This morning, I got a PM from a reader who pointed out the racial change in a character on the television series “Preacher” from white to half-Ethiopian. He wondered if the change was “PC” but discovered that the change was made because she is the lead’s girlfriend. In other words, nepotism rather than “PC.”
But with all due respect (and this reader is a very good person…I am speaking of the entire social context of the term, not his specific usage), I think that we have to look more closely. The term “PC” is fascinating because it implies that, absent politics, a different decision would be made. It is also almost exclusively used to tar the Left, with the assumption that such changes reflect the philosophies of Liberals and Progressives, rather than Conservatives.
Well…o.k. But there are implications there that go unexamined. A totally politically neutral person would probably present reality “as it is” with no “leaning” Left or Right. So if “Left” leans toward “too inclusive” or “compulsively and superfluously adding POC (or whatever)” then it would be reasonable to conclude that the equal and opposite dysfunction, found on the Right, would be “not inclusive enough” or “compulsively and gratuitously excluding POC (or whatever)”
Any other conclusion would simply be displaying one’s political prejudices. Personally, unless overall the target “minority” is OVERREPRESENTED relative to their presence in the population, I’d think the rational conclusion would be that the choice is “FC” (financially correct, wanting to attract the dollars of the target group ) or “RL” (real life, wishing to reflect life “as it is”), and that EXCLUSION is actually “PC”…only “PC” to the other side of the political spectrum.
In other words, if say Michael B Jordan (a black actor) is cast as Johnny Storm, a character originally white in the “Fantastic Four” comics, there are multiple interpretations. One, that the director thinks: “Ah, I need to cast a black actor to integrate my movie.” Another is: “ah, this actor has the qualities I associate most strongly with Johnny Storm. I don’t care that he’s black.”
Does this second make sense? Well…I read Fantastic Four #1, and probably owned the first 200 issues. Had countless conversations about the characters, debates about their powers, and so on. Read endless descriptions of those characters. And you know what? His race was almost never mentioned, anywhere. He was a hot-headed, girl-chasing, hot-rodding, sarcastic, competitive teen-ager. THAT was who he was. “All American.”
In the Marvel comics universe there are characters like “Dr Doom” who was specifically a European King, and the ethnicity is obviously implied and central to his character. “Captain America” would have been rather absurd to be other than white, as he was the symbol of the American soldier during WW2, when the armed forces were still segregated. “Black Panther” is specifically the prince of Wakanda, a hidden African nation never conquered by the outside world. In these characters, their ethnicity or race are actually contextually central to their “isness” in some important ways.
Johnny Storm was not. Why was he white, originally? Come on, man, the vast majority of media characters were white until the late 60’s. When I was a kid I could read comics, watch television or go to movies for a YEAR and never see a black character. That was just the cinematic and literary world I grew up in, and it was reflective of the culture…and the politics of the time. Of the fact that human beings will attempt to warp reality to make themselves central.
Almost all world mythologies say that God made “us” first and loves us best. Others are…well, they are secondary and “other.” Further, when we appropriate images from other cultures, we change them to resemble “us.” Note that European images of Jesus look like Alexander the Great. Chinese images of The Buddha look Chinese rather than resembling the Indian prince he actually was. When Japan or India create “Spider Man” characters (licensed in one case, rip-off in another) they transform Peter Parker into Japanese or Indian. This is what we do, and there is nothing “bad” about it except the denial.
What no one ever says is: “yes, my children and I can most deeply associate with a character or story if it resembles us. We can most rapidly and efficiently extract meaning and emotional benefit from it. Yes, this excludes other groups, and even moreso when I confine members of `them’ to roles that are demeaning, secondary, lacking agency or `inwardness’ or make them non-reproductive, non-sexually competitive, or have them die so that characters who look like me can survive, avenge, or have emotional epiphanies. But you know what? I don’t care. Suck it. We win, you lose.”
NO one says that.
I’m not sure human beings are capable of being that honest. So what do they say? They say that the way they want things, the way they twist things, is the natural order. And when you say: “let’s reflect reality” they accuse you of having a political agenda. And that is telling as hell, isn’t it? If reflecting reality as it is is a political act, then they are suggesting that their view of politics is to use power to warp reality to be more comfortable and advantageous.
But because no one admits that what they are doing causes pain to innocent people, they have to be in denial that that is what they have done. That “gap” between what is true and what they must believe in order to function causes cognitive dissonance. Point it out, dig into it, and you get Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “stages of grief”: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Here’s a pattern I’ve heard many times:
- Denial. “It’s not happening. It’s your imagination.”
- Anger. “You’re just obsessively PC! Your attitudes are ruining America! You are accusing my ancestors of monstrosity! You are accusing me of being a racist, how dare you!”
- Bargaining. “Well…maybe you have a little point. How about we change this minor character over here? We’ll create this separate category over there. How about I promise we’ll fix it next year? And hey, we can agree that YOU, PERSONALLY are smart, attractive, wonderful, so it’s nothing personal. You aren’t really one of “them” Steve. You’re one of “us”…Can we agree that this happens in this one arena, and is the result of a cabal of evil Liberal Hollywood execs/New York editors/Washington politicians/Democrats? Tell you what. I’ll let you cast Samuel L. Jackson as a secondary character (Nick Fury) if you let us cast Johnny Depp as a primary character (say, “Shaft”). I love it when people offer to trade your rook for their pawn. Yeah. Bring a lunch. It ain’t that kind of party any more.
- Depression. “Damn. It’s really that bad? It’s really gone on that long? Holy shit. The world is that slanted? But…that means that I have to re-examine an entire raft of philosophical and political thoughts. Aren’t things getting better?”
And IF they keep going, and especially if you make it clear that these issues stem from universal human weaknesses rather than personal defects, they sometimes reach…
5) Acceptance. “I have to change the way I look at things. I believe my political position has great merit, and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I also see that there are forces operating that I never wanted to believe.”
But the trick is that death is inevitable. You can deny all you want, but it comes. This is not like the racial situation in American has been–you could “wake up” a little bit (say, when some really horrible event takes place, like an assassination or watching “Roots” in the 1970’s) but then slide back into “sleep” simply by re-immersing yourself into your social context. Listen to the echo chamber of your radio commentators, or circle of friends who share your social class, politics, or whatever. And they tell you over and over again that the artificial world view, the “Matrix” (and I seriously thank the Wachowskis for creating one of the most amazing metaphors for the gap between the artificial, constructed world and the “real” world) is the real world, the right world, the comfortable world…go to sleep. Go to sleep.
People are not dying. The playing field is as even as it can be (and those prison and mortality and inherited wealth disparity statistics? That’s due to something innate about “those” people, even though it’s not PC to say it out loud. Go to sleep…go to sleep…no! It’s not racist. “Those people” have just been conned by evil liberals. And why were they disproportionate conned? Why disproportionately vulnerable to conning? Well, it can’t be anything about the context, because if I say that I open the door to guilt. No…ummm…I know! It WAS slavery, but the South was DEMOCRATS at the time! Right! So I can associate the problem with a label rather than a social context, and avoid the slightest degree of awakening. Good work!)
Sigh. The sad thing is that to one degree or another, we all do this. It might be in politics or personal relationships, or our view of animal cruelty or whatever. A Navajo proverb says that “you cannot wake up a man pretending to be asleep.” Upton Sinclair said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Or his social standing. Or, in his mind, his survival.
When someone is hanging on by his fingernails (and no matter how much power or money you have, expenses rise to swallow surplus. Whether you earn 30k or ten million a year, you can ALWAYS feel you are “just barely holding on.” What happens then when you tell someone the playing field isn’t level? That blameless people have been damaged, and the power and capital extracted from them circulated in the dominator community, such that they benefitted even though they did nothing to cause the problem?)
- Can you admit this has happened, is still happening, and honestly say “I don’t care, I’m taking care of my own. Tough luck?” Frankly, I’ve heard that so infrequently it’s almost non-existent.
2) Can you say “I don’t believe it!” Sure. Hear this all the time. (And its corollaries: “it exists but it is isolated. It EXISTED in the past but is no longer happening now, thank God” etc.)
3) Can you say “I believe it. Its awful. What can I do to help?” Sure. Hear this too. My brothers and sisters.
There are doubtless other responses, but I suspect most are some version of #2 and #3.
The term “PC” then, as an objective term would have to relate to deviations from statistical reality to EITHER side of the political spectrum. And it is dishonest to say “politicized people on the Left are leaning WAY out of balance in a particular direction. I’m politicized on the Right, but I’m standing straight up” or the opposite. Both “sides” have their preferences and warp reality. Sure, I lean Left, because I like the view from that leaning position, and will stay there until the stats match my view of human equality. But I lean, absolutely.
Using it the way it is used currently is, from this point of view, an attempt to demonize a thought pattern without specifically addressing what bothers you about it. Another term that is similarly dishonestly “loaded” would be Social Justice Warrior. Denotatively, that would be someone willing to fight for their concept of a just society. Damn, that would apply to ANYONE who is politically engaged, from Libertarian to Green Party and everything in-between, wouldn’t it? How exactly did it come to apply only to political action on the Left, hmmm?
Be careful. Language matters. No one has the right to warp or twist language and demand you accept their definitions, especially when they are trying to shut down arguments merely by demonizing thought patterns.
How to escape this trap?
- Realize the tendency to warp reality to increase your comfort and power is a human thing, universal from individuals to societies. Both Left and Right do it. You do it. I do it. And you probably cannot totally rid yourself of the tendency.
- Start by loving yourself. Yes, that sounds odd, especially if you don’t, if you have deep wells of grief and guilt. But if you love yourself as you would your own most beloved child, you can also forgive yourself. And from that position you can look directly at the mistakes you’ve made, the people you have hurt, the pain you have ignored in the world around you and not be overwhelmed with pain.
- Understand that you have, we ALL have limited resources of time, energy, money, emotion. You cannot care about everything equally. Make choices that align with your values and needs. You are primarily programmed to survive, and there is no sin in prioritizing your actions and focus to take care of your own family first. An ideal syntax might be: love and care for yourself first. Then your family. Then your neighbors and associates, expanding your empathy as far as you can without ripping your own heart out. If everyone did just this, the world would be a wonderful place. Co-dependency would be a thing of the past, as well as most fear-based self deception.
- There will be people you cannot help. Causes you simply don’t have the resources to assist. Forgive yourself. But be strong enough to not avoid pain by denying you have privilege. Don’t be a sniveling coward and proclaim that the broken and damaged are NATURALLY broken and damaged. See your own humanity in them…but love yourself enough to know that if you give everything away, your own children (literally or metaphorically) will go hungry and shoeless. Be strong and honest enough to see the world as it is, remain compassionate and loving, but also know you must tend your own garden. It is NOT easy. Most cannot do both. And much of our human misery, self-justification and prejudice stems from this lack of identification, necessary to remain asleep so that we can enjoy our advantages.
No. Be courageous enough to see honestly that you are afraid of not being selfish. BE selfish. But strive to be strong and loving enough to expand your definition of “self” to those around you, to other peoples and nations, perhaps other species and life forms and perhaps the planet itself. No one can tell you how far to expand, and there is no merit in expanding without being rooted enough to take care of yourself and your family.
That balance is one of the most difficult things in the world. But if you find it…you will no longer have a need to hide behind words and labels. No need to mistake The Matrix for reality. You have entered a different world, and from that position you can pass the torch to others, awaken others who are ready for that, and build coalitions to people who see reality and social obligation differently, but still embrace the unity of the human experience.
I think it’s worth fighting for.