Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving Political Correctness

'Real'* political correctness is when the government punishes people who do not follow the prescribed way of behaving or who criticize the government's ideology.  It's not about opinion, or about tolerance, it's about having the power to impose one's ideology on others.

The term 'politically correct' is surfacing a lot once again.  Generally it's used to criticize attempts to purge offensive language.   The current campus protests over the term "black lives matter" is a case in point.  Ben Carson calls this 'political correctness going amok."

And Thanksgiving regularly brings on its own 'political correctness' battles.
  • Thanksgiving and Political Correctness  - this one eventually gets to complaining about a school that decided to drop the Thanksgiving and Christmas and just call their days off  'school holidays.'
  • Social Commentary: A ‘politically correct’ Thanksgiving? - This one weighs the inaccurate story of the original Thanksgiving, the genocide of Native Americans, and says kids need to know the awful facts.  It then concludes that these really have little to do with what Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving, so go eat your turkey. 
Perhaps this last one is most indicative of the media's role in the debates over  'political correctness':
Actually this one only mentions political correctness in the title and complains about liberals talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner.  I'm guessing the editor stuck political correctness in the title simply  because it stirs people up and they'll click on it.  And that media use here, like in other controversies, may be the biggest issue here.  But that's another post.

But those emotions do indicate a conflict.  Mostly about how things have 'always' been and challenges to the stories that paint the US as the greatest nation ever, papering over little aberrations such as slavery, income inequality, and the attempted decimation of Native Americans who were in the way of Manifest Destiny.

That's clearly the case for Thanksgiving:  "Dammit, let's just sit down and eat our turkey and watch football and stop yammering about the poor Indians" versus "Thanksgiving celebrates the Europeans being saved by Native Americans just before the Europeans took all their land and killed most of them off."

My take on 'political correctness' in general is that in the past, the US was dominated by white, male, Protestants of means.   They had the economic power and political power and could dictate not only what was going to happen, but also the stories about what had happened in the past.

There were a number of encroachments starting with Andrew Jackson's election, the abolition of slavery, Irish and Italian immigration, the Seventeenth Amendment (direct election of Senators), and the Nineteenth Amendment (women's right to vote).  In the mid 20th Century,  school desegregation and the Voting Rights Act were big changes.  Immigration reform in 1965 that ended the dominance of European immigrants, the Vietnam War, the election of a black President, and eventually gay rights and same sex marriage all whittled away at the perceived power and privilege of white, male, Protestants.  The wealthy found ways to keep their power and used their affinity to poor, white, male Protestants to rally their political support with appeals to anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-tax, and anti-immigration themes.  All the while attacking any comments about economic inequality as 'class warfare."

Today, it's bad to be called a racist.  The term PC is most often used when people are chastised or even lose their jobs for using terms that are deemed racist or offensive to people based on group, rather than individual, characteristics.  But in the 1950s and beyond, being labeled a communist could cost one one's job.  Same thing for being labeled a homosexual.  During the 1960's, the use of certain four letter words was forbidden in most formal settings and Vietnam war protestors were called traitors.

Political correctness has been with us forever, but the term has been associated particularly with efforts of people on the left to promote their values.  The same actions by people on the right have been seen as 'normal,' as simply protecting traditional values.

The underlying concept of political correctness is to prevent someone from doing or saying something that is not in line with those in power.

When conservatives attack gays or limits on government displays of religion, no one calls that 'political correctness', but it is precisely that.  It's trying to prevent people from doing or saying things which do not agree with their belief system.  It gained the label of PC only when the conservatives no longer had the power to impose their values on everyone else.

I attribute this to a changing balance of power.  In the past, the political, social, and economic systems all supported things like oppression of blacks, of women, of gays.   So much so that people assumed that it was the normal, natural way things were supposed to be.  They didn't recognize that such oppression was simply the imposition of the ideology and/or personal interests of those in power over those without power.

When those traditionally without power began to challenge them, the challengers were seen as the people imposing political correctness and the power holders couldn't even see their own long term imposition of political correctness.  

Wikipedia has a detailed article tracing the evolution of the term 'political correctness.'  In the 20th Century, it was first used to mean following the Communist Party line.  Then, it started being used in arcane leftist academic debates.  Next,
[t]he previously obscure far-left term became common currency in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in the secondary schools and universities of the U.S. Policies, behavior, and speech codes that the speaker or the writer regarded as being the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy, were described and criticized as "politically correct".  .   .
After 1991, its use as a pejorative phrase became widespread amongst conservatives in the US. It became a key term encapsulating conservative concerns about the left in culture and political debate more broadly, as well as in academia. Two articles on the topic in late 1990 in Newsweek both used the term "thought police" in their headlines, exemplifying the tone of the new usage, but it was Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991) which "captured the press's imagination."

To me, political correctness is not a good thing.  People in a democracy should be able to debate and make decisions based on a wide ranging consideration of the pros and cons of any situation.  I've commented on the recent resignations of college presidents over how people of color are treated on their campuses.

I get it that middle-class white folks, who used to have things pretty good, are upset because their economic situation is eroding, or for many, the belief that they could always do better is eroding.  Laws and policies that kept women and people of color from power did give white males privileges and power that others just didn't have.  As the playing field levels, I'm sure it's scary.

But what does it mean for Thanksgiving?

I like the idea of a holiday in which we stop and give thanks for what we have.  And as we notice what all we do have, we might also notice that others are doing without, and that we can share with them.

That this holiday is linked with a particular story about history that makes everything seem warm and fuzzy, when this was not the case, is problematic.  Can Native Americans truly be comfortable with this holiday?  I suspect not.  That's the most serious issue.

Is there a way to delink the holiday from the Pilgrims?  Maybe.  Is there a way to retell the story that would be more accurate and satisfy most Native Americans?  I doubt it.  Is there a way to recognize what the European settlers did to the original North American population and makes satisfactory amends?  Maybe, but the damage was so massive, that I doubt it can be repaired, or that voters would approve it if it could be.  Is there a symbolic way to make amends?  Probably lots, beginning with respect and recognition of the damage done.

And finally, I have to address the question whether I too am guilty of exploiting the term political correctness for Thanksgiving hits.  That may be some small part of my motivation here.  I had been working on a post about political correctness already, and it seemed appropriate to tie these two together.

Happy Thanksgiving.

* Of course, with issues such as this, 'real' doesn't quite exist.  The meaning of things is interpretation and different people interpret things differently.


  1. I think Thanksgiving has already been pretty much severed from the Pilgrims, except in tacky cartoon images that cheap businesses and newspapers like to put in their ads.

    In the US Thanksgiving seems to mean several things. In approximate order of importance: 1. getting together with family and/or friends to eat too much. 2. anticipating Black Friday shopping or actually shopping (TV ad: "Penney's Black Friday, starting at 3 pm Thursday"). 3. watching football. 4. being thankful. I'm more in favor of 1 and 4 than of 2 and 3, but that's just because I'm a crabby old geezer.

    I don't know why any Native American couldn't get with the program on these four counts. In fact, this is perhaps the only holiday that has a hard time being divisive in American society.

  2. Kathy and Steve. A first response.

    Great post. Something I will think on and reply later. Right now, I'd say Thanksgiving is a great American tradition. One of its best that I see lacking in my adopted home country of Britain. Thanksgiving works well in the whole harvest tradition of 'coming together'. It's why it's become a family-focused holiday. I won't go into the grief this holiday caused for LGBT people in the states -- something akin to being left out.

    And that's what I want to comment on now. Keep the frickin' holiday! Change the founding myth if you wish about the Pilgrims (grim is right), but celebrate the meaning of Thanksgiving. I know so many stories now of families who welcomed others on the day, the cast-offs, the relation who was shunned, even the chair for the missing. The tradition of thanks was building all the while. The story of home and welcome is there to expand the meaning of Thanksgiving -- reaching out to others, starting with our families -- even with their differences -- it's the perfect American holiday to commemorate the immigrant.

    So keep the holiday; heck, even the misnamed 'Indians'. Reshape the founding to what welcome is all about and the dangers of immigrants!

    My point exactly. We could see it that way, couldn't we? So what's our point? More on the issues of political politeness raised by Steve in another post, at a later date.

    Happy Thanksgiving!


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