05 Apr 2016 18:45 IST

Political correctness going too far?

Looks like in today’s context, tolerance is not a two-way street

To most of the world, the US is the gold standard to look up to in terms of being ‘free’ — it is a land of opportunity for immigrants and the go-to destination for foreign students.

The country’s capital markets are the best in the world; its intellectual property and bankruptcy laws are the world’s envy; the US dollar is the pre-eminent currency in international trade, invoicing and settlement. America is so dominant in military power that it spends more on defence than the next ten countries combined.

But within the US, there is anxiety, anger and dissatisfaction that has not been felt in at least 30 years. People are constantly on the edge, waiting to pounce on anything that deviates from expected norm and tries to push standards higher.

The slightest injury is being met by demands for draconian policy changes. The injury is rarely physical, but almost always caused by someone’s speech that is deemed offensive or politically incorrect.

The buzzword

The latest buzzword here is “microaggression”, which is “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults towards other people, generally minorities”. The concept of microaggression is so new that it was defined only in 2014.

Case in point one

Halloween is an ancient Celtic celebration practiced in many western countries. It is dedicated to remembering the dead and involves trick-or-treating, wearing costumes. Candy sales during this celebratory week exceed 90 million pounds! CNN estimated that Halloween related sales last year rose to nearly $7 billion.

At Yale last October, a university official (lets call him official one) refused to order a dress code for students during Halloween. This refusal came after some students complained that certain costumes might offend them. Another official (official two) suggested an alternative approach: “If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Seems like a reasonable alternative. Not so for the students. This advice led to such a shrill protest on campus that classes had to be cancelled. The students were protesting that Yale was being too lenient in permitting tricksters to wear costumes (such as that of a Native American), which may offend them. This is microaggression in all its glory. In a video that went viral on YouTube, one student shouted, “Who the [expletive] hired you? You should not sleep at night, you are disgusting.” A couple of months later, the official one stepped down from her position.

Case in point two

At Princeton, a group of African American students calling themselves the Black Justice League, protested for days in the university’s main rotunda. They said US President Woodrow Wilson, a former university president, was racist, and discouraged the admission of black students to Princeton. When exactly did Wilson do all of these terrible things? During his tenure as university president, from 1902 to 1910 — over a 100 years ago. And their remedy today? That his name Woodrow Wilson, be removed from buildings and schools on campus, erasing a part of history forever.

Case in point three

Raymond Moore, the veteran ATP tennis official who was the tournament director at Indian Wells, made a very crude statement last month that women’s tennis owes its success to men’s tennis greats such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

“I think the WTA ride[s] on the coattails of the men,” Moore said. “They don’t make any decisions, and they are lucky. They are very, very lucky. If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Moore was clearly being insensitive and terribly silly, but until about a decade ago, before the arrival of Twitter and Facebook, reasonable people could have argued the merits of what Moore said and come down on opposite sides, settling the dispute over a cup of tea.

Moore’s supporters would have argued that early rounds tickets for matches at Indian Wells were so scheduled that one was forced to watch a WTA women’s match after an ATP men’s match. They would have also pointed out that the one time the two tournaments don’t intersect are during the end of year contests held at different times: the WTA Finals in Singapore and the Barclays ATP Masters in London. And the fact continues to be that TV ratings for the latter have always been much higher than the former.

Opponents would have argued as Serena Williams did. “Obviously, I don’t think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that,” Williams said to a crowd of reporters. “If I could tell you every day how many people say they don’t watch tennis unless they’re watching myself or my sister, I couldn’t even bring up that number. So I don’t think that is a very accurate statement. Get on your knees, which is offensive enough, and thank a man, which is not — we, as women, have come a long way. We shouldn’t have to drop to our knees at any point.”

Clearly both parties made strong arguments, which is what happens in a debate. But the protest got so loud, so quickly, that Moore was forced to step down within 24 hours of making his statement, bidding goodbye to a near 50-year tennis career, all for a single utterance.

The West likes to preach that human rights and free speech are paramount in modern society. It frowns on any form of suppression, especially if censorship is state driven as in Russia, China, Iran and other countries of the Middle East.

But the Politically Correct police in America is so powerful that if someone steps out of line and is politically incorrect, the offender is punished. He/she is bludgeoned on social media and in nearly every case, the offender’s career, however stellar, comes to an end. The only difference is that the punishment is not meted out by the state.

The goal of political correctness is to get people to be more tolerant of others who are less like them. Tolerance, in this context, is apparently not a two-way street.

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