I was made blatantly aware that the scarf I had placed on my head against the nagging March cold did not make me look like Jacky Onassis when the man behind the counter of the coffee shop pointed out to me that the sandwich I had chosen for my on the go lunch contained ham. Granted, I have dark eyes and impeccable eyebrows and I pride myself on flawless make-up. Also, I am visibly of mixed descent, an enigmatic detail I gladly exploit on official papers, looking for the ‘other’ box to tick. But the bartender that day had a specific ‘other’ in mind.
Surely he meant no harm. If anything, he presented himself as a kind, engaged, well-informed individual who knew how to put two and two together.
covered head + pork = no no
The episode left me amused but also slightly irritated. Which it perhaps should not have. But the fact that it did, made me think.
Mainstream thinking has been taken hostage by political correctness to such an extent it has become increasingly difficult to voice an opinion. Our demand for consideration to each and everybody’s sensitivities, proclivities, background, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, general preference and current situation has made it impossible to construe a phrase that does not risk being dissected and eventually dismissed and rejected. Our words and ideas have become a battleground of pseudo-ideologies, based on fears of exclusion and an inflated desire for inclusion. At the slightest hint of divergence from common and, especially, popular convention, conceptual, theoretical, notional, and ideological lines of argumentation are overthrown and discarded, deemed and hence judged intolerant, bigoted and biased. Not to mention dangerous, racist, and discriminatory.
This tendency is not limited to contemporary, political or societal issues but extends its influences to the domains of history, art and literature. Self-proclaimed specialists too easily pop up, ready to discredit past accomplishments without factual insight or situational consideration. And in their wake, their iconoclastic acolytes vent their anger, triggered by frustration and a need to define an umbrella identity of which they are the main proponents.
To Kill a Mockingbird, an exercise in outdated racism and social inequality. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (whose Rochester locks his mentally ill wife in the attic) a sample of disability abuse. Moby Dick, a white man looking for his white whale. Heart of Darkness a prime illustration of imperialism and colonialism. The list goes on.
The argument that there are contemporary, sometimes even more relevant masterpieces being written and developed as we speak is valid but not comprehensive and even if Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a captivating story on slavery and family, even if Beatriz Williams brings the roaring twenties to life with female buoyancy, Conrad and Fitzgerald are an intricate part of their accounts. Then and now are intrinsically linked. And if bygone scholars and politicians are now more famous for the skeletons in their closets, it should be their actual failures and accomplishments we excavate and analyze, recognizing and ranking their resonance into the present.
If everything is a cultural convenience, if everything is explained as a subjective attribute, everything becomes relative and if everything is relative, anything goes. Right and wrong, both undefinable, fly out of the window as each and every opinion and belief system, flawed or not, minority or majority based, inclusive or exclusive, converts into a generalized, so-called political correct value system, advocated by all, defined by nobody. But well-meant does not always cut it and giving in to our sensitivities and utopian wishes does not necessarily arm us against the ‘isms’ we wish to, should, set out to fight. The risks are clear.
There is a fine line between having respect for and paying lip service to and sometimes, an idea or belief must prevail over an emotional statement or attachment. Sometimes it is good to stand up and say ‘no’ to a current wave. Sometimes following the crowd just isn’t the optimal strategy.
The leap from my sandwich to politically correctness is not an obvious one and I should not take an act of kindness and concern as a pretext to extrapolate onto a critique on current thinking. Sometimes a sandwich is just a sandwich, a headscarf a headscarf.
Or as Jovanotti says,
A forza di essere molto informato so poco di tutti
e dimentico di
guardarti negli occhi, sbloccare I miei blocchi
alzare il volume e pensare che si
La mia ragazza è magica …