April 12, 2018

HAGOPIAN | Reframe Political Correctness

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I’m a bleeding heart liberal, but I’ve acquired a few ostensibly conservative views as I’ve gotten older. One of them is an opposition to political correctness.

I also believe that Howard Stern is one of the great comedic geniuses of the modern era. One frequent contributor on the Howard Stern radio show was Eric Lynch, better known as “Eric the Midget.” Eric became a show fixture in 2002 when he called in to curse out Howard for disparaging Kelly Clarkson. His abrasive personality and his willingness to challenge Stern made him a hit with fans; he insulted the crew and they insulted him right back. Comedian Artie Lange once made a joke about Eric wanting to be “normal-sized,” and he responded by saying that Artie was “way above normal-sized.” Nothing about these interactions was ever P.C. But the notoriety from his Stern show appearances got him various television acting roles and a cameo on Jimmy Kimmel, things that no amount of tone policing or meticulously crafted language could ever have gotten him.

This is obviously a special case, but it sheds light on an important nuance of political correctness. I believe in reprimanding individuals who say offensive things. Expression in art, on the other hand, must always remain unregulated. Everyone believes this in practice whether or not they believe it in theory. Louis C.K., before his recent sexual misconduct allegations, was extremely popular among my liberal friends despite the fact that he frequently uses the n-word on stage. He got away with it because he’s a brilliant artist and we care more about laughing at jokes then we do about speech restrictions. Anything that falls by the wayside so easily has to be deeply flawed.

What should happen is the precise opposite of what has been happening. Everyday communication (i.e. racial jokes at work) should be policed, while great art like Louis C.K. stand-up should be given major major leeway (one may respond by claiming that all communication is art, but we’ll leave that to the side for now). The only question is whether or not bad/mediocre art should be subject to P.C. standards. It’s precisely this inquiry that is latent within the debate over indecency in film. Actors having real sex in indie films is celebrated as culture, while porn is derided as smut. Porn, as many of you know, often has storylines. And, as a slightly smaller number of you probably know, lots of indie films totally suck. So what’s the real difference between the two? Status is what I would call it. And any set of rules that varies based on societal status is definitely deeply flawed.

Many of my fellow liberals think that they can legislate the world into a paradise. Think about racism. It’s the stupidest thing ever and it has no basis in fact, yet it’s been 5000 years and we still haven’t fixed it. The perfect world is not forthcoming. Does that mean we should give up? Of course not. But it does mean we should be a little smarter about where we direct our efforts. There’s no point planting a tree you’ll never sit in when they’re bulldozing the forest. Things that exist for their own sake probably shouldn’t exist at all.

At the very least, political correctness needs a complete reframing; it should be an opportunity rather than an obligation. You should want to refer to trans people with their preferred pronouns, for example, because it’s the polite thing to do and it will make them feel good. Obligation shouldn’t even have to come into it. People are smart, they’ll respond to being educated about the reasoning behind the rules. Nobody responds to being told what to do.

Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ahagopian@cornellsun.com. The Whiny Liberal runs alternate Fridays this semester