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Political Correctness: Too Much and Not Enough

11/06/2013 12:39 EST

The lack of political correctness here in Italy -- when not offensive, and I'll get to that -- can be quite refreshing. On the first day of the Amanda Knox retrial, currently being held in Florence, the judge, when asked by a lawyer if there was time to present a particular argument, said, "This is not a Taliban court, there is time for every request".

No one in the Italian media appeared to even notice the comment, but I certainly did, as I could only imagine the reaction if a Canadian judge said something similar. Apologies would be required; Human Rights Commissions would enter the picture. Who are we to judge the Taliban? We have our flaws, too!

A couple of years ago in Toronto, I was fortunate to hear Martin Amis speak. He described a talk he gave in England where he asked the audience members to raise their hands if they felt they were morally superior to the Taliban. To his horror, very few raised their hands and those who did so, did so timorously. This sort of political correctness, where we cannot admit that we are better than some obviously odious others, needs to cease.

Fast forward to the autumn of 2013 and I am studying at a university in Italy: my professoressa of literature teaches a painfully, achingly slow lesson on the period between the wars. She explains, in mind-numbing, condescending tones, as though to small children, what Fascism was, what a dictatorship is. She explains who was on which side in World War II, when both wars took place (though she insists World War I began in 1915; when I correct her she says that Italy didn't become involved in the war until 1915, so for our purposes, that is when it began).

She explains what the "Shoah", or Holocaust was. She states that the reason she is being so slow and re-explaining basics to a room full of adults is that there are a lot of 'Orientali', or Asians, in our class, and they don't know about this period of history, especially the Chinese. She says this several times. She has repeated it several times since then in subsequent classes -- in fact, I don't believe we have had a class where she hasn't said it at least once.

I can hardly believe what I'm hearing. It is a safe bet, I think, that people from China don't need 'dictatorship' or even 'Fascism' of the Mussolini variety explained to them. It is a safe bet both the Japanese and Chinese students know something of World War II. One of those countries did invade the other, yes? It is a safe bet that my Korean, Malaysian and any other Asian classmates don't need to be talked down to, either. And even if our teacher had some empirical evidence indicating every Asian student in our midst were as clueless about European history (or any other subject) as she believes them to be, it is simply wrong to single them out, and to do so relentlessly, loudly, in front of everyone else. All she need say is that she is going over everything slowly and repeatedly in order to ensure that all of us understand; she could also be really radical and treat us like the adults that we are.

I am quite certain she believes she is being helpful, but the assumptions she makes about a large group of students -- who do not represent, after all, a monolith -- bring the phrase 'soft bigotry of low expectations' to mind.

Compare and contrast: in the not too distant past, I was working as a teacher at a private institute in Toronto and during a meeting it was explained to me that to use the phrase "Christmas is coming" as an example of the gerund was "culturally insensitive". Let me make clear that we were not talking about saying "Christmas is coming and it's way better than your ridiculous holidays, non-Christian people!" We were talking about: Christmas is coming.

It was absurd and parochial and pathetic and quite condescending toward the very people whose feelings were purportedly being protected. It was the kind of foolishness that makes you really enjoy the reaction in Italy to the death of creepy old unrepentant Nazi and Holocaust denier, Erich Priebke. Priebke was 100 and living under house arrest in Rome when he died last week. He had been tried and convicted for the massacre in March 1944 of 335 civilians in Rome.

Upon news of his death, the Vatican took the unusual measure of stating that no Catholic church in Rome would be permitted to host his funeral (it was hosted Tuesday by an ultraconservative Catholic sect). Yes, one wishes the church had been so principled 70 years ago, but that deserves another column. The real blessing here is that no public figure -- from the mayor of Rome to religious figures of all stripes to national politicians -- has blathered on about forgiveness or tried to make moral equivalencies between the actions of Priebke and the actions of Allied soldiers or between Nazis and contemporary, democratic Western nations.

Political correctness isn't always motivated by silliness and hyper-fragility of the "Christmas is coming" kind, or even by a fear of reprisal, though some is (remember the Danish cartoons). But when I think of the relentless singling out of my Asian classmates and their alleged lack of knowledge, I am reminded that there is a place for political correctness.

So how much is too much, how upset we should get over certain comments and where, or even should, precise lines be drawn? Where can we learn from the wonderful Italian candour, and where could they use a dose of our uptightness? I'd love to answer that, but I have to go shopping. Christmas is coming.

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