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Apology Economy

Dennis Brotzky
June 10th, 2015 · 3 min read
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As I write this, the top trending headline on Facebook is, “Snoop Dogg calls Caitlyn Jenner a ‘Science Project.’” If Facebook’s Trending algorithm is correct, this means this topic experienced a sharp increase in popularity among all other news stories. It’s not uncommon to find headlines like this at the top of my Trending feed.

There’s a very predictable formula for trending in social media. Say something deemed offensive to someone, anyone (not hard to do), and wait for the flame war to begin. Sometimes the backlash is deserved, other times I’m often caught off guard by how tone-deaf people are to humor or irony in general. In the example cited above, I’m not arguing the rightness or wrongness of the statement. Is it surprising that Snoop Dogg, a black male rapper from the slums of Long Beach made a homophobic remark? Not really, but explaining why he said it is another essay altogether. I’m not here to apologize for statements deemed “offensive”. No, I’m questioning the knee-jerk reaction of demanding redaction before actually doing the work of examining our own beliefs first.

Is it in our best interests to resort to censorship in the effort of creating “safe” discussion? Ideas, if they’re worth anything, are dangerous. We hurt the very people we’re trying to help when we eliminate the opportunity for rational (often uncomfortable) investigation and lead with what Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt call, “our moral compass.” I experienced this personally when I was completing a fine arts degree at a large public university. I transferred from a small private art school that maintained rigorous standards for technique and conceptual soundness. We’d often get into heated arguments critiquing each other’s works. Sometimes classes would end in tears or hurt feelings. I’ve seen teachers call bullshit on student’s work that was obviously done at the very last minute, and had my own work called “ugly” by an intructor in front of the whole class. Am I scarred for life? Not at all. As I get older I appreciate how rare that kind of clarity is to come by. The important thing isn’t the incindiary remarks in themselves, it’s following up with critical exploration. “What are your options?” “Why did you think this was the best strategy?”

My classes at the large university, however, were marked by superficial observations that never addressed or challenged anything meaningful. As soon as someone would say anything remotely critical, the instructor would quickly cut in to prevent the work’s creator from getting his or her feelings hurt. Classroom critiques resulted in a bunch of “I like this” or “I like that” statements. The old adage of “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” results in an eerie silence where spirited debate should have existed. No one got their feelings hurt, but no one ever learned anything either. You could rest assured that whatever beliefs you walked into class with, you’d leave with those same beliefs intact.

Some might argue that I’m enforcing patriarchal beliefs of “toughening up” students to conform to a masculine ideal, but I would point out that “emotional toughness” isn’t exclusive to masculine thought. If anything, women could argue a better claim to the concept. It’s the almost complete aversion to being offended that I find most troubling. It’s like we’re perverting victimhood into a rhetorical bulldozer, able to deflect or invert any unpopular argument, declaring opposing beliefs as “hostile” and “bigoted.”

This current incarnation of the PC movement has its roots in liberal college campuses of the 90’s as a way to challenge the establishment’s monopoly of master narratives. It was a countermeasure to white male patriarchal discourse and helped direct attention to historically marginalized voices and critiques (feminist, post-colonial, LGBTQ, multicultural, etc.). What it got right was creating space for voices and perspectives not accounted for within the canon. Twenty-five years on and it seems we might have gone too far the other way.

According to pundits such as Edward Schlosser, Jonathan Chait, and even Jerry Seinfeld, we’re in an age of overbearing political correctness. Being a person of color, I’m generally suspicious of criticisms originating from a bunch of affluent white men, but in this case I agree with them. Does identity matter? Of course it does, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing or often the most important factor. If identity were the only thing to factor, then there’s very little room for examining solutions within the context they exist. You are you and nothing can change that. If it so happens that you’ve been historically marginalized, well then, your perspective is the only one that counts, even if that means perpetuating the very state of victimhood you’re trying to transcend. It sounds absurd, but if you’re paying attention to the state of media discourse today, you’ll actually see how common it is.

A prime example of this is the argument Ben Affleck had with Sam Harris on Real Time with Bill Maher. Harris was pointing out the counterproductive practice of liberals abstaining from discussing the “motherload of bad ideas” within Islam. Affleck, who was clearly upset, proceeds to dominate the rest of the debate, calling Harris’ remarks racist and bigoted. When it becomes taboo to critique group beliefs—no matter how bad or archaic they may be—how do we work towards our progressive ideal of an inclusive society? It’s as if we’ve abdicated our responsibility of being the adjudicator of bad ideas, and settled for arbritrating bad feelings instead.

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