(First published on Facebook on 23 December, 2016)
My final ode to the notion of ‘political correctness’ (or as I like to call it ‘being nice to people’), for the year.
Sometimes, I think thoughts at the weirdest of times, like when I’m riding my bike or walking or running or in the shower or, like just now, when I’m brushing my teeth. In the moment, I often feel like I’ve just invented the wheel and I’m the smartest, wisest person ever. Only to realise, a few minutes later, than I’m a delusional dimwit and the wheel has already been invented and I should shut the fuck up and who am I to have these thoughts and are they really of any value?
And then, every now and then, one of you guys says ‘thanks’. Maybe in public, more often in private, and I think to myself “self, you know, maybe it IS worth sharing these ideas…” even if it’s only for that one person every time. Because as I’ve said before, that’s how change happens – one person at a time.
So I’ve had some very ‘interesting’ ‘discussions’ with people about political correctness in the past few months. Some of which have gone really well, some not so much. So as a topic, it plays on my mind quite a bit. I literally think about it constantly.
Let’s be clear: We’re in new territory, and things move fast, so we don’t really have the luxury of time to ponder things for years and years to work out what the rules are around things any more like we did in the good old days. These days, one minute there’s no social media, then all of a sudden there is, and we all start using it before we’ve really had a good chance to think about how we use it. And what the rules are. Instead, we just sort of make it up as we go along. Sometimes that works fine, sometimes not so much.
I the case of social media, we understandably try and apply the rules of the real world to social media, because those rules are probably working just fine for us. What’s different here, however, is the magnification. And the permanency. In the real world, for example, I don’t have 2,074 friends. Of course, I don’t have that many actual friends on Facebook either, but in the real world, on any given day, I maybe speak to a few people, and usually only share ideas like this with those I know and trust, and we all understand context and intent and afford each other the goodwill of knowing we’re decent people who sometimes say things purely to be humorous, rather than because we’re shitty people.
But then there’s this beast we call social media. Which for some time now, I’ve said we should really take note of that second word ‘media’. Because it allows us to become our own media outlet. Sometimes only with a small readership, but at any given time, depending on your privacy settings, you just never know who, or how many people might see what you post. And that’s where the game changes. Because like any publisher, we then become responsible for what we publish into the public domain. If we make a statement or say something about someone, or certain groups, it doesn’t just disappear into the ether a few seconds later like when we speak amongst friends, it’s published. With legal ramifications at times even. And that makes it more tangible and real. And shows where we draw our lines in the sand. And while we might know what we mean or intend, sometimes, that also helps others set their own standards.
And if you don’t believe me, you only have to look at how the average shitty post can whip up a frenzy. Where a few shitty comments quickly become a few more and more and more… and instead of us bringing our real life values to social media, we start to take our social media values to real life. And then we have a problem. A really big fucking problem. And you don’t have to take my word for it, because even a quick glance around will tell you I’m right.
(Even before the days of social media, there was a concept called ‘social proof’ where you look to those around you to prove something is true or right or OK. Which is why it’s so important to be mindful of who those people around you are. Even more so on social media.)
So all that, to set up that thought I had just now while I was brushing my teeth. And it was simply this: When does our right to speak our mind, to speak freely, to make jokes, become greater than someone else’s right to not feel degraded or belittled or hurt or discriminated against? Is that what we’re fighting for when we fight for the right to not be so sanitized? To kick back against political correctness?
Are we dictating what other people, with their own lives, experiences and challenges that we know nothing about, should and shouldn’t feel? What the fuck right do we have to do that? And even if, silently, we don’t think someone should be upset about something, when do we completely set their feelings aside just so we can feel good about our right to say what we want? If it’s important to speak out or we’re campaigning for some great change in the world, perhaps it’s OK to enforce that right. If the sum total of enforcing that right, regardless of the expense to others, is to be ‘funny’, then what the fuck? It’s time for a reality check. And for all those of you still reading, let me finish with a story to make sense of the picture.
A few years ago I took my son to one of the shooting ranges in Cambodia where I was living. He was into shoot ’em up video games and I thought he’d enjoy it. Yes, I know, not exactly parent of the year stuff but hey, it happened. When we got back to the car, our driver Mr Kim who we’d gotten to know quite well over the week or so we were driving around with him, seemed a bit off and I asked him if he was OK. He said he was fine and it was just that during the war that was not too long ago when he was a boy, his entire family had been killed by the Khmer Rouge – which he described in great detail including how his mum was pregnant at the time – and the gunfire reminded him a bit of that. I laughed at him and told him to get over it and that it was just a bit of fun and I wasn’t gonna let the politically correct do gooders spoil my fun by not shooting guns and that he shouldn’t be offended by us having a laugh. Because, you know, fuck him raining on my parade and spoiling our fun, right?
Of course, that’s not what I said at all. I sat in the back seat, felt ashamed, and cried. Just like I am now thinking about it. Sometimes my fun, is at someone else’s expense, and that’s not OK. Sometimes I don’t realise or know, but when I do, I now decide if me not having a laugh, is a reasonable sacrifice to prevent someone else hurting. And for me, that’s a pretty simple equation. For me, it’s just not about being ‘politically correct’. And you know what? Mostly I’m not a miserable git. It turns out there’s still plenty of things to make jokes about, plenty of ways to have fun. You know, ways that don’t involve other people feeling like shit.
Be awesome to each other.