What is political correctness?
My brother’s arms are rigid with muscle. He’s wearing maroon trackies and a local footy jersey that shimmers in the sun, his fade a silver band around his head, every inch of him a typical Leb. We’re standing outside his house in Chester Hill, by his work truck. I would describe it if I had the language, but most of it exists outside my vocabulary. A yellow excavator, I think, crouches on the back of the truck. For accuracy’s sake, let’s say a separate machine is tied there. Ostensibly, my brother is making small repairs to the trays on which he stacks tools, but the real reason we’re here is because this truck, worn and mud-spattered, is newly bought. Satisfaction pours off my older sibling. He’s toiled hard for this and he wants to show it off. I’ve just moved back to Sydney after two years away, and I’m catching him up on my life, the haphazard plans I’ve made so far.
“I’m looking at units to rent in Lakemba,” I tell him.
“Yuck,” he says. “Why would you do that?”
“It’s cheap and they look good. Why not?”
“It’s full of Lebs,” he says. “What a disaster.”
I laugh but he’s more serious than not. “I’d rather live next to Aussies,” he adds. “Yeah, they’re racist, but at least they won’t rob you.”
I can only stare. I try to tell him that’s ridiculous but he cuts me off as he slams the metal tray back in place.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he says. “We all know your politics.”
This week, news of an undergraduate student party went viral. Gleeful young white men posed in Ku Klux Klan outfits next to another man slathered in blackface. The party’s theme was “politically incorrect”. I must admit I no longer understand what the phrase itself means; like my brother’s work truck, I recognise the shape of the vehicle, and the power it has to crush a body, but otherwise it has the vagueness of ubiquity. Even as it careens off a cliff, my eyes want to glaze over the details. It is an uncertainty so powerful I feel compelled to add air quotes whenever I say it. Sure, it’s “politically incorrect”. Cue eye roll. Somehow no one believes it when invoked, yet it can and has been used myriad ways, from excusing offensive comedy to claiming a form of truth telling.
Perhaps this is why it has proven a popular rhetorical tool: the more diffuse it is, the harder it becomes to fight what lies behind it. I think it’s telling that during his campaign to power, Donald Trump said, “The big problem this country has is political correctness.” Conservatives have been beating the same tune in Australia, too, as they have in other countries, and it seems to be working to their favour. If ever there were a time to pay attention, it is now.
Here is what we know: politicians lie. We accept this on a fundamental level. The old idea used to be that a politician or partisan individual would lie to toe the party line. “They’re just being politically correct.” At some point, however, as society’s demographics shifted and progressive language entered the mainstream, the idea changed to “they’re only saying that to get a minority’s vote”. Now, when “PC” is uttered, it has a more generic meaning, as something said in order to avoid offence.
What has remained true throughout is the poisonous notion that whatever the line is, it is a deception, a cynical ploy to get around the “real” or true order of things. I say poisonous because you need only consider what falls under the label of this correctness to realise how far we’ve come from a moral centre: racial equality, women’s rights, trans rights, queer liberation. We’re not just talking about injustice, we’re talking about kindness; any request to consider another human being’s feelings or material reality is now seen as inauthentic.
It’s profoundly strange that this critique has gained so much traction, for a number of reasons. First and most importantly we need to address the question of power. Who has it? If society’s most disadvantaged peoples have such a stranglehold on politics that censorship is a necessity, would they still be marginalised today? It doesn’t make sense.
The idea that “liberal elites” – a term used scornfully by millionaire politicians – run the world in conjunction with oppressed minorities is manifestly untrue. You can tell by how little anything has changed, by how many Indigenous people are still dying in custody, by how many women are still being killed by men, by the children and innocent people we still have in detention, by the way minorities are represented, by the lack of resources and care made available to disabled people. On and on, everyday cruelties abound. Somehow, conservatives get away with running things exactly how they want, while complaining loudly that they’re unable to because of censorship. They are both underdog and victor, gagged yet constantly heard.
This is all to say that there is nothing politically incorrect in ignoring injustices against Indigenous people, or disparaging women, or saying immigrants are rapists and criminals, or mocking disabled people, when society is modelled as if these vile opinions are truths and governments operate as such. The students at the undergraduate party, in dressing up in blackface and as Klansmen, were hardly being taboo. “White nationalists” regularly host marches and rallies chanting about ethnic cleansing. If anything, those students, in their sheeted hoods and paint, were acting out the policies of the day.
White men parroting other white men in an effort to be “daring” is pathetic. What, then, is this confected Trumpian backlash really against? Thought? Ironically, this is what free speech warriors are fighting so valiantly against. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. The issue for these people is in being asked to think about other people as equally deserving of what they – white people – already have. I shudder to think what actual structural change would provoke.
No matter how you dress it up, what we’re talking about is inequality. It is truly distressing that racist and bigoted behaviours are worsening today under the pretence of freedom. The argument from conservatives boils down to, “You pretend to care about people, while we proudly don’t care at all.”
Yet this vacuous line is somehow proving popular. What it reveals is how pervasive those bigoted behaviours really are, that so many people believe there is no moral imperative to being a good person, that, in fact, anyone advocating for it must be disingenuous. This is partly what disturbed me about my brother’s statement, how easily and idly he dismissed what I was going to say without hearing me out first. Yeah, yeah, whatever, we all know your politics.
It seems the rot of untrustworthiness associated with politics – that is to say, the act of governance – has spread to ideas, period. “You’re just being political,” is something I hear often, even though I am not affiliated with a party. It’s code for having an agenda, as if I am slyly pushing to pass a bill instead of arguing for common decency. “You’re just being progressive,” doesn’t have quite the same sting to it, does it? Likewise, “politically incorrect” doesn’t inspire the same reaction as simply calling it what it most often is: a cheap masquerade for racism.
As a poet, it is my job to look at language, to understand not just what is being said, the shades of meaning therein, but also what goes unsaid. For example, what went unsaid when my brother referenced being robbed was our presence on stolen land, an ongoing colonial theft. He casually used “Aussies” as code for “white”, even while simultaneously aligning himself with them.
Both of us were born and raised in Sydney. Both of us have as equal a claim to that term “Aussie” as anyone else. Yet neither of us would use it for ourselves. How we speak to and about each other shapes the world we live in – to lose faith in the act itself is to lose a fundamental sense of matter. Of mattering.
It is unsurprising, then, that we’re not only failing to advance but actively spiralling backwards. We need a political and public system that has real consequences for anyone who lies on record, rather than it being a banal expectation. This goes for the cant of “political correctness”, the boilerplate with which racism and privilege is defended as “free speech”. Without truth as a touchstone, we’re only going to fall deeper into the murky depths of cynicism and despair, where we can’t see even ourselves as human, let alone anyone else.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 23, 2018 as "Until you’re black in the face...".
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