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On the Passive Reaction to Offensive Culture

February 28, 2018

In 2018, I suggest that we leave a particular trend behind: Pretending like "everyone gets offended these days" or "everyone's politically correct now" are valid excuses to make racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and ableist comments.
First of all, oppression is offensive. Violence and poverty are offensive. Violent hate crimes, psychological and systematic abuse, murder and suicide are offensive. These are all very real consequences of the ideologies that lie beneath insensitive "jokes" and ignorant remarks.
The oppressing party has no business speaking on or making fun of the people they oppress, period. By using the “PC” scapegoat, you are rejecting accountability for laughing at a kind of pain you've never experienced. In light of the rapid increase of hate crimes and violence in the past few years, we can no longer afford to not be critical of ourselves and checking our empathy. It would be foolish to deny the childish instinct inside all of us to laugh at things that we are told aren’t funny. However, we are not children, and we have the ability to educate ourselves on suffering, have empathy, and know that words and ideas, serious or joking, hold the power to create suffering.
As far as satire and being "ironic" go, many people seem to have misconceptions about what proper use of irony and satire actually are. As Terry Pratchett once said, "satire is used to ridicule power. If you are laughing at people who are hurting, it's not satire, it's bullying." Satirists don't create absurd content because they agree with the sentiment. The intention is to emphasize the flawed and self-centered logic of people in power.

I ask anybody who has attempted to use "ironic" prejudice to ask themselves what message they are really trying to send. Are you and your cis straight friends using "fag" and "tranny" to protest the construct of gender and systemic homophobia, or are you saying it because you know you're not supposed to? Are your white friends using racial slurs to reclaim terms that degraded them for hundreds of years?

Another misconception that needs correction: Having empathy is not political. Caring about the suffering of disadvantaged folks, and remaining mindful of how our everyday actions contribute to it, is not political. It's a matter of respect, understanding and human decency. To be frank, "everyone's so politically correct these days" is a dismissive alternative to "considering the experiences of others is not convenient for me". Not tolerating blatant irresponsibility is no longer something I, or anyone else, should have to hide.

Part of belonging to any marginalized group, whether it  pertains to race, gender, ability or orientation,  includes the thousands of baby steps in self-acceptance we must take; the realization that many situations in our lives were  direct results of oppression; and learning about the complex issues that affect those like us. Perhaps if those who think ignorant remarks are acceptable knew how much learning and reflection we do just to understand who we are and what happens to us, it wouldn’t be as acceptable. We have to be armed with studies, statistics and extensive knowledge on the issues that affect us just to convince people from advantaged groups that their words and actions really do hurt us.

All of this does not solely apply to cis straight white people. In fact, many folks who are marginalized in one way still say and do things that hurt other oppressed people, and even sometimes use their own oppression as an excuse to do it. (I’m looking at you, misogynist men of color, transphobic/homophobic people of color, trans-exclusive “radical feminists” and transphobic LGBs.) Lots of people will tirelessly protect a movement that supports their interests, but turn a cold shoulder to movements that do not directly pertain theirs. Can you claim allyship if you only support the liberation of one type of people? Can you be for equality if you are not for every kind of equality? Can you claim that an oppressed group of people is “too sensitive” if you would be just as upset if the malice was aimed at your people? If your empathy stops short before a certain group of marginalized people, it might be a good idea to evaluate the core of your values.
It can be difficult to take accountability for things that don’t hurt us. It requires a lot of mental stretching to realize and accept that we are contributing to the negative experiences of others, since they are not our own. The empathy and critical thinking skills it takes to truly come to a place where you are not hurting others with your actions or words takes a lot of time and genuine effort. In all honesty it is a never-ending process, as we constantly learn about new issues that impact others in ways we may have never heard of. This may sound like an overwhelming call to action, and to be transparent, I wouldn't be surprised if what you take from this is at first glance is that there’s a never-ending list of problems we should be aware of.

As I am aware this is impossible, I can provide a simple model to try applying in our everyday lives: avoid speaking for experiences and identities that are not yours. If you want to know something about another experience or identity, ask someone who belongs to that community. Let the person you ask know that you are asking first and foremost to understand, and not to confirm any preconceived ideas about them. Let your goal be to understand. If their answer is not comforting, or perhaps challenges your position, this is typically a good thing. Growth is not comfortable and requires a lot of challenging of self and others. Ultimately, you and the less fortunate around you will benefit from this effort.

 

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