Politically Incorrect Is Harder Than You Think

Lenny BruceThere’s something eerie about the Facebook world-view, which challenges us to live publicly out loud, to reveal ourselves globally and without filters, as we communicate in real-time our every thought and action, trivial or serious.

Mark Zuckerberg, at a relatively young age, has suggested the world will be a better place if we live more open lives, if we have no fears about what is private and what is public about us.

That’s quite a counterintuitive notion given our past, and one that has made him enormously wealthy in its adoption at various levels among a billion or so human beings across every settled zone of Planet Earth. Curiously, I find the thundering rhetoric around the U.S. Presidential Election has taken some of that “openness ideal” into the still largely uncharted territory of political correctness.

Here are two opposing views in the argument:

Am I being unnaturally confined if I allow myself to be restricted by a set of language norms accepted broadly as being politically correct?

*** or ***

Am I a more authentic person for saying whatever is on my mind absent artificially imposed rules somehow intended to protect the feelings of others but violating my first amendment rights?

Now consider the underlying question: Are these two viewpoints in fact diametrically opposed? Is someone a hypocrite if in public he speaks politely and without offensive language, yet out of the public eye makes racist slurs among friendlies? Or is that individual living more candidly by saying whatever is on his mind via stream of consciousness as long as his expressions align with his actual belief sets?

Said another way, if someone isn’t particularly sympathetic to embracing social diversity, are we as a society better off with that potentially upsetting speech articulated or kept silent? Those trying to stomp out political correctness might suggest we all are better off saying whatever is on our minds, but I am going to suggest that this has nothing whatsoever to do with political correctness. Bigotry is bigotry. Political correctness does not ensure civility when it is unwillingly imposed; it simply masks a dangerous expression from public view in the name of conflict avoidance.

Of course all of us have the ultimate hypocritical alternative: to speak cordially in public bound by understood norms of political correctness but then go hog-wild and say what we want anonymously online no matter how vile it is, convincing ourselves that hiding in the shadows as we spew is further entitlement in our right to free speech. To his credit, Zuckerberg mostly solved this by requiring Facebook posts to be signed under true identities, but, as we know, if you want to spew, Facebook is not the only game in town.

If you believe a wall should be built between the U.S. and Mexico, then go ahead and say it, but don’t think you have beaten political correctness by blurting that out. I don’t think the wall should be built. I feel in no way restricted by political correctness. I am comfortable saying what’s on my mind and I also find it pretty easy not to be offensive or threatening in my remarks. If you think the wall should be built but are filtering your public opinion because of the chokehold political correctness has around your vocabulary, you are deceiving yourself. Political correctness is not your problem. Your unwillingness to come clean publicly on your controversial stance is your problem. No one can liberate you by removing the filter. You are what you stand for, no matter what you say, and when you say what you stand for, you are no better than what you are saying.

Perhaps we are we missing the point of why political correctness was challenged in the first place. Being politically incorrect and saying whatever flows from your lips no matter how hurtful it might be are not the same thing, not even close. It is critical that we put in context where the modern politically incorrect movement began, long before it was labeled. It was a reaction by comedians like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor to exposing the hypocrisy of what was said behind your back, not in front of your face. To twist that into an intolerant free-for-all that justifies hurtful speech or even hate speech, is the opposite of what these language pioneers set out to accomplish.

There was a time in this nation, largely the second half of the 20th century, when it was brave to say the unsayable because someone was trying to discourage hate, not justify it. Here’s what Lenny said:

“Every group every system has a set of values and morals, and when you get outside those, then the alarms ring. I was politically incorrect to 95% of the country; luckily my 5% had the bread to come see me.”

Lenny also said:

“Freedom of speech is a two-way street, man. You have a right to say whatever you want and the Boss has a right to tell people to arrest you.”

Compare that to the recent words of Presidential candidate Trump:

“I don’t frankly have time for political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either. This country is in big trouble. We don’t win anymore. We lose to China. We lose to Mexico, both in trade and at the border. We lose to everybody.”

And more recently from Trump:

“And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African-Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?”

Is it fair to compare a groundbreaking stand-up comic from a half century ago with the current GOP candidate for President of the United States? Probably not, but if you don’t see a difference in how each of them applies the need to speak freely to make a point, we probably aren’t going to agree on when it is justified and makes sense. In Lenny’s case, he is embracing irony to open our eyes to self-awareness. In Trump’s case, he is playing to disenfranchisement to stir up resentment.

Bill Maher called his original show Politically Incorrect to make a point about the absurdities of covering up hypocrisy with language. He has offended many, and he is anything but always right in his opinions, but his intention is to make us think harder about what we say and do. If you have a point to make in the name of a lightning rod that takes us to better thinking  like Lenny, like George, like Richard — have at it, but be ready to suffer the consequences of being misunderstood if your point is not clear. Samantha Bee is doing an amazing job carrying the torch now. She is hugely politically incorrect and a beacon of light, afraid of nothing. All of these people carry a core message of love. If you carry a core message of love and have something to say that makes me work harder at understanding my failings, have at it, but don’t think you’re doing me any favors by calling me one name behind my back and being polite when we meet face to face. If that’s political correctness, we have failed at diversity. If you’re a bigot, we’ll know.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the death of Lenny Bruce. Let’s keep his torch burning brightly by proving we know the difference between stepping beyond the bounds of political correctness to make a point and blathering on insensitively about how we wish we could say what was on our mind but somehow feel repressed. If you have something to say, say it, then stand by it. If it makes the world a better place, you’ll have said the right thing no matter whom you may offend in the short-term. I’m guessing if what you have to say really matters, it won’t be offensive in the least.

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

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