Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Understanding Unacceptable Utterances

Kerry asks,

"So Juan Williams follows Rick Sanchez, Octavia Nasr, and Helen Thomas as the fourth journalist to get fired recently for expressing personal opinions on their own time, not on the job. Political correctness run amok, justifiable punishment, or something in-between?"
To be honest, not sure. We have a strange media right now where part of it is fact-free partisan rhetoric designed for explicitly propagandistic purposes and half that sees itself as a quaint little village of elite opinion makers. Those who were fired were removed from the island not because they voiced personal opinions, but because they embarrassed the village by breaking a rule -- no talking about groups except "real Merkans" and they are to be spoken of with the utmost reverence. Aside from white male Christian conservatives who have a peculiar knack for embodying authenticity and truth (maybe it's something in the water or the Budweiser), all else is an atomistic meritocracy and we never, never, never say anything about any ethnic group except to speculate how they will vote as a homogeneous bloc.

What is interesting is that, in a sense, these firings were based on a desire to make sure that their respective news outlets are seen as not-FOX -- in part out of self-image and in part because their audience is upper-middle class socially liberal and fiscally conservative so-called "moderates" or "centrists" or some other name that indicates virtue and superiority. Yet, when the White House had the temerity to label FOX "News" as not a legitimate news outlet, they all feign shock and outrage and rushed to Fox "News"'s side. They are part of the tribe, just don't show yourself doing their part of the job.

Is it political correctness run amok? Well, sort of. The insight behind political correctness is that language is loaded with connotations that can reinforce unfair political structures in ways that we are not directly aware of. As such, we want to be careful with our language to keep from further entrenching injustice. What it turned into was something else, something in which offensiveness was seen as the ultimate crime and this then transformed into the prohibition of speaking about groups. In a sense it is not political correctness, but it is a result of what political correctness turned into, something irrational that instead of allowing us to address thorny issues in a way that allows everyone a seat at the table, limits what can be said in a way that reinforces the power structure's "moderate" position.