Backlash against P.C. reveals our ignorance

WILEY A. HALL

November 02, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

I have neither the authority nor the responsibility to apologize for this newspaper. But I am going to do so anyway.

Yesterday, we ran a story in our feature section trumpeting the "End of P.C."

"Because it's finally happening," said the light-hearted report on a supposed backlash against political correctness. "After years in which everyone watched their conversational p's and q's, there may finally be a political correctness backlash afoot."

The story cited as proof of this backlash: the decision by comedian Ted Danson to appear in blackface at the New York Friars Club and tell vulgar jokes laced with racial epithets about his sex life with comedian Whoopi Goldberg; the popularity of radio personality Howard Stern; and the rapid rise to success of the "Beavis and Butt-head" cartoon on MTV.

In the story, we quoted Christopher Cerf, who has written a spoof of politically correct terms: "There's a whole range of places where [politically correct language] comes from," said Mr. Cerf, "and some of it is pretty extreme. And for some people, it's not a very big step from saying, perhaps we're being a little silly with some of these terms to saying, well, there's nothing you can call blacks or women that won't offend somebody."

In my view, "Political Correctness" is the snide term some people use when they refer to society's attempts to understand, and treat with respect, groups society has never had to understand or respect before. Blacks, women, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians, the handicapped, gays: the list of previously excluded groups seems endless.

Learning to respect each other is not as easy to accomplish as one might suspect. There are a lot of gray areas that have to be negotiated through experience and compromise. But society can no longer dodge the necessity of making the attempt.

As I said, I have neither the authority nor the responsibility to apologize for this newspaper -- but to suggest that this process has been a nuisance, as our story appeared to do, is offensive.

And to suggest, as we did, that a backlash will bring this process to an end is just wistful thinking on the part of those who feel uncomfortable with a multicultural society.

The process of integration will not end. Either get used to it, adjust, or step aside.

The biases of our history rise up to bite us every day: The Library of Congress has come under fire for excluding D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" from a series commemorating film history. Among other things, "Birth of a Nation" celebrated the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and included some of the cruelest caricatures of black Americans ever recorded on film. Griffith's cinematic techniques revolutionized movies. The story he chose to tell set the tone for the portrayal of blacks in film for decades to come.

In February, I wrote that the city ought to remove a statue honoring former Chief Justice of the United States Roger Brooke Taney. The very next month, a colleague defended Taney's career on the occasion of what would have been Taney's 216th birthday. And in October, two area foundations donated $10,000 toward the upkeep of Taney's home in Frederick.

Who was Taney?

As chief justice, Taney ruled in 1857 that since blacks were such a "degraded" and "inferior" race and were so universally despised by civilized people, they had no Constitutional rights that "a white man was bound to respect."

Taney's rulings in the Dred Scott case in 1857 pushed the country closer to civil war and established a legal precedent for the discriminatory treatment of black Americans that, in the view of some scholars, was not fully overturned until the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in 1954.

Should we balance Taney's brilliance in other matters against the cruel effects of his Dred Scott decision? Does Griffith's technical prowess as a filmmaker outweigh the racism in the story he chose to tell?

The so-called P.C. movement is an attempt to force us to confront these and other questions. It is based on a recognition that how we perceive people influences how we treat them. We show our own ignorance whenever we make light of this effort.

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