Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Political correctness

I spent two years in the USA in the past, and just revisited briefly, but if I spent twenty years there I don't think I'd understand the place.

It's a country so prudish that the site of Janet Jackson's exposed breast at the Super Bowl traumatised the nation, yet toddlers are exposed to guns and gun crime routinely and pre-teens are marketed sexually provocative clothing.

It's a country where airport screeners unerringly detect and remove that lethal shower gel that you're carrying. (I should have known, but forgot to check mine in, particularly as I had carried it days earlier on Air India -- an airline not unaccustomed to terrorism -- without demur.) Yet, in tests in Los Angeles, they failed to detect 75% of fake bombs.

It's a country where racial discrimination was not only normal 50 years ago, but enshrined in the law in many states. Today it is socially unacceptable, not just to discriminate, but even to joke about it. That's a remarkable turnaround, which I'm sure we could replicate in India, with respect to our disgraceful treatment of the "lower castes", if we made the effort -- but we refuse even to recognise the seriousness of the problem.

Some may argue that political correctness now goes too far -- see this for example -- but the achievements can't be denied.

Yet, taking the subway (the "T") in Boston, I saw advertisements saying (from memory): "Take the T to Salem and enjoy a haunted weekend." I don't think Americans would countenance tourism advertisements saying "Take a trip to Georgia and enjoy a trail-of-tears weekend", or "Take a trip to Alabama and enjoy a weekend of lynching and cross-burning". But an episode in American history that, to the modern mind, should seem just as disgraceful as those more recent episodes, is seen as harmless family entertainment. Is it because the victims were white women? Or because they were regarded as pagans (though they probably weren't)? Or did it just happen too long ago to worry about it?

Here's a thought-provoking post about the stereotypical witch (Misshapen green face, stringy scraps of hair, and a toothless mouth beneath her deformed nose. Gnarled knobby fingers twisted into a claw protracting from a bent and twisted torso that lurches about on wobbly legs) and why this image probably did describe the witches of the time.


km said...

Paradoxes and contradictions can be found in every society. But what makes America unique is its ability to laugh at itself. Or not.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

But what makes America unique is its ability to laugh at itself.

That used to be what made the British unique. (I agree Indians aren't abundantly endowed with that quality.)

I don't think America laughs at itself, so much as some Americans laugh at other Americans. It's a big and divided country.

Anonymous said...

I think you are being unduly critical of Americans. Your personal experiences in the US with TV prudery, idiotic security and misplaced political correctness are indicative, no doubt, but one can easily do a point-by-point analysis of your criticisms and give examples of parallel contradictions in Indian (or any other) society.

I guess the bottomline is, as km said, paradoxes and contradictions can be found in every society, no more or less than the other.

On a more general note, your frustration with understanding American society is reflected by many across the world, including those who have never actually lived here. I think the operational factor here is that no other country is as exposed to international scrutiny as America is, and thus gets more of a rap than it deserves. By international scrutiny, I dont mean critical examination of the political or academic kind, but in a more widespread way through popular media.

For instance, only a small proportion of the world audience will ever see an Indian movie and when they do, it is likely to be a acclaimed movie which has garnered fame on the international stage. Similarly, because much of the labor that India exports to the US is skilled labor, most Americans will know Indians as well-educated and intelligent individuals (look at the Asok stereotype in Dilbert, in contrast to the Pedro sterotype of Mexican). As you can see, there is a process of natural selection in what kind of image India projects to America.

On the contrary, because of the widespread diffusion of American media (books, music, movies, magazines) worldwide, the world audience has access to a much broader spectrum of American life. For instance, B- and C-grade Bollywood movies rarely make it to American viewers, but the worst kind of American media products DO reach Indian shores, may it be sitcoms or porn.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Etlamatey -- I was not criticising "misplaced political correctness"; I was criticising the insensitivity of celebrating the Salem witch-hunts. Perhaps my preamble was too long (a common failing of mine).

On a more general note, I agree that the US gets more international scrutiny than any other country; but I think that's only part of the story. The other part is that the US refuses to follow the rest of the world's lead in anything. This ranges from the relatively harmless (staying "imperial" and refusing to go metric, even when the British themselves are switching) to the diabolical (being the only country, other than Somalia, to refuse to ratify the UN convention on children's rights.) I was reading a message board where a mother from Louisiana talked of her six-year-old child being put into a closet at school. In other countries it would constitute child abuse and you could go to the police, if necessary. In Louisiana, apparently, there is no recourse. In fact the US has refused to sign a vast number of human rights treaties.

Does that have anything to do with celebrating the Salem witch-hunt? Maybe, maybe not.

Actually, most of the Americans I know would be all in favour of getting on board international human rights treaties. So either they are not representative of the "true" America, or democracy does not work very well in America.

Anonymous said...

I am completely ignorant about the convention on children's rights, but I wonder what is more important - signing international treaties and still treating your own people like shit, or not signing them and still have a pretty good record of human rights in your own country?

Generalizing an issue in the state of LA is equivalent to saying all criminals get lynched in India because thats how they do it in parts of Bihar.

Again, because of high media exposure, it is easier to notice freak incidents in the US (because of easier access to media, both of the 'victims' and the readers) and pontificate on them, while en-masse abuses in other countries go under the radar.

Anecdote: See those 7-11 years old dodging cars and taxis on Mumbai's traffic signals selling copies of Mint and DNA? One day I read a quarter page editorial in Mint on children's rights and child labor. I didnt know whether to laugh or to cry.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

still have a pretty good record of human rights in your own country?

I'm assuming you're serious. First, a comparison of the US today -- the world's richest (by some measures) and most powerful (by any measure) country -- and India is blatantly unfair. A better comparison would be of late 19th century US and India. Second, try comparing human rights, child rights, healthcare, social security, and so on, in the US with any other developed democracy that you can think of.

India has failed to undo a couple of millennia of social injustice, but well, we've only had 60 years time and we made the right start by outlawing discrimination. America took over 150 years after independence to get that far. Poverty is also rampant and dire in India (hence the child beggars you noticed), but we had to recover from 200 years of colonial rule that reduced one of the richest countries in the world to one of the poorest. I'd say we're doing OK, especially compared to other countries that became independent around that time. Could be better, could be much worse.