graphic by @francifausti
A MEDIA TRIAL
Some of you may remember that a few months ago a popular Italian comedian, Michela Giraud, tweeted about Demi Lovato coming out as non-binary by saying: “She now wants to be referred to as ‘them’, like Wizard Otelma (a popular Italian television character)” – a quite unnecessary statement that, predictably, raised many controversies against which she had to defend herself. It was a perfect, typical example of what occurs more and more when a sensitive topic is brought to the attention of many on social media: someone (who generally isn’t directly affected by the problem) thinks it is a good idea to make fun of it; people (who generally are directly affected by the problem, or are close to the people who are) point out that, from their perspective, that content is not funny at all; the creators try to justify it calling into question at first, irony, satire and good intentions, and then, when the discussion gets more animated, freedom of speech and thought; and when the accusations don’t stop, the usual ill-fated statements are pronounced (or, as in the case of that meme page, used as a reply to any adverse comment): “We can no longer say anything”; “Now you can’t even joke”; “We live under the dictatorship of political correctness”.
How many times have you heard or read this sort of declaration on social media, newspapers, or tv? Lately, I bet too many; as they are more and more often used to suggest that such critiques are excessive, that society is getting too susceptible and imposes annoying limitations on people’s freedom of expression. This usually happens each time someone is criticized for saying something potentially sexist, racist, or homo-transphobic in public, even when, in the wrongdoer’s words, no real offense was meant. Moreover, if political correctness is frequently despised, it is also because it is associated with another phenomenon which is feared by many, cancel culture: an attempt to boycott controversial and offensive cultural products or public personalities, such as Margaret Mitchell’s racism in Gone with the Wind or J.K.Rowling’s transphobic tweets.
A BRIEF HISTORICAL RECAP
Investigating the reasons behind the adverse opinions against political correctness and cancel culture is, I think, of greatest relevance, because it is not just a matter of cultural changes in contemporary society, but of the political strategies that shape our time and determine our life. As the name suggests, the history of political correctness is indeed embedded in political history: to be politically correct initially meant to stick to the generally accepted political view of the society of the period you lived in – either conservative or progressionist. In fact, it was at first used by American democrats and civil rights activists to criticize the tendency of the 1960s’ “respectable” political system to avoid discussions on any controversial subject; it was then appropriated in the 1980s by right-wing thinkers to attack the ever-more-frequent progressionist events on American college campuses, deemed to “indoctrinate” younger generations. The latter interpretation of “politically correct” is the one that still inhabits contemporary politics, as it is mostly used by right-wing movements to undermine objectors’ attacks on their actions and policies. Indeed, as recently explained by Moira Weigel in The Guardian, one of the reasons political correctness and cancel culture is so ubiquitously present on the Internet and in everyone’s words is Donald Trump’s government and political campaign in the past four years: he relentlessly defended himself against criticism by declaring it was due to the fact that he refused to be politically correct – creating the widespread myth and fear of a politically correct conspiracy against conservative parties’ agendas. But what is peculiar of our time is that this hatred of political correctness has been adopted by older leftist intellectuals as well (especially in its relation to cancel culture), who judge Gen Z’s aversion to whatever is sexist, racist, and homophobic as a new form of bigotry – with the paradoxical result of the left often ending up supporting some of the same claims as to the right.
THE PLAINTIFFS’ CLAIMS
But what are these claims, then? Why is political correctness deemed to be such a threat? It’s here that the problem becomes cultural because most complaints come from the entertainment and education world. One of the most frequent forms of criticism is, for instance, the “heavy” limitations imposed on comedians’ choice of skits and jokes on tv. A famous example in Italy is represented by the uproar surrounding a sketch by comedians Pio and Amedeo, who were strongly attacked for a tv skits in which they invited gay people to “be un-politically correct” and to just have a laugh when others called them “fags” – eventually revendicating the “good intentions” of this joke. Another very present objection is that the tv and film industry is “menaced” by political correctness because the market demand of politically correct products – those that represent society as plural and diverse – is impoverishing directors’ creativity because now each of them “has to” include at least one gay or non-white character. But according to many, the major threat political correctness represents is its expression as cancel culture, which is destroying our traditional values (according to right-wing thinkers) and the culture of the past (according to left-wing ones). Occasional suggestions of a handful of anonymous college students to remove a certain classic from school syllabuses in favor of more inclusive works (proposals of this type were made in English speaking countries, for instance when a group of students substituted a portrait of Shakespeare with one of Audre Lorde at the University of Pennsylvania) are reported on the media as valid proofs that if this trend is not stopped, the great pillars of the past will be forever forgotten under the “dictatorship of political correctness”. Episodes of this type are very often compared on newspaper to the Nazi bonfires of forbidden books in the 1940s – except that no one is making book bonfires anywhere and that both Shakespeare and Defoe are still universally present in every English course syllabus. To get a better idea of the self-evident paradoxicality of such claims, you should know that some months ago in Italy, despite the ongoing pandemic crisis, politicians and intellectuals discussed for days on media – as if it was a real and significant danger for our country – about the possibility of Disney removing Snow White and the prince’s kissing scene from the famous cartoon, because now it is reputed as sexist (since it’s “non-consensual”) and un-politically correct by younger generations. And this happened just because a local San Francisco newspaper had published an article on the matter in a Disneyland review that somehow reached Italy and was turned into a national case.
THE DEFENDANTS’ ARGUMENTS
Luckily, these attempts to prove that political correctness is Big Brother secretly controlling modern social life and a serious threat to the foundations of Western civilization are quite pitiful and ridiculous, especially from the point of view of a Zoomer. Indeed, it is quite difficult for anyone in our generation to believe that our freedom of speech is in peril because we are no longer allowed to go on tv and make unpleasant jokes about race, women, and gay people. No teen today would ever regard a diverse and multicultural film as a “politically correct” one – but just as a product that mirrors the diverse and multicultural society that now surrounds them. Indeed, if all these conspirators spent less time spreading anxiety and hate on mass media, and more in the real world, they would notice that the fearful political correctness they see everywhere is nothing more than the slow and inevitable adaptation of cultural products to the changes that take place in an ever more inclusive society, some of which lead to the inevitable rejection of the habits and customs of the past. Obviously, Shakespeare should be studied for reasons that go beyond the particular and problematic cultural set of his works – but changing the perspective used to analyze such works, as effectively requested by some students, could be useful to understand their new relevance in modern society. But to be completely honest on this point, we should also remember that despite the progressive trends among younger generations, most of the cultural and academic world is still extremely conservative – so that what is considered culture today is still exclusively what was produced by white men, completely ignoring the existing valuable works by women and non-white thinkers of the past. As of 2020, the typical Italian high school literature syllabus (which spans from the 11th to the late 19th century, for a total of more than 900 years) includes just three women, who are usually disregarded by teachers as they are reduced to half a page each out of a 700-page-long textbook, despite Grazia Deledda – for instance – being the first Italian writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature. If we look at the matter from this perspective, I think that some students’ claims start to appear quite reasonable.
A FINAL VERDICT
I, therefore, think that we should defend the label of political correctness, instead of attacking it, because nowadays being politically correct means respecting the plurality and diversity that exist in society and granting visibility to themes and minorities that had always been excluded from the mass-consumption cultural industry. It also means knowing that culture and the media for a very long time purposefully provided only a partial representation of society and were used to maintain and reinforce the privileges of a specific portion of society. Being politically correct doesn’t mean, as it is sometimes said, “rewriting the past” – it is very clear and obvious that the mindset of people in the past cannot correspond to ours today, especially on themes such as marginalization and discrimination – but it means being fully aware of the unjustness and cruelty of many of the practices that mindset determined. On the other hand, proudly claiming to be “un-politically correct” doesn’t mean, as some thinks, to think out of the box – but to disregard other people’s dignity, deserved sensitivity, and past struggles, creating divisions and reinforcing a condition of unfair privilege and superiority by some categories of the population over others.
I would like to conclude this article by quoting a very powerful speech by Pietro Turano, a popular actor among young audiences (he is Filippo in SKAM Italia) and activist with a large following on social media, posted in a video by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in response to that sketch by comedians Pio and Amadeo, which were mentioned earlier. I think it perfectly summarizes all those contradictions of the modern discourse on political correctness that I tried to evidence in this article.
(Translation from Italian):
“They didn’t call me gay or homosexual, but ‘fag’, always ‘fag, fag, fag’. That is – rotten. And for all these reasons, if I have acquired with blood the right to use this word, they don’t have the same right to tell me that I should laugh if some stupid people call me ‘fag’ – or that words are not the problem, but just bad intentions are […]. But when I try to explain this, I’m doing the dictatorship of political correctness. Is it so? Now are we the politically correct ones? Us – always the dissident, the inverted, the different ones – we that didn’t even exist publicly until the day before yesterday, we that from the margins of society have experimented and invented new alternative ways of living, of relationships, of family, of existing, of sexuality from nothing, because we couldn’t do so from within society, we couldn’t even try. […] Are we the politically correct ones? Or are you – you who face a crisis when for once in your life have to question those privileges you stick to like mussels – you who have a crisis if for once in your life, you cannot take for granted those freedoms that we have always paid the price for in your place. Who is politically correct?”