Here’s Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team being, on balance, pretty cool after having made a gay joke in a public forum:
Even if I don’t care about you, it doesn’t mean I’m OK with making you uncomfortable or upset with a comment that references anything that is out of your control. That is not the person I want to be. I’m happy to pick on you if you root for the wrong team. I’m happy to pick on you if you like doing The Wave. I’m happy to pick on you for a lot of reasons. Your sexuality should never be one of those reasons.
OK, so Cuban wasn’t cool enough to avoid saying something a bit stupid and hurtful in the first place, but he’s at least sufficiently cool that he’s offered a fairly straight mea culpa. Usually, a celebrity who’s made a fool of themselves in public will respond via an infuriating non-apology apology like “I’m Sorry If You Were Offended”, or worse still “I’m Not Homophobic So Obviously I Didn’t Mean It That Way And Anyone Who’s Hurt Or Offended By What I Said Is Oversensitive Or Just Looking For Trouble. Anyway Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay”.
That second sentiment is a nasty little bear-trap I’m uncomfortably familiar with. As a relatively well-off straight white bloke I’ve gotten used to the world revolving around me. The fact that society is largely set up to help me get ahead and so much of our media is aimed straight at me has unfortunately but naturally led to a childish sense of entitlement. I’m so used to everything conforming itself to suit my perspective – films with white male leads and little or no female presence of any note, games that treat women and minorities as set-dressing – that on those occasions I’m called out on my boy-cow-leavings it’s a shock to the system and my natural reaction is to start spluttering like a bulldog chewing a nettle. It’s hard to hear that you’ve been thoughtless and the immediate knee-jerk response is denial and defensiveness. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. All we can do is try to guard against them, to listen when it’s pointed out how we’ve screwed up, to learn from that and to honestly try and make amends. When someone as prominent as Mark Cuban seemingly gets this, it genuinely brightens up my whole entire day.
But this is veering dangerously close to “Aren’t Affluent White Guys Who Are Aware Of Their Privilege The Real Heroes?”, and isn’t the real reason that Cuban’s post interested me. Here’s what I actually wanted to talk about:
I’m the last to be politically correct and the last thing I am trying to be here is politically correct. I honestly don’t give a [STUFF] what you think about me. But I think being the person I want to be includes not blurting out throw away jokes about sexuality, race, ethnicity, size, disability or other things people have no say in about themselves.
Some time ago I came to the conclusion that anybody who uses “politically correct” as a pejorative is someone whose opinion I’m happy to ignore. The majority of people who declare their contempt for political correctness are actually saying that they like using the n-word (and the b-word, and the three-letter f-word) more than they care that they’re making life a little bit more unpleasant for people who already have a pretty bad time of it. Worse than that, actually – they’re taking the act of being a lazy, selfish boor and trying to present it as heroic defiance of censorship and orthodoxy. They’re cravenly recasting themselves as the oppressed rather than the oppressors, seemingly unaware that there’s nothing noble about being a bully.
To make it clear – being a blinkered feckless bottom-hole isn’t a crime. And despite some people’s deeply-cherished persecution complex, nobody’s trying to make it one. Nobody’s censoring anybody. Nobody’s saying that you can’t throw those ugly, hateful words around as much as you like. Some people are just saying that on balance most of the time you possibly shouldn’t. That you should be careful how you express yourself. That the casual use of gendered, homophobic or racist epithets contributes in at least some degree to a society that makes life unfairly difficult to anyone whose face doesn’t fit the straight white male “norm”.
(Here you go, try this (language really really NSFW). And yes, I know that’s probably not the actual origin of the f-word. Way to miss the point, Obtuse Rhetorical Device Reader!)
Wow. OK. Believe it or not, that isn’t really what I wanted to talk about either. So here’s the thing that struck me about that quote by Mark Cuban: he tries not to “[blurt] out throw away jokes about sexuality, race, ethnicity, size, disability or other things people have no say in about themselves.” But he doesn’t regard himself as PC, and though he totally doesn’t care what you think of him he wants to you to be absolutely, completely clear that you really, really shouldn’t think that he’s politically correct. The thing is, as I’ve now rattled on about at tedious length, in as much as “political correctness” means anything it means knowing better than to blurt out jokes and jibes about things people have no say in about themselves. That’s more or less ALL it means.
If the majority of people who denigrate political correctness do so to make themselves feel better about callous disregard for their fellow human beings, the minority denigrate the term so that it won’t be applied to them. Which is understandable, but still somewhat sad. For decades now a certain section of the media has been on a weird crusade to paint political correctness (and, not coincidentally, feminism) as sinister leftie killjoy groupthink. There have been dark hints about an armies of faceless bureaucrats making rules about what people can and can’t say, do-gooding Men In Grey who have banned Christmas and stopped children singing Baa Baa Black Sheep and stopped the BBC using the BC/AD suffixes when they talk about dates. The fact that all these stories range somewhere between gross distortion of the truth and bare-faced lies matters not even slightly – no smoke without fire, am I right? People who find the idea of moderating one’s language to prevent offence unacceptable are quick to throw out the idea of PC being an Orwellian conspiracy to control thought through controlling language. Somehow they manage to hold this opinion while simultaneously giving no credence to the idea that their choice to use inflammatory and denigrating words might be helping to shape attitudes and perpetuate inequality and prejudice.
“Political correctness” is to be honest a pretty terrible name, imprecise and vaguely sinister-sounding even before the Daily Mail and its ilk made the term so loaded and toxic that even people who practice it are desperate not to be labelled as such. The thing is, being aware of your privilege and not using it to pile on to the less well-off isn’t and shouldn’t be a left verses right thing. It’s a consideration verses cruelty thing. It’s a respect verses contempt thing. It’s a part of the solution rather than part of the problem thing.
So if “political correctness” is irredeemable let’s find a new, more descriptive, more inclusive label that everyone can get behind without recourse to equivocation and self-flagellation. My suggestion? “Basic human decency”. Who’s with me? If nothing else, it would at least bring the subtext to the surface:
“He’s lewd, rude, and definitely lacking basic human decency!”
“Basic human decency is killing free speech!”
“It’s basic human decency gone mad!”