In the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” a black boy (Little) is beginning to understand his own sexuality. He asks Juan (his surrogate father): What's a faggot?
Juan: A faggot is ... a word used to make gay people feel bad.
Little: Am I a faggot?
Juan: No. You're not a faggot. You can be gay, but you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.
Wisdom and compassion shouldn’t be Juan’s strengths: He’s a black migrant from Cuba. He’s a drug dealer. He lives in Liberty City, Miami, and is a victim – and a cause – of its afflictions. And yet he says this simple thing: “A faggot is ... a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
Juan is compassionate, wise, “politically correct.”
Political correctness started well. As youngsters we were taught to avoid language that, however graphic to many, was hurtful to some. So “cripple” was blue-penciled and “handicapped” took its place, and “visually impaired” replaced “blind.” The N-word disappeared, as did a dozen ethnic or religious slurs too offensive for pages like this. And “faggot”? PC taught us that “you don’t have to let nobody call you a faggot.”
Sadly, PC fell to ridicule (“horizontally challenged” instead of “short,” sniggered the wags) or bloat (how many pretty words do you need to replace a slur?) or contempt (PC is “fascism pretending to be [good] manners,” said George Carlin) or silliness (don’t say “merry Christmas” because a nearby non-Christian may be offended).
Classrooms became a “safe space” for the timid. “Triggers” in the syllabus protected students from shock: (the F-word appears in chapter 25 of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and the N-word appears everywhere in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”) We’re informed that “politically correct” is so incendiary that the phrase has been banned from a major university in the Midwest.
But the pendulum has swung and examples fly faster than Tweets. Donald Trump calls Joe Biden a “dummy” but by then a freshman member of Congress has said: “impeach the motherf-----.” It’s a rare politician who avoids invectives. PC’s opposite, the non-PC, has become a sign of strength. If PC is “fascism pretending to be manners,” non-PC is bad manners pretending to tell-it-like-it-is. The blunt truth, and if you don’t like it you can insert your favorite slur here.
Fortunately, while many folks shun the treacle of PC, many others shun the obnoxiousness of non-PC. Fortunately, too, telling them apart is as easy as one-two-three:
One, is it true? A gross exaggeration? A lie? Or is the question even asked?
A continuum slides from “true” to “never-entered-my-mind.” The further the slide, the more prudent the silence.
Two, is it hurtful? Is it a statement or a humiliation?
Juan’s advice to Little reappears: “A faggot is ... a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
Three, does it move the conversation backward or forward?
Say you’re a black man chatting with a Caucasian woman who disagrees with you about climate change. At some point you ridicule “white broads.” Don’t look now but the dialogue just ended.
The campaign of 2020 has begun. As it unfolds, politicians and pundits will speak PC or – more likely – its opposite. Often in soundbites masquerading as news. We’ll need to know: Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s trying to hurt someone’s feelings, perhaps our own? Who’s pushing the conversation forward? Or dragging it backward?
Who’s being compassionate? Who’s being wise? Who’s being Juan? Our vote should depend on it.