Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Freedom to Be Bad

It probably won't come as a complete shock to anyone if I say that political correctness is not an unmixed blessing.

Some people may even agree with me that P.C. has had a stifling effect on freedom of speech.  It used to be said that one's freedom of speech stopped just short of the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater and that the right to swing one's fist stopped at the other person's nose.  Now, however, freedom of speech stops just short of hurting someone's feelings, and the right to swing one's fist in the vicinity of the other person's nose depends on whose nose it is.

We've always had cranks, idiots, and bigots among us.  The (unfortunately) blond UCLA coed who posted the rant about "hordes of Asian students" using their cell phones in the college library -- in the aftermath of the tsunami, no less -- was demonstrating almost unfathomable ignorance and insensitivity.

But those who called for her expulsion were as much out of line as she was.  She's an idiot.  She's demonstrated publicly that she's an idiot.  She'll be living it down for years.  The only people who will make friends with her will also be idiots.  If we're going to do anything official about this, perhaps it should be a re-examination of UCLA's admissions standards.

See, she has the right to be an idiot.  Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to say things everyone agrees with.  It's designed precisely to protect speech many of us don't agree with.  Otherwise, why would it need protection?

But all this is by way of an oblique introduction to my actual (literary) topic.  I've been seeing a lot of movies lately and even some TV, and I'm frustrated by the dwindling pool of suspects.

Gauging from the things I've been watching, if someone were to stage Ten Little Indians these days and the cast was mixed, in terms of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, the audience could get up and leave five minutes in, right after all the characters gather for the first big scene in the living room.  See that one straight white guy over there?  He dunnit.  Let's go eat.

(Not to mention that the play would need a new title, which is kind of amusing since the title it has now was chosen as a less offensive form of the title of the original rhyme.)

It seems kind of crippling for those of us trying to construct mysteries or thrillers to be told (gently, largely by example) that it is not done these days to have gay villains or villains of color, unless there are also very good characters who are gay and/or of color.  No such restrictions exist relative to white male villains; they're the utility infielders of films and popular fiction.  Good and villainous in any position, capable of any crime.  After all, look at everything they're already responsible for.

I personally would leap at the challenge of writing an Eskimo-African American transgendered serial killer.  A whole new spectrum of personal experiences and grievances to work with.  But the book would wind up in my drawer, atop the other misfires whose existence I usually omit when I talk about my writing life.

But I think real equality will only come when we can relax and let anyone be the bad guy.

Or is bad guy a sexist phrase?

Tim - Politically Incorrect on Sundays


  1. I think if we get to the point in society where there is no bigotry, racism or sexism, and everyone is truly equal, and treated that way on every level, including in the media, then it would be a different era and a different matter.

    However, there is still so much of this going around--case in point, that woman student in California, why exacerbate it in fiction? It does happen all of the time anyway, especially in movies and on tv.

    Actors who are Black and Latino/a barely had any movie roles, barely had nominations or roles at the Oscars. But to bring them back to play just bad guys? Horrid thought. There's enough stereotyping already.

    As far as free speech, this is a conundrum. Free speech is protected, as for that crazy, bigoted, vociferous sect that pickets soldiers' funerals in an anti-gay, anti-Semitic rant.

    That woman student's free speech was protected. Would that of students who picketed at the school to oppose her?

    A lot of free speech at universities is not protected, depending on the individual and their ideas. Student groups line up speakers, then university boards cancel them if they don't like what they say.

    So, if there really were free speech for everyone, then fine.

    I sympathize with writers who feel limited, but isn't there a way to deal with this and still be creative?

  2. In order to be shot of all these -isms in literature, I recommend a short book titled: Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner.

    Here's a sample from Little Red Riding Hood the way it should have been written:

    "The wolf said, 'You know, my dear, it isn't safe for a little girl to walk through the woods alone.'
    Red Riding Hood said, 'I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme, but I will ignore it because of your traditional status as an outcast from society, the stress of which has caused you to develop your own, though entirely valid, worldview.'

    You'll be glad to know that eventually they "decided to set up an alternative household based on mutual respect and cooperation, and they lived together happily ever after."

  3. It's always good when there are contrasting replies, and I'm grateful for both of these, even if I'm instinctively more in tune with Michael's than kathy's.

    For one thing, Michael's made me laugh. If there's a single dependable indication that something is wrong with an idea, it's that there's nothing funny about it. I haven't gotten a lot of laughs out of political correctness.

    Regarding actors of color, etc., I certainly never suggested they should "just play bad guys." What I implied (I think) was that they should be allowed to play bad guys too, in addition to playing saints and heroes. Bad guys are often the best role -- look at Iago, who routinely steals the play from Othello.

    Anyway, good to see disagreement, and thanks to both of you for responding.

  4. Political correctness is a blight on society because those who are racist and steeped in bigotry aren't going to change because being offensive is their point.

    As usual, I have a different take on the freedom of speech issue because I have experiences that most others who follow the blog and post responses don't have. I have spent a huge chunk of my life working with middle school and high school students.

    I am very happy that my children are now adults and are too old to have had to deal with the texting issues that are pure dynamite in the hands of those with a developing brain and little common sense. First, there is the issue of bullying, a practice protected by freedom of speech. A cell phone allows text messages to be sent and received instantly. Those who receive the text can then send it on to their contacts and, in little time, hundreds of young people will have spread the word that victim A is a whore, the favorite accusation to be made by one girl about another girl. There is no way in which victim A can defend herself and there is no way she can escape the isolation that will result.

    Today's New York Times, Sunday, March 27, has an article on this very issue. An eighth-grade girl sent a nude photo of herself to a boy in her class, her boyfriend. He sent it on to another girl who sent it on to all her friends with the label,

    "Ho Alert!” she typed. “If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.”

    All the friends did just that. The Times article states that within 24 hours hundreds and possibly thousands of students received the photo and passed it on. A district attorney stated, “Having a naked picture of your significant other on your cellphone is an advertisement that you’re sexually active to a degree that gives you status,”. God help us.

    " a 2009 Wisconsin case of “sextortion,” a boy, pretending to be a girl online, who solicited explicit pictures of boys, which he then used as blackmail to compel those boys to have sex with him."

    Freedom of speech is a good thing except when it isn't.

    I love Michael's fable because it points out the absurdities to which the PC police have forced people to go. But, unless you have seen it, you can't appreciate the damage that can be done when a term that used to be used for a cigarette is applied to a 14 year-old boy. A school should be a place where freedom of speech is a guarantee but teachers have another burden to bear - being forever attuned to comments being made to and about students that indicate that they may be victims of bullying and worse.


  5. I would say freedom of speech in schools, online and in texting has its limits if it causes harm to people, or that videoing of a gay student in New Jersey, who committed suicide.

    But there are laws against libel, harassment, bullying, which could be used in these cases--and more.

    Free speech is used selectively also, as I said above, even in those bastions of academia; there are many examples of this.

    And what about immigrants? So many of their rights are denied at this time here.

    And now governors in the Midwest are trying to stop legal rights for unions and their members, with a stroke of the pen--no negotiations.

    And on acting roles--the problem is that while there were more roles for people of color, now there are very few, including on television--and they are very stereotyped roles.

    As I said, when all have free speech, free assembly, freedom to publish (except that which endangers people, youth included), and all are equal without discrimination or bigotry, that would be different.

    On culprits, I think of Donna Leon, who's publishing her 19th or 20th book, and always finds criminals in different venues, without offending anyone.

  6. Unfortunately, Kathy, those things you list are likely to happen in conjunction with the Second Coming. Human nature is the cause of most of the misery that is inflicted upon others.

    Bullies do their worst when no one who can do anything about it is there is witness it. My first year teaching, after my first parent-teacher meeting, I swore that I would never say, "my child would never do that."

    There are limits to free speech and actions. There was a professor at Boston College who wanted to sue the university because they didn't renew his contract. He wanted the crosses removed from all the classrooms. Apparently he hadn't noticed that Boston College is a Catholic university operated by the Jesuits.

    There are few laws that allow bullying to be punished although some states are working on it. In the case of the girl mentioned in the NYT article, she was a minor and although he tormentors were as well, they were able to level some charges reflective of child abuse. The teens involved had to do 36 months of community service, including creating programs pointing out the damage done by bullying which they presented to middle school classes.

    Parents need to watch their kids. If a parent thinks there is something bothering a child, ask and don't take "no" for an answer. Kids are embarrassed about being victims and they don't want their parents involved. But sometimes parents have to take a step to protect their children's lives.


  7. When I was a young journalist, political correctness was just emerging. It was a boon you any young hack. It was easy. You discovered a story, see if you could give it a PC spin, then rang up a right-wing rentagob and get them to say 'It's political correctness gone mad.' Did it countless times. I remember one instance where a woman was cast to play God in a play, no one was complaining, artistic freedom and all that - but I rang up the Archdeacon of York, who was always willing to grumble about he modern world, and hey presto, we had a story. It made Time magazine. Which is my way of saying that, in the UK at least, the phrase 'political correctness' has become entirely meaningless, and just a stick with which the right wing media tries to beat the left.

    The comedian Stewart Lee is very good on this. Check him out on You Tube. But here's a gist, talking about 'political correctness gone mad.'

    'It really worries me that 84% of this audience agrees with that statement, because the kind of people that say "political correctness gone mad" are usually using that phrase as a kind of cover action to attack minorities or people that they disagree with. I'm of an age that I can see what a difference political correctness has made. When I was four years old, my grandfather drove me around Birmingham, where the Tories had just fought an election campaign saying, "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour," and he drove me around saying, "this is where all the niggers and the coons and the jungle bunnies live." And I remember being at school in the early 80s and my teacher, when he read the register, instead of saying the name of the one asian boy in the class, he would say, "is the black spot in," right? And all these things have gradually been eroded by political correctness, which seems to me to be about an institutionalised politeness at its worst. And if there is some fallout from this, which means that someone in an office might get in trouble one day for saying something that someone was a bit unsure about because they couldn't decide whether it was sexist or homophobic or racist, it's a small price to pay for the massive benefits and improvements in the quality of life for millions of people that political correctness has made. It's a complete lie that allows the right, which basically controls media now, and international politics, to make people on the left who are concerned about the way people are represented look like killjoys. And I'm sick, I'm really sick-- 84% of you in this room that have agreed with this phrase, you're like those people who turn around and go, "you know who the most oppressed minorities in Britain are? White, middle-class men." You're a bunch of idiots.'

  8. That is quite a story, Dan. Bless your grandfather but he was a product of the society in which he was raised. My grandfather, an Irish Catholic immigrant in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century, had first hand experience of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ethos that encouraged the burning of a Catholic convent and the hiring policy of "Irish need not apply."

    My grandfather was not an educated man. He was a committed Catholic but he taught his children, by frequent repetition, that "you will make no fun of anyone's God" and "you will look every man in the eye and extend your hand." Granted that he was using "man" as shorthand for mankind, they learned their lesson well, passed it on to the next generation, and we have passed it on to our children.

    Papa made a lot of sense and kept things quite simple.


    That one Asian child in the classroom learned that he was a non-person and if he grew up to resent the majority population he can hardly be blamed.

  9. Somewhere in all this is a moral, or something like a moral: When we find ourselves subscribing to a world view that doesn't accurately describe the world it purports to describe, it's time to correct course. The pre-PC view of non-white and non-males being inferior was obviously flawed, in part because no generalization is worth a damn. But it's equally flawed to run to the other end of common sense and arrive at a view that, once again, sees race, sex, or sexual orientation as being somehow monolithic rather than simply as attributes shared by individual people who may have nothing else in common with each other.

    PC has led to increased free speech crackdowns and, I think, decreased tolerance toward and hypersensitivy about, others' views. We call much more easily now for official silencing of others than we used to.

    PC has also led us to dangerous idiocy in media attitudes of the type that produced recent coverage of savage bullying of Asian students in a Philadelphia high school -- bullying consisting of beating Asian kids bloody and senseless in the hallways -- that failed to mention that the bullying was racial and the students doing the bullying were African American. The Philadelphia Enquirer and the Associated press didn't mention that this was racial bullying until the fourth and fifth paragraphs, respectively, and CNN ran three 30-second stories without ever mentioning it at all.

    This is not a productive attitude. If we refuse to see things, how are we to deal with them? Political correctness in its more extreme forms is as detrimental as any other form of generalizing about groups of people, in defiance of all evidence that people are individuals.

    I could talk about this for days, but luckily for you I won't.

  10. Wait a minute: Someone who complained about people using cell phones in a library is an idiot?