thinking that this is an interesting thing about blogs; invariably what’s appealing about them is the sense of casual personality–that they are written as though I, the reader, am the person to whom the author is speaking directly. They are able to easily dispense with the formalities that govern radio and television; but, of course, somewhat paradoxically they are just as widely heard and read. I find it interesting; as usual, the medium’s biggest asset is also, in some ways, its biggest problem.

    And to be clear about my sense of sacredness, we have to also remember that “yourself” is a sphere of variable size. There is public public, and Catholic public, and “public” that’s just my friends and family, and there’s just inside my head. I mean that if the Catholic Church wants to keep something that is sacred, it needs to maybe keep it among Catholics. I think it’s basically a truism that when holy things have routine intercourse with the secular world, it’s the holy things that are made muddy.

    “Secret” I think in this case is less appropriate than “rare”. I have my own feelings on secrets and their value for both ritual and memetic propagation (secrets, as they say, are the essence of cool), but with sacred ritual I think the point is more that you can’t just toss it around lightly. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure this is at the root of Not Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain–a thing is given power and meaning by how unwilling we are to deploy it, which is why I think that activist groups like the AFA are wholly backward in their goals.

    Your point about minority action is another interesting one, though I think it overlooks the fact that many of these groups had complimentary groups that were, if not violent per se, at some level willing to be violent. Martin Luther King was not the only civil rights activist, and I think it’s important to remember that Malcolm X’s outspoken willingness to push back if he had to was part of what secured the beginnings of civil equality in the US.

    Hm. Of course, you couldn’t do it that way alone; necessarily the public and predominant front of a movement like that needs to be peaceful, compassionate, and humane. And I have no particular interest in seeing or being a part of a group of militant or semi-militant atheists. The idea is, in many ways, ridiculous–atheism isn’t an ideology at all, just a common descriptor for a wide variety of different ideologies, so organized groups of atheists is a fairly unlikely scenario.

  17. dagocutey says:

    Holy crap — what the hell? I’m was raised Catholic, and this past Christmas I wished an aquaintance a “Merry Christmas”. She replied, “I’m Jewish, we do Hannukah.” To which I said, “Oh, then, Happy Hannukah.” To which she replied, “Thanks!” What’s so fucking hard about that?

  18. braak says:

    I don’t know, hoss. I really don’t.

  19. dagocutey says:

    “But I do know this: when a marginalized culture tries to protect itself, it’s trying to protect its existence; when a dominant culture tries to protect itself, it’s trying to protect its dominance.” Boom in a nutshell — well done, Emma.

  20. Lisa says:

    I was gonna comment, but I have nothing even remotely as intelligent to say as all the discussion has already. My comment would be something akin to @dagocutey’s – people should just be people. We shouldn’t take offense so easily, nor should we be callous to each other. Maybe that’s just me being a bleeding-heart liberal, but I truly believe everyone needs to relax and just exist with each other.

    Now I’m going to go smoke something that should be legal (just kidding… I have to wait until I get home from work for that).

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