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PC or Not PC (trigger warning)

August 28, 2015

[Update 5-31-17  Now, however, the racist/sexist dominance code of “PC” has completely thrown off its semi-legitimacy of fearful ignorance among some members of the white working and struggling middle classes, as it is being replaced, under the leadership of Trump, by the viciously weaponized coding of “free speech.”

This is just a word: “nigger.” Or is it? Well it isn’t just a dream—it’s a nightmare.

(Consensus44 kindly volunteered to become a character, by suggesting that I offer some thoughts about the language of prejudice, including the concept of PC. Good idea, so here goes.)

(And in case you need music with this: “Better Get It in Your Soul”)

And there are other words, e.g. “bitch” and “redskin.” I’ve chosen these three pejoratives, among many possibilities (people are very inventive) because they stand out, in our public consciousness these days, as words that maybe I shouldn’t use; and their privileged position supercharges them with power.

On this page of the novel, should I have typed “n—-r”…? I’m open to the possibility that the answer is, “yes.” But hey, I’m just a narrator, a character in a novel; I’m not saying that that excuses me; I’m saying that using these words on this page is one of the artistic characteristics of the loud-thinking narrator of this novel (who, by the way, also has some background in linguistics—sounds and words are arbitrary, but we can overload them with meaning, like the over determined image of a dream, like a boil festering on your skin.)

Well, for some of us, I shouldn’t use those words because they are hurtful (and show people how ignorant and insensitive I am), while for others of us it’s because of the dread PC.

I always ask myself, what would Mark Twain do?

As I mentioned on another page, the latter group includes some of my dear friends from childhood, and apparently some of the followers of politicians such as Trump; so I do want to give more thought to what PC is. For my friends who are affronted by it, PC = T&SP (Thought and Speech Police).

I think this is a phenomenon of classism, as well as other biases. Some of my friends are whitefolks who, like our parents and grandparents, work hard and don’t make much money. Because they accept Republican explanations, they blame their hardship on Democrats.   It’s bad enough that the Democrats take away their hard-earned money through taxation; but on top of that the white Democrats are arrogant, self-righteous, know-it-all Liberals, who look down on my friends and oppress them to the point of telling them that they aren’t allowed to be themselves by thinking and saying what they know to be true: blackfolks are niggers, women tend to be bitches, and Indians are redskins (in case you don’t know what that means, they’re alcoholics who used to scalp people and who contribute nothing; they might not even be Christian; but they did respect nature, hunt well, ride horses exceptionally well, and fight back—but there’s no way would they have won).

What would John Wayne do? He would not tolerate PC, little lady.

Lately I hadn’t thought much about “redskins,” but then I got an email asking me how I felt about the agitation by some people in our hometown to get our high school to change the name of our mascot. I expressed the position that you would expect (calmly, I think), and got responses from friends that they had always been proud to be associated with redskins, there’s nothing wrong with that (implying that redskins should be proud to be associated with our pride in our school), and now we are being shamed (my word) by another “PC affront” (theirs).

Well you can’t argue with that. And here’s another fact that some of my friends throw up: blacks call each other the “n” word and it doesn’t bother them any; and liberals don’t complain about that; but whites aren’t allowed to use it.

And it doesn’t matter that the pejorative, “Politically Correct,” (like “bleeding heart liberal”) was invented and marketed by Republicans, to politicize and turn the tables on empathy, compassion, and tolerance (that might lead to certain policies and laws) in order to control the thinking of their base voters, so they won’t stray. And it works, it legitimizes denial and projection.

That really is hard to argue with (and btw, the awkwardness of all this is symptomatic of how painful is the entire episode that is our national history—and btw, a few years ago there were 19 first-languages of students in that school), because understanding the painfulness of these words, if you are not their target, requires a huge effort of empathic imagination. And the inability of so many people to “imagine that” is one of the major psychopathologies of our democracy.

So rather than argue, let’s remember that, until recently, “black” was a major pejorative. Imagine that! Black, of skin color, was Ug. Ly. Even in the minds of blackfolks; and in white culture it was the trigger word of the stereotype, second only to the “n” word that completed the devaluation.   But “black” wasn’t accurate to real life, and in the ‘20s Negro poets started reclaiming the beauty of color. By the ‘60s blackfolks could see that “black is beautiful,” and racist whitefolks eventually accepted “black” as a replacement for “Negro.” Black people themselves liked the term, and it clearly says that they are not white. Win-win.

And remember how black pop culture, as a shared expression of a group’s common experiences, attitudes, and invention of ways of coping, reversed black and white, shadow and light, by calling something very good, “bad” (and there’s an Ellisonian wisdom in that strange gesture of the underworld: that there’s some good in every “bad” and some bad in every “good”) That was to subvert the value claims of the dominant group, that oppresses them to the extent of denying their individualism, humanity, and beauty, in order to completely take away their self-r-e-s-p-e-c-t, their last glimmer of inner integrity with which to eke out the power to survive.

As Ellison and Baldwin pointed out, attempts to deny humanity causes humans to feel their humanity all the more sharply. “What’s up, nigger?” says (with a subversive appropriation of the Master’s words—as LGBT culture appropriated “queer”), I see you, Brother Human, who suffers the same absurd assault that I suffer. We’re no fools.

(And the Brothers didn’t even need to read the analysis by Fanon of how colonialism conquers by subverting the indigenous culture’s belief in its own truths, goodness, and beauty. But they knew Malcolm.)

And do any of my (white) friends really think that there’s no connotative or denotative difference, if a young black man says to another young black man, “What’s up, nigga?” and my friends fully and freely express their inner vivacity by greeting that young black man with that same word? Who’s foolin’ who, here?

And would my friends greet each other that way? And why not? But note that a young white man might greet another young white man, “What’s up, bitch?” And of course black males use that same pejorative, because sexism knows no color (except that, as Zora Neale Hurston pointed out, the mules of the world are black women).

I have four daughters and I’ve never heard one of them use the “b” word, even speaking of a dog. I’ll ask them about that, and on a later page I’ll think out loud about what the say.

And how’s about, next time we return to Fort Wayne (named—as was my father, for Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who had defeated the local people at Fallen Timbers) IN, for our next class reunion, we greet each other with “What’s up, Redskin?” “Kemosabe?” “What’s up, Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Cherokee, Lakota, Cheyenne, Navajo, Duwamish”—some of the people who lived where we now live. Or just, “What’s up, whitey?” After all, it’s a privilege, being white.

This is all sick, in tortured prose; but it can be sorted out; and I believe that most whitefolks can get it, with a little—no a lot—of help from their friends. A lot of women already get it, and a lot of poorfolks, and just about everybody LGBT. C’mon, Middle Class!

So, I don’t typically use these words, even in narrating this novel, because using them is hurtful and ignorant. In American society they are generally used by racists and sexists—and others who simply aren’t yet aware of the pain that they inflict by using them—as weapons, like bullets from the gun of hate speech. And some of the people at the trigger are frankly too cowardly to admit it, even to themselves.

As the plot thickens, over the coming months leading up to the election, I bet I’ll want to think more loud thoughts about why the imagining that we need to do is so difficult, and what a colossal failure of the imagination it will be if we don’t do it. It’s not that we don’t imagine, it’s that we don’t imagine enough and we don’t imagine well—and it’s our own damn fault, for doing that to ourselves, and for allowing others (such as Trump) to do it to us.

And this is important: in the view of my dear friends who feel oppressed by the Liberals, it’s not just that they feel pressured to imagine themselves without their power over the Others who are invading their lives, it’s that the T&SP are telling them that they must not imagine, at all, an important part of themselves and their lives.

The worst oppression is the command: “Thou shalt not imagine.” It disables the soul.

My friends can feel the oppression, and feel their own humanity all the more sharply; they just don’t understand who is oppressing them (and whom they are oppressing).

From → classism, racism, sexism

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