You would think we lived in an amazing age of communication.
The internet, with its plethora websites, blogs, YouTube videos, and more, has created a world unprecedented in human culture in which individuals can share experiences with people from completely different regions, cultures, and beliefs. And such exchanges are augmented because almost any such posting is accompanied by a comments section inviting even more dialogue.
Editorials (not just blog posts but print) tend to fall into two basic categories. An editorialist has considered most of the facts, arrived at a conclusion, and attempts to articulate that opinion for his/her readers. Or -- an editorialist has a pre-determined point of view, selects facts that support it, ignore those that don't, and attempts to persuade his/her readers to think like he/she does. Guess which category is far more common? While comments sections tend to involve people who either agree with the poster (right on!) or violently disagree (you idiot!). Not too many comments sections have comments like: "I hadn't thought about it from that perspective before. I'm going to think about what you wrote before I make any further judgements."
OK, sure -- no one would bother writing that. Maybe we can assume (or hope) that most readers think that. For my part, I don't necessarily want people to agree/disagree with me -- I just want them thinking about the topic.
A few months back an American comedian named Louis CK made some comments about why kids shouldn't have cell phones and about the depersonalizing nature of texting. And though I mostly agreed with him, there was a blog post written by Sarah Kurchak who objected to Louis CK's comments -- because she suffered from an Autism Spectrum Disorder. She argued impersonal communications actually allowed her to establish friendships that her condition made difficult to do when face-to-face. It didn't necessarily change my views of things, but it made me consider things from a perspective I hadn't thought about. It put me in another person's shoes.
Yet a casual glance at the comments section revealed a lot of criticism -- for her. Labelling her comments "not representative of the 'average'" and "ignorant" and saying she was unable to look beyond her "personal" needs.
Apparently because her life experience wasn't theirs, that made it irrelevant.
Which brings us roundabout to a recent mini-controversy involving American comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld stars in a webseries where each episode he basically just hangs out with another comic for 10 minutes or so over a coffee. Some people commented that Seinfeld's coffee pals tended to be predominantly white. Seinfeld countered that he wasn't interested in "political correctness" -- and the fur went flying from there.
It's an issue that is cropping up with fair regularity in our modern, multi-racial world. Non-white people complaining about the lack of non-white faces in films and TV and popular media, the roles they get, and sometimes how magazines even present them (lightening skin tones of dark-skinned celebrities). Then the push back comes, labelling such complaints "political correctness," or that individual films/TV/artists/etc. are not responsible for trying to change the world.
Everyone gets angry. Everyone feels threatened. And a lot of ugliness comes out.
But there's nothing wrong with someone expressing an opinion. That's how you know what someone else is feeling. Isn't the first rule of a good relationship "communication"?
Sure, an angry, accusatory tone doesn't help. In South Africa, after apartheid, they introduced "Truth and Reconciliation" inquiries -- meant to tackle and expose the crimes of the past, but in a less accusatory forum. Canada and other nations adopted similar concepts when investigating hot button issues.
When non-white people complain about their portrayal (or lack of) in movies and TV, instead of seeing that as an attack and a call to come out swinging, maybe the other side needs to step back, take a deep breath, and realize they're actually being given a gift -- a chance to consider something from a perspective they maybe hadn't thought about before.
Jerry Seinfeld could've seen the criticism as a compliment. People were complaining because they wanted people like them to be included in his show. They could've said: "Apparently there's this comedian named Gary Signfell or something -- I've never heard of him, but a few of my white friends say he's popular within a certain aging, white demographic." I bet that would've stung.
But instead of acknowledging that people want his world to include them, instead of making some vaguely conciliatory but non-committal statement like "It wasn't my intention to make anyone feel excluded," or "I'll certainly give that some thought," he came out swinging with accusations of "political correctness" and insisting the sole factor in who got on the show was who was "funny" (thereby implying, whether deliberate or not, there aren't very many funny non-white comedians).
Of course such debates get bogged down by all sorts of ancillary factors. Looking at the comments sections for Maya Roy's post on the matter, a lot of those defending Seinfeld are fans -- and specifically fans of his old sitcom, Seinfeld (some declaring it the greatest sitcom ever!). Not unlike how many of those who earlier seemed annoyed about the criticism of Louis CK's comments were clearly big Louis CK fans. Some of the points in Roy's post suggested she found Seinfeld (the sitcom) somewhat racist. But instead of fans instantly coming to its defense, perhaps it would be equally useful to consider why she felt that way. You can accept or reject the charge, but take a moment to put yourself in someone else's shoes.
Perhaps the biggest irony about these debates is the contradiction.
When non-white people complain about the lack of representation, often the white response is to say it's the non-white complainers' hang up, their obsession with race. But if it's such a non-issue -- why is there so much anger from the white side? And if you feel frustrated or like "political correctness" is being shoved down your throat by minorities wanting to see a non-white actor in a lead role, or a non-white comedian trading quips with Jerry Seinfeld -- then you should sympathize with the non-white complainers more. Because that frustration is what they feel all the time.
And maybe everyone needs to take a deep breath, pause, and listen to what the other side is saying. And maybe this unprecedented age of communication will start bringing us together.
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