Legally, the first amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. Given the current trend of hysteria on social media towards just about everything, is it right being censored by political activists and guardians of moral hygiene in the artistic world?
What Is Political Correctness?
On a sunny morning of May 1991, US President George H.W. Bush is advancing toward the podium to make a speech to University of Michigan’s graduating class. Speaking in front of thousands of students, the president should have every reason to rejoice: the United States is winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union and just routed Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait after a few weeks of battle with minimum U.S. casualties. America is at its height of power; yet, a new enemy is lurking around. “Ironically, on the 200th anniversary of our bill of rights, we find free speech under assault, the notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land,” said Bush. The notion of political correctness is not new. The terms appeared in 1793 in a U.S. Supreme Court judgment and was later used by socialist groups, but it had a very different meaning back then.
Political correctness as we know it today emerged in the 1980s in order to prevent abusive language. Nowadays, this expression can often be associated with pejorative meaning, but the initial ambition back then was to limit the violence carried by vocabulary. Some words are not neutral. They carry a racist, paternalistic, and Western-centric conception of the world. Confronted by intolerant mentalities and violent behaviors, intellectuals and minorities decided to fight back in order to encourage the adoption of respectful terms such as “black,” “African American,” “gay,” and “Native American.”
Literally, political correctness is the promotion of correct and considerate language instead of negatively charged lexicon. While it may not solve social issues, advocating for correct wording is a first step in the right direction, because verbal violence generally precedes physical violence. As such, that’s a noble cause.
The New Godwin Law?
But over time, the expression became politically charged and is now used as a convenient catch-all term by all sorts of groups to discredit multiculturalism, gender equality, gay right movements, or liberalism among others. Instead of engaging in a civilized discussion, critics will mark the debate by the seal of infamy: political correctness. At some point, any discussion about one of these hot topics will inevitably generate this accusation in order to end the conversation with an ultimate point.
The abusive use of the term “politically correct” to discredit someone or something is not exclusive to any political groups. According to the Columbia Journalism Review:
The prevailing idea is that political correctness comes from the left, but it can come from the right as well. The “blame” could be placed in large part on conservative media for using the term as a go-to attack on the left. But looking deeper, the mainstream news media as a whole bears some responsibility, mainly as more left-leaning publications took on a greater burden of balance than their right-leaning counterparts.
The Perversion of a Laudable Cause Is Counterproductive
Unfortunately, what was initially a laudable cause has become perverted by nonsense. Moderate conservatives are labeled as members of the “alt-right,” while the most basic scientific and historical facts are dismissed as “fake news.” Social media is usually the best way to propagate this type of absurdity. Keyword warriors are invited to pick their fight (or hashtags) and topic of indignation before spilling torrents of hate to whomever stands in the way of their supposed wisdom. The bubble effect of social networks with suggesting algorithms that match personal affinities tends to reinforce this trend.
This type of behavior is counterproductive because it hurts the cause. For instance, transgender rights are important, but pushing society to abandon non-offensive vocabulary could alienate the majority. Perhaps a subtle approach would be more productive. One can support transgender equality without the need to use “Ze” or “Xe” pronoun. Just asking the person what she or he wants to be called seems to be respectful without falling into bigotry. On the other side of the spectrum, historical deniers like to blame political correctness to excuse the African slave trade and slaughter of millions of Native Americans (among other topics).
Fighting against sexual harassment is essential, but raising awareness is not a substitute for the fundamental principle of presumption of innocence. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit don’t replace a courtroom. Following the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, many online detectives tried to find the suspect by investigating images on social networks. In the end, all the “terrorist” identifications made by these armchair cyber-vigilantes proved to be wrong. What’s worse, this Internet manhunt was also terribly wrong for the people falsely accused.
The #MeToo movement is essential, but it must not turn in giant cyber-hunt or it will lose momentum and sympathy from the public. The day that false accusations are made under its name, deniers will be all too happy to jump on the opportunity to discredit the movement. Let’s not forget that Twitter didn’t start the Weinstein scandal. Serious investigative work by the New York Times did.
Some causes are utterly important, but perception matters. The game of intimidation, victimization, and mass drama limits the reach of the argument. A recent story illustrates the absurdity of the situation. The owner of a bakery in Portland decided to fire two employees after they refused to serve a black woman who came in after the store was already closed. The woman took out a video camera and claimed she was a victim of racism.
Personally, I think that this type of excess is one of the reasons behind Donald Trump’s success. Stretching and distorting facts created a counter-reaction that led this man and his controversial policy directly to the Oval Office, which is a massive blow for human rights, gender equality, the fight against global warming, and multiculturalism. The situation is tragic because all these issues are real: gender pay gap, uncontrolled police shootings, racial killing, and sexual harassment to name a few.
Consequence in the Artistic World
But the artistic community is not immune and the distorted version of political correctness has penetrated our world. British Filmmaker Andrew Reid recently said:
Historically, if you look at the original definition of an artist, they are a defiant provocateur. A filmmaker is always provoking some reaction from an audience. If the audience doesn’t react, the art fails. If the audience isn’t moved by a film or they aren’t even made to think, it is a bad film.
He recounts a scene that occurred during the press conference following the screening of the film "Antichrist," when Lars Von Trier was asked by a journalist to justify why he made the film. This is a weird question. M. Reid also noted that “another mistake people often make is to confuse the filmmaker’s real views with fiction. In the aftermath of "Antichrist," Von Trier was dubbed a misogynist at Cannes because of a suggestion (in the fiction!) that women are the antichrist.”
Today, I can’t imagine how Stanley Kubrick films like "Lolita" or "A Clockwork Orange" would be received. Instead, some movie studios are trying to jump on the political correctness trend. The latest "Ghostbusters" movie was quite pathetic in this regard, perhaps even hypocritical, because it seems that women are only worth walking in the steps of men for a remake. "Kill Bill" from Quentin Tarantino was much more original and empowering. Uma Thurman was astonishing in her role and she was not used to reheat late millennials’ nostalgia with an insipid gender switch plot. I haven’t watched "Ocean's 8," yet but I fear the worst.
This issue is not specific to the film industry. In 2014, Indian Photographer Raj Shetye learned this lesson the hard way when he released a series of images depicting a lone Indian woman surrounded by men on a bus, fending off their advances. Some people online quickly made the connection with the 2012 New Delhi gang rape and started bashing M. Shetye for failing to understand the difference between art and reality. Following the backlash, the author explained that "being a photographer, the only medium I can communicate in is photos. For me, it’s as simple as that. It's art. Making movies, writing articles, making a poem: these are all ways of addressing the topic. Being a fashion photographer, this is what I can do best...This is in no way meant to glamorize the act, which was very bad."
Conclusion: Accuracy, Common Sense, and Decency Are Key
Georges Clemenceau, one of the French prime ministers during World War I, once said that “war is too important to be left to the military.” I also think that social topics such as gender equality, sexual harassment, racism, and multiculturalism are too important to be left in the hands of oriented activists (right or left) and online screamers always prompt to be offended by anything. Raising awareness is positive, but digging into absurdity is leading nowhere and can backfire with excessive counter-reactions. In some way, abusive statements made by liberals paved the way for the “alternative facts” of the Trump administration. Or perhaps, it’s the contrary.
Who remembers the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnaped in 2014? The #BringBackOurGirls movement helped to raise awareness but may have made it more difficult to free the girls as terrorists thrive with media coverage. Today, more than a hundred victims are still held captive, but the hashtags and tweets are long gone. The Internet’s attention span is short, and one story kills the next in a matter of days.
But should we do nothing? Of course not. The point is not to condemn these actions but to act with a minimum of common sense and decency. Political correctness serves a good purpose, but correctness is part of the idea. The Philosopher and Author Albert Camus used to say that “to name an object wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world.” Distorting facts, reversing the cause and the consequence, or defending “alternative facts” is not the correct way to proceed as it generates additional inaccuracy and misunderstanding. The viral picture depicting a small crying girl separated from her mother at the border ended up on the cover of Time magazine, but the story behind this image has been completely twisted. For some, this image became the proof of the inhumane Trump administration policy, while Trump supporters blamed the “fake news” media and claimed that the toddler was never separated from her mother. The reality is more complex. The girl was only briefly separated from her mother and most of the original media (Washington Post and CNN) never reported that the girl and her mother had been separated.
So, is political correctness taking over the artistic industry? I don’t think so, as anyone can speak freely in this country, but sexism and racism, among others, don’t fly that easily anymore. The right to bigotry is preserved, but one must face the consequences of its action.
On the other hand, the tendency of social networks to generate and fuel collective hysteria with made-up stories disconnected from reality can have a negative impact, as it affects the creative process of many artists. Nowadays, it seems that anything will spark controversy no matter what we do or don’t do. A person being offended is not necessarily right.
I must admit that I often feel very uncomfortable when I witness the level of violence spread on the internet by some keyboard warriors, calling for “murder” and other festivity to whoever falls under the outrage of the day. It seems that the era of Roman games and public stoning is not so far behind us after all.
Therefore, many artists now prefer to avoid any "hot topics" alogether because of the irrational nature of the reactions they can trigger on the Internet (from any side). A photographer who would like to make a cross-cultural reference with makeup and clothing accessories might be accused of cultural appropriation while called anti-patriotic at the same time. An artist is like a funambulist trying to cross an unmarked social minefield.
As a creator, the safest route is to go with the flow of the loudest screamers, but this approach conveys the risk of falling into conformism. From the right or the left, no one has the monopoly of nonsense on these issues. Unfortunately, conformism and self-censorship is not compatible with originality, and walking on the same sanitized road clear of mines does not contribute to creativity.