I recently had the misfortune of getting trapped in a two-hour long argument with an acquaintance over nothing of great consequence. I’m not proud of it, but I think it happens to the best of us. Though I couldn’t even remember what point of difference we started on after having a few dozen red herring thrown in my face, I do know the gist of the verbal sword fight was the nature of political correctness, social tolerance, and whether it was better to be a little tactful or always brutally honest. The ranting undoubtedly went on far longer than it needed to and was not the least bit productive, but after my nerves had cooled, it did get me thinking about the evolution of political correctness in my lifetime and the implications it might have on future political discourse.
First, just for clarification sake, let me try and sum up my opponent’s views as fairly as I can:
1) Stereotypes make life easier because some people are just more likely to do “bad” things (that is, things that are currently illegal).
2) The majority sets the rules, and if you don’t like that, then suck it up or move somewhere else.
3) One should be open to all opinions and possibilities, no matter how laughably irrational.
By now, you should be able to see why I walked away from this with higher blood pressure and probably a greater risk of heart disease. I was arguing with hybrid of Archie Bunker and the antagonist from Tim Minchin’s nine-minute beat poem “Storm.”
I won’t waste time lecturing on the absurdity of point number one and how bad polices like the drug war unfairly target minorities, since there is already plenty of thorough material on that subject. Nor will I entertain the notion that it is somehow intolerant or “PC” to dismiss bigoted opinions that are based on nothing but cultural or religious dogma. This common argument made mostly by conservatives has been shot down more times than I can count. As Christopher Hitchens famously stated, “That which can be asserted with no evidence may be dismissed with no evidence.” What I want to reflect on is how my own views of political correctness as well as the general public’s seem to be changing, based on indications in popular culture. Where entertainers once feared censorship around every corner, the media of today looks considerably different, which is great for liberty-lovers. Yet as with all good things, we should learn to use it wisely.
In the 1990s, pushback against the growing strain of politically correct verbal domestication efforts in American culture gave rise to the popularity of radio shock-jocks like Howard Stern and boundary-crossing TV shows like South Park, both of which lambasted contemporary liberal attitudes in the most un-conservative ways they could, using gross-out sight/sound gags and balancing satire of left-wing culture police with that of puritanical social conservatives. From Stern’s “F the FCC” campaign to classic South Park episodes like “Death Camp of Tolerance,” the entertainers displayed strong sentiments against being pressured into abandoning whatever humor was deemed offensive by some self-righteous elites for political expediency.
As both a liberty and dirty joke enthusiast, I can fully appreciate these efforts.Remaining ever skeptical, however, there comes a point where I have to ask, have we come too far?
In recent years, I’ve heard the desperate argument more and more from conservatives that gay rights activists, feminists, legal marijuana advocates, etc., are all intolerant towards the beliefs of poor, oppressed theocrats who now also have the right to not be offended by anything. Granted, progressives often use the same faulty logic of positive rights against conservatives and libertarians (ex: “You would force labor unions to stop forcing workers to join them, you fascist swine!”). It has become a joke among libertarians that we must want to take over the world so we can force everyone to make their own life choices. While the hypocrisy cuts both ways, the idea that it’s wrong to be intolerant of intolerance is one of the top clichés with today’s conservative commentators.
A powerful airing of discontent with the “everyone’s their own shock jock now” attitude was in Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2012 black comedy God Bless America, in which a pair of terminally cynical people go on a nonchalant killing spree, determined to rid the world of its most annoying inhabitants, from obnoxious right-wing pundits to Jersey Shore type poster children of narcissism and excess. I know, it’s an aggressively unlibertarian concept, but take it for what it is, sharp (albeit very pessimistic) social satire. Bill Murray’s less successful brother, Joel, sums up the film’s angsty theme in a monologue. Referring to a couple popular radio personalities:
“I would defend their freedom of speech if I thought it was in jeopardy. I would defend their freedom of speech to tell uninspired, bigoted, blowjob, gay bashing, racist and rape jokes all under the guise of being edgy, but that’s not the edge. That’s what sells. They couldn’t possibly pander any harder or be more commercially mainstream, because this is the ‘Oh no, you didn’t say that!’ generation, where a shocking comment has more weight than the truth.”
Point taken. Yesterday’s off-limits topics are today’s small talk. There is a wide gap between being politically correct and being an actual bigot, just as there is a big difference between a comedian like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Bobcat Goldthwait (in that film in particular) pushing the envelope for comedic/artistic/satirical purposes, and political commentators saying what they actually believe (or at least want their audience to think be they believe) in the most thoughtless, offensive ways possible for the sake of increasing viewership. Every time FOX News lets Ann Coulter on the air, knowing full well that the result will be something along the lines of “She should be arrested for wearing a hijab!” it only serves to stock the ammunition reserves behind MSNBC’s similar talking heads, out of which you might hear that criticizing the IRS is a subtle new way of using the N-word.
It seems clear as day why Jon Stewart is more popular and persuasive with a larger group of people than Bill Mahar. It may seem simplistic, but Stewart’s self-deprecating “come on, give me a break” attitude is a bit less condescending than “people who don’t agree with me are racist f***ing c@^#$&%ers.” The long-standing technique of preaching tolerance with spiteful venom has always puzzled me.
Such aggression in political discourse is likely to either rub off on viewers or fan the flames of their already burning animosity towards the “other team.” Look no further than the comments section on a popular conservative website and you will find pejorative terms for gays, middle-easterners, and illegal immigrants that would have been going overboard for Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. Attend a Tea Party rally and you will see vitriolic slogans like “Spy on Islam, not America.” Occupy Wall Street’s recurring anti-currency, ‘death to the fat cats’ theme had a similar effect on public opinion. When the most fringe elements get energized and start spewing hyperbole, practical people with concern for their public images are inevitably going to shy away, as well they should.
Personally, I have always felt that I have an obligation as an advocate for minimal government interference in our lives to point out the fact that most people are inherently good, or at the very least, better than the ravenous animals that many think we would be were it not for a strong, central authority guiding our lives. We’re all entitled to our opinions, and free speech should always come before political correctness or “family values” (as conservatives arbitrarily call their version of PC), but I would also like to think that most of us can avoid being completely maladroit with other people with just a tiny bit of effort. Libertarians have a tendency to see attacks on free speech everywhere (outside of the legitimately concerning ones, like the Snowden case), and overreact accordingly. Sure, there are people who don’t deserve the slightest offering of respect in political discourse (Westboro Baptist, etc.), but if your goal is to convince, whether it be in broadcast, writing, or interpersonal, then seething hostility does a huge disservice. Milton Friedman rarely debated an ideological opponent without smiling from start to finish. Not saying it’s easy, but it is a goal to work towards.
So where do I stand at the end of the day? It’s certainly a good thing that entertainers can get away with broadcasting more risqué material now than any time in the past. We arguably haven’t had less media censorship since the pre-FCC radio days, back when you had to fiddle with some knobs for ten minutes just to hear a scratchy jazz song or a local politician giving their shtick. Obviously, I’m beyond reluctant to say that something should ever be outright banned from broadcast, no matter how vile, offensive, or even propagandistic, so long as people have the choice to listen to something else. Nonetheless, I have to encourage people (namely future broadcasters and political activists, and particularly those in the liberty movement) to heed the advice of Jurassic Park’s prophetic Dr. Ian Malcolm. Now that we are less preoccupied with whether or not we can, maybe we can afford to stop and think about if/when we should.
Incentives matter, and there is only so far I imagine commercial broadcast companies would ever be willing to go, so long as a some civility is still socially normative. It’s also difficult to say what the media landscape will look like in another decade. If there is one thing studying media has done for me, it has made me less certain of everything. What I do know is that being a bastard does not make you a crusader for free speech. Politicians and control freaks love to believe that we would all revert back to our animalistic ways as soon as they loosen the leash. Please at least try to prove them wrong.