In 1994, I read a book called Politically Correct Bedtime Stories: Modern Tales for Our Life and Times. It updated classic fairy tales with politically correct jargon aimed at comically — and of course, ineffectually — minimizing the disadvantages of Red Riding Hood’s sight-impaired grandmother or the height-challenged Rumpelstiltskin.
In the empowered version of “Red Riding Hood,” for instance, Red tells off the wolf for suggesting a little girl shouldn’t walk alone in the woods. “I find your sexist remark offensive in the extreme,” she says, “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, entirely valid, worldview. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.”
I thought this book was hilarious. I was also 10 years old at the time.
This brand of humor now seems outdated and facile (Step 1: Notice effort at tolerance or inclusiveness. Step 2: Mock it) but the thinking behind it is alive and well. We mock professors for issuing “trigger warnings” in the classroom. We mock students for expecting “safe spaces” on campus and accusing others of “cultural appropriation.”
British comic Stewart Lee, in his stand-up act, quotes a survey saying 84 percent of people think political correctness has “gone mad.” He imagines one of these 84-percenters complaining, “You know, you can’t do anything in this country anymore, mate. It’s political correctness gone mad. You can’t even write racial abuse in excrement on someone’s car.” (An all-too-timely hypothetical, given some of the allegations at the University of Missouri.)
Lee’s 84-percenters (or however many of them there really are) pop up in our Facebook feeds with complaints about Yale students acting like kindergarteners, as if allegations of holding “white girls only” parties are akin to complaints about not inviting the whole class to a birthday party. They pop up in Twitter mentions to claim that former University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe’s only crime was being a white man. And, above all, they rage in comment sections.
They abhor “feelings.” They disdain millennials. And, though they seem to have a lot of time to participate in Listservs, they have no time for nuance.
I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 2011. While there, I TA’d for an undergrad class called “Cross-Cultural Journalism.” After being assigned a reading on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of my students complained that the writer was trying make her feel bad for poorer people in New Orleans, which she said was unfair because “natural disasters affect everyone equally.”
Los Angeles Times reporter and Mizzou grad Nigel Duara wrote about his unwillingness to talk about his experiences of racial bias on that campus, for fear of interrogation. After admitting his lack of surprise about the recent accusations at Mizzou, Duara was questioned by a white friend: “He wanted to know what I was talking about. He, a white man, was there with me for most of it. If something truly terrible happened, the implication was, he would have seen it, or at least heard about it.”
In other words, if someone’s story about enduring racism is not sufficiently appalling, listeners are likely to dismiss it entirely. But lots of Duara’s experiences wouldn’t make for satisfying sound bites. “Most of it’s quieter. How do you know it’s racism then, my friend asked, and not just somebody having a bad day?” he wrote. “And that’s the thing of it. You don’t. You never do. It’ll drive you absolutely crazy.”
In 2013, This American Life interviewed a black actress who was hired to pretend to look for apartments in New York City. The Fair Housing Justice Center hires actors like her to ask landlords if any apartments are available, and for what price. When white actors get very different answers from black actors, it can result in a lawsuit. The actors aren’t told whether any complaints have been made or if it’s just a random test. They don’t know if another actor has been sent before them. And they often cannot tell — at all — that they’re being lied to.
The actress recalled a particularly genial landlord who told her the last available apartment had been recently taken. Later that same day, he told a white actress that an apartment would be available soon, and took her to look at it.
“It’s jarring. It’s very jarring,” the black actress said. “It was just really confusing. I’m like, ‘Oh, maybe I should have done something differently.’ … It’s hard for my brain to realize that there was nothing that I could do. And for a while I had a feeling of like, well, does that mean I’m misjudging other people in my life? You know, are there other people who don’t want to be near me because I’m black? What does that mean? Am I just completely misjudging the people around me?”
If you’re an 84-percenter, chances are you’ve never had to wonder if a landlord lied to your face about apartment availability. Chances are you haven’t spent much time wondering whether a person was rude to you because of a bad day or because of your skin color. And in college, you didn’t have to wonder if you’d be called racial slurs when walking by fraternity houses.
Of course, the comic Lee says, political correctness hasn’t exactly won the day. “People still get killed, don’t they, for being the wrong color or the wrong sexuality or whatever?” he says. “And what is political correctness? It’s an often clumsy negotiation towards a kind of formally inclusive language, and there’s all sorts of problems with it. But it’s better than what we had before.”
Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about the students who ask that others consider their feelings and their histories, the ones who don’t want to talk to reporters, the ones who would like people to stop wearing Native American headdresses or blackface to Halloween parties. Maybe we should worry more about the students who seem hellbent on doing whatever they’d like, history or context or plain old manners be damned. Instead of worrying about the students who point out violent threats on Yik Yak, worry about the students making threats.
It may not be as funny to the 84-percenters, but it could be a better use of their time.