Monday, February 8, 2010

Conservatives, "political correctness" and the incredibly offensive unfunniness of "Saturday Night Live"

This past Saturday, I found myself lamenting (again) that the once-venerable "Saturday Night Live" is not only grievously unfunny, but offensive (and not in a good way). Where once there was political and social satire mixed with silliness and enough subversiveness to be cool, there is but a weekly litany of jokes about lady parts and the care of them; old women and their old lady parts; fat, sassy black women (as played by men); "the gays" and how uncomfortable gayness makes "regular" dudes; and farts. The show is tired, but indicative of modern, hipster humor that thinks it shakes things up, but only succeeds in serving up old stereotypes and biases.

And you know what? I blame the Republicans.

Much to my dismay, the conservative movement is genius at message delivery. Its leaders know how to take a talking point and drill it into the public consciousness. My side really should take note. Look, for instance, what conservatives have done with the concept of "political correctness."

From Wikipedia:

Widespread use of the term "politically correct" and its derivatives began when it was adopted as a pejorative term by the political right in the 1990s, in the context of the Culture Wars. Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Richard Bernstein noted "The term "politically correct," with its suggestion of Stalinist orthodoxy, is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence. But across the country the term p.c., as it is commonly abbreviated, is being heard more and more in debates over what should be taught at the universities." Bernstein referred to a meeting of the Western Humanities Conference in Berkeley, California, on " 'Political Correctness' and Cultural Studies", which examined "what effect the pressure to conform to currently fashionable ideas is having on scholarship". Bernstein also referred to "p.c.p" for "politically correct people", a term which did not take root in popular discussion.

Within a few years, this previously obscure term featured regularly in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against curriculum expansion and progressive teaching methods in US high schools and universities. In 1991, addressing a graduating class of the University of Michigan, U.S. President George H. W. Bush spoke against “ . . . a movement [that would] declare certain topics ‘off-limits’, certain expressions ‘off-limits’, even certain gestures ‘off-limits’ ” in allusion to liberal Political Correctness. The most common usage here is as a pejorative term to refer to excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations. The converse term "politically incorrect" came into use as an implicit term of self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to give offense [citation needed].

The central uses of the term relate to issues of race and gender, and encompass both the language in which issues are discussed and the viewpoints that are expressed. Proponents of the view that black people are less intelligent, on average, than white people, or that women are less intelligent than men, state that criticism of these views is based on political correctness.

Examples of language commonly criticised as "politically correct" include:

"African-American" in place of "Black", "Negro" and other terms
"Native American" in place of "Indian"
“Gender-neutral” terms such as "firefighter" in place of "fireman"
Terms relating to disability, such as "visually challenged" in place of "blind"
"Holiday" in place of "Christmas" (see Christmas controversy)

More generally, any policy or factual claim opposed by the political right, such as the claim that global warming is a serious problem requiring a policy response may be criticized as "politically correct".
To me, using "firefighter" in place of "fireman" is a demonstration of The Golden Rule, the ethical code that says everyone has a right to just treatment. Y'know, "do unto others..." I want to use a word that is inclusive so as not to marginalize the women who risk their lives during fires and other catastrophes. This kindness doesn't cost me anything, except maybe the inconvenience of having to think before I speak (something I try to do anyway).

Disdain for "political correctness" is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke "political correctness" is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some "ism" that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging "political correctness" generally means this: "I am comfortable with my privilege. I don't want to have to question it. I don't want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don't wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be--women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)"

It is telling to me that those who say that being respectful and honoring another person's humanity (by, say, using the preferred term for a racial group) doesn't matter are those who are not generally among the marginalized. It is rarely a woman who complains that her employer is too strict in policing sexual harassment or that her office works hard to eliminate sexist and demeaning language. It is rarely a person with a developmental disability who will argue that society has become too vigilant about the use of the word "retard," it will be someone like Rush Limbaugh, who said of the rightful fallout from Rahm Emmanuel's use of the word:
"Our political correct society is acting like some giant insult’s taken place by calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards," Limbaugh said on the show. "I mean these people, these liberal activists are kooks." Read more...

Laurence Berg, Canada research Chair for Human Rights, Diversity and Identity, says:

“What [they]’re calling the ‘PC movement’ I would call a social movement by marginalised people and the people who support them,” he said. “[A movement] to use language that’s more correct—not ‘politically correct’—that more accurately represents reality.”

Berg is referring to a way of thinking that many of us students were too young to catch the first time around. For us, the term ‘politically correct’ survived the 90s, but the term ‘human rights backlash’ did not. Will Hutton, former editor-in-chief for the UK publication the Observer, described in his column how the term ‘PC’ was never really a political stance at all, contrary to popular belief. It was actually perceived by many as a right-wing tactic to dismiss—or backlash against—left-leaning social change. Mock the trivial aspects of human rights politics, like its changing language, and you’ll succeed in obscuring the issue altogether.

Berg believes this is what political correctness is all about: “The term politically correct is a reactionary term,” he said. “[It was] created by people who were worried by [social] changes…that affected their everyday understanding of the world in ways that pointed out their role in creating or reproducing dominance and subordination.”

According to Berg, the indignation people feel against PC ideas reflects the discomfort we feel when language and politics begin to pull away from the dominant values we grew up with—in other words, white, middle-class values. Read more...

You would think from the whining about "political correctness," about what "You just can't say anymore," that our society has adopted a zero tolerance prohibition against any word or deed that might betray racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc. You would think that power had shifted such that formerly marginalized folk were now unfairly constricting the traditional holders of power. Of course that is not true. Don't Ask Don't Tell, as of this writing, still stands. Women still make, on average, 80 percent of what men make. Don Imus still has a job in media. In reality, the old power structure is firmly in tact.

What does this all have to do with an aging sketch comedy show?

Just this.

The idea that the movement toward fewer "isms" in our speech and deeds is anathema; that "political correctness" is a blow against free speech; that the power structure has flipped; that the strictures of "political correctness" are everywhere, and that real bias barely exists anymore; has wormed its way into our social fabric, including entertainment. In comedy, that means that dusty racist, sexist or homophobic tropes that are as old as time are positioned as refreshing and edgy.

We are to believe that the racist stereotypes advanced by comedians like Sarah Silverman and Lisa Lampanelli aren't really about racism at all, but subversions of politically correct thinking. And SNL's running Summer's Eve douche gag with constant references to icky vaginas, or Keenan Thompson dressing up as another sexually aggressive, ghetto fabulous, sassy black woman, are supposed to be harmless, because in these "politically correct" times no one would take such things seriously. And we're not supposed to relate what appears to be sexist and racist humor to the fact that the sketch comedy show has long marginalized women and people of color not named Eddie Murphy. Those who still suffer under the biases beneath the aforementioned "humor" should try not to be so sensitive.

That is the beauty of "political correctness." Once the theory is embraced, it makes it okay to advance harmful stereotypes. The notion of "political correctness" has the power to turn back time and make the biases and humiliations of old, fresh and new and funny again.


beatfreak said...

This is also why I bristle when someone says "have a sense of humor!".
We do have a sense of humor, but we are under no obligation to find whatever they are saying funny. And a lot of us don't find racism/sexism/etc. funny.

theolderepublicke said...


My impression is that SNL has for a very long time been guilty of what you describe. Perhaps this humor is more common now, and perhaps formerly it was more infused with a sense of irony and satire, but I can point to some skits from earlier on that, to my mind, indulged in racist, sexist, or homophobic tropes and stereotypes.

I'm thinking, for example, of Eddie Murphy's "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood"; a skit called, if I recall correctly, "Fast Times at Valley High," the humor of which relied on the "ick" factor that straights sometimes feel about gay people; or "P.I.P.I., Politicially Incorrect Private Investigator."

The latter two, at least, had some element of satire and even a sense of "laughing at oneself." (Eddie Murphy's skit, however, I've always found offensive, even in my less antiracist days.) Still, they're not entirely free from the phenomenon you describe.

Inda Lauryn said...

Honey, don't waste your time with Wikipedia. I'm sure you're much too intelligent for that. Not really contributing to the discussion but just wanted to say that.

Tami said...

Inda Lauryn,

I'm sure you know that while Wikipedia is certainly not acceptable for academic or journalistic work, which this blog is not, it works wonderfully as a quick research source leading to other usable sources. Note that the academic article that I quoted from later in the piece reached roughly the same conclusions as Wikipedia.

You also may wish to check out the 2005 Nature study on Wiki's accuracy:

Kelly Hogaboom said...

The time for "edgy" jokes about political correctness would be in the 90s maybe? When PC had experienced it's first bloom? What does it say about us that so many are scornful of "PC" fifteen years after the phrase first came to the fore in a major way? I think the conversation scares the hello out of some people, who are terrified and bewildered they may have to give up - if not their privilege, then some of their behaviors that ultimately dehumanize others.

I hate the "edgy" humor defense (see: date rape scene in Observe and Report). Yeah, "edgy", "outrageous". Right. Let's see... gross vaginas, what a brand-new concept!

As far as racial stereotypes, my entire life I've been seeing variations on the (newly revitalized by SNL, apparently) Mammy caricature, the Stepin' Fetchit, the Jezebel. How can this be all edgy and subversive when, um, it never really left in the first place?

As far as snarking on "politically correct" actions - I've taken this to be a way to say "Whatever your objections are, you are just faking it, or only trying to win points, therefore I have no obligation to treat you as a human being with thoughts of your own." It's a very convenient way for someone to make sure they are never required to do the hard work of challenging themselves on their prejudice, sexism, bias, etc.

Satsuma said...

Thanks Tami for an incredible post.
It is always the powerful who howl over having to "inconvenience" themselves by using language that makes the excluded actually feel welcome. I don't watch SNL anymore, or any of the other "comedy" shows. They're not funny to me. Humor is about what is genuinely funny. Kate Clinton is hysterical to me, for example, because she is a lesbian who is humorous in a lesbian way.

If you can't even bother to change your language or be P.C. which in my book means "plain courtesy" it really does mean that you are not a ally of the people who are routinely made fun of by the majority. Women are easy targets, blacks are easy targets of white male controlled "humor" machines. I don't find any of it funny.

I never ever heard any woman complain about a company going over board to put a stop to sexual harassment... that was right on target Tami. It is the men in weakness who complain, the white men who are always angry that they don't get to say things and stomp on people. Language and its usage is about power, and power never gives in. We all know this.
P.C. is easy, just ask people how they like to be called, and use those terms....easy.

What is so hard about people actually thinking now and then, and changing vocabulary with the times?

Satsuma said...

P.S. This post just made my day Tami. I'd been feeling down after returning from a horrifyingly sexist and racist corporate conference. Nothing worse than having to deal with over 100 white staight men in a room, and get stuck listening to them do ALL the talking at the conference from the stage! IT was awful!!

This article cheered me up, you keep me going Tami when stuff gets me down. Thanks :-)

Meowser said...

I don't think Eddie Murphy was an exception to this rule, either. He did sketch after sketch reinforcing the idea that African-Americans are stupid (his very first sketch had him saying he's "been a junior [in high school] for seven years now") and morally bankrupt. He might have gone along with his (white) co-writers on these sketches out of a belief that (white) viewers would regard him as an exception, but his sketches weren't exactly free of "ha ha look how politically incorrect and edgy I am" either. And that's without getting into his portrayal of a limp-wristed gay hairdresser, which he repeated multiple times.

I don't think SNL has been anything close to a challenger of the status quo since about 1977. Their first couple of years, they blew all the stale sketch comedy off the air, and it was about damn time (ever see some of those old musical-variety series from the 1960s and 1970s and gotten a load of how thuddingly bad most of the "comedy" was? eeeesh). But after a while, they became the new status quo -- don't trust anyone who's not young, rich, straight, thin (especially if female), and WASPY-cute (even if not actually WASP). Soupy Sales, come back, all is forgiven.

WWWren said...

Is there anything more politically correct than proudly proclaiming how "politically incorrect" you are?

Moi said...

And let's not even get on the whole "free speech" argument. Last I checked, "free speech" was initially intended to protect citizens when criticizing their government.


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