Are Political Correctness and Online Hysteria Taking Over the Photography Industry?

Are Political Correctness and Online Hysteria Taking Over the Photography Industry?

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.

The iconic picture of the Florence Owens Thompson known as the "Migrant Mother." This image became a symbol of the Great Depression, but the condition of its release and publication could be controversial today. Credit: Dorothea Lange via the Library of Congress

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.

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54 Comments

Aaron Walker's picture

A very good and nuanced article. We need more articles that aren't so "politically correct" that they fail to raise important ideas to think about and discuss.

Daniel Medley's picture

Without getting into the meat of the whole "politically correct" argument I would like to point out that "Legally, the first amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech" is simply not correct. At minimum it's far too general.

What it does do, among other things, is spell out limitations on government to limit expression. It does not apply beyond that.

Agreed, however the general rule of thumb is, if it's not illegal, it's legal. So while you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, I'm not aware of any laws prohibiting someone from saying something that may hurt another's feelings. That, of course, is not to say they should.

Rob Davis's picture

It's not about feelings, it's about power. If you were a supervisor disparaging someone's appearance in the workplace, you would have broken the law. Walk out onto the street and say the same thing to a stranger and you're in the clear. It's signaling malintent and having the power to act on it where most PC philosophies and laws originate.

Saying, "I wish you were dead" is awful, but probably legal. Saying, "I wish you were dead" while holding a weapon or wearing a police uniform is a different story. Just look at Capitol Hill today.

I would think the illegal activity, you describe, wouldn't really fall in the category of PC. Maybe it's not one of those things where, "you know it when you see it."

Additionally, what many fail to keep in mind is that for minorities and the marginalized, the acts of verbal denigration are often the tip of the proverbial spear of oppression. The White guy who calls his neighbor the N word or some subtle form of that slur is also the one who calls the White cops on his Black neighbors for barbecuing in their backyards and gets the father shot in the process.

Basically, the opposition to "political correctness" and "identity politics" (the latter of which resulted from the very racism propagated by generations of White people) is often mere anger over being told by minorities that they are mad as hell and won't take it anymore, as Peter Finch would say.

Certainly we have to be careful to not verge on censorship. At the same time, a lot of the worries about "political correctness" wouldn't exist if people would actually be polite to their fellow human beings in the first place and more importantly, looking at their fellow human beings as being people just like them. Those who tend to complain about "political correctness" tend not to think of Black people and others as people in the first place.

Rob Davis's picture

I agree. A lot of the anger about political correctness is really a reaction to white Americans (of which I am one) being "raced" for the first time in American history. Before they were always just normal, the standard by which every other group is deemed "different."

Being categorized being asked to see ourselves as a group through the eyes of others is something everyone else experiences every day, but is new to us.

Daniel Medley's picture

But on the other hand, in the US, an employer can fire an employee for what that employee says on their own time. Say a post on social media, or something said at a private party that gets back to the boss.

Rob Davis's picture

True. We have few workplace protections in the United States. It has to be blatant for the law to side with the employee over the employer.

the First Amendment is about government restriction of speech. It has never guaranteed freedom from consequences. There are limits even to the freedom the first gives you. If you libel or slander someone, they can absolutely sue you. If you file a false police report, you can be prosecuted. If you go around making terrorist threats, that's not protected speech either. as for employers, they aren't bound by the first either. They can fire you for harassment on the job. But they also have the right to have a social media policy. It amazes me when lunatics write bigoted, harassing crap on Facebook and their page is public and they list their employer. Employing someone like that makes the company look bad. It's also a potential liability issue. It should surprise no one if they get fired.

Kirk Darling's picture

"If you were a supervisor disparaging someone's appearance in the workplace, you would have broken the law"

Umm, no, not illegal. At least not in the US. Not unless the "disparagement" involved prejudice against the specific protected classifications.

Rob Davis's picture

It's a hypothetical and not 100% but more true than not. Pretty hard not to do that. In most large companies if you use the phrase "hostile work environment" it's a big deal that will immediately involve the HR department. I'm not talking about dress code issues. I'm talking about saying something like, "your clothes are ugly." You can do that on the street, not in a workplace.

Kirk Darling's picture

"Breaking the law," no.

Where my wife works, and in places I've worked (not to mention the military), they can and do tell people to go home and change if they're improperly dressed.

Allen Morris's picture

This article reminds me of our banned friend Bob Brady, who used to rant and rave on this forum about the "madness and lie of political correctness" and how it was destroying Western civilization. I bet he would have brought subtle nuance to this conversation, lol! Sometimes I miss the old kook. Only sometimes...

He was banned? I just thought he moved on. Every once in a while, I'll wonder about him too. Brief onces in very long whiles. :-)

Allen Morris's picture

I think so. I went to respond to him one day and all of his comments were erased. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Daniel Medley's picture

There is no law that says you can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater. That is a myth. It stems from a SCOTUS ruling in 1919 that was overturned in 1969. A law stating that you could not yell "fire" in a crowded theater is a violation of the First Amendment.

Government can't ban speech or expression; including yelling "fire" in a theater. But government can convict you of "inciting imminent lawlessness" if what you say causes that. It's an important distinction.

Well, yes. There's also no law stating you can't perform a lot of the specific actions that will result in someone's death but, yeah. I'll have to think about that distinction, though. Nothing comes to mind immediately.

Daniel Medley's picture

The distinction being that you can yell "fire" in a crowded theater and you won't be charged with a crime. If you end up "inciting lawlessness" you could be charged for that. But not for yelling "fire."

Hmm. I see your point but think there would be something along the lines of 'attempting to incite lawlessness'. If you attempt to kill someone, but fail, you've committed a crime. If you threaten to harm the president of the United States, even if you don't act on it, you can be arrested. I'm not sure if the same applies to threatening ordinary citizens.

Daniel Medley's picture

I see your point, but now you're getting slightly into the realm of the 1919 decision that was reversed. When threatening to kill or harm someone, presidential threats aside, it would have to be in a situation that the receiver of the threats must reasonably fear that the threats are going to be carried out.

Simply saying, "I'm going to kill you," is not in and of itself an illegal thing to say to someone; people aren't restricted from saying it.

It's astonishing that this got published in the first place, considering the first sentence is so very incorrect. Building an article on a topic that you don't understand is embarrassing. It's much smarter to do the research and get the facts BEFORE you write or publish a piece. Guess Fstoppers doesn't have any fact checkers.

It's an opinion article. The author is entitled to incorrectly assert anything he or she likes, just as you are entitled to call out their error. In this case, I'm not sure it supports his thesis, or that his error detracts from it, anyway.

As an aside, from your comments and voting record, I think you must be a very interesting person. :-)

Interesting is often used as an insult but not always. Either way, I'll take it. Better to be interesting than dull.

I don't know you nearly well enough to mean it either way. But yes, it's better than dull.

Kaden Classen's picture

Personally, I prefer media that isn't intended to advance political views. Our political disagreements lead us to make assumptions about the character of those we disagree with, and media that isn't pushing a political agenda offers an escape from that. I also think a lack of politics in media makes it more timeless.

That being said, I know people want to use their talents to fight for what they believe in. I can respect that. But I think subtlety is key, because it gets the point across without making assumptions about or alienating the other side. The best political movies (or other media) are the ones that you can interpret as nothing more than just a good story or as political. When you've mastered that balance, you've created something great.

Political correctness is actually the manufacture of division.
it benefits those that rule only.

“The Revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming them slowly into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism.” Max Horkheimer

What Max Horkheimer doesn't tell you that 'universal egalitarianism' will of course only benefit those in power.

Max was a member of the Frankfurt School an 'Institute for Social Research' at Columbia University in New York City which was funded by government.

« is it right being censored by political activists and guardians of moral hygiene in the artistic world? »

Is it right being censored in the artistic world at all?
“Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate art) is what the Nazis called anything that insulted their feelings and they were easily insulted. Art made by people like Picasso, Dali and Miro to name a few.

There are some limits as how far you can go – you can’t kill people in the name of artistic freedom – but art should be as free as possible.

Great article. It's the first time I've run out of time on ine of these sites and decided that I must come back to re-read/finish reading.

Kudos.

Social Media = Mass Histeria

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