Thursday, September 9, 2010

Modesty, Arrogance, and Political Correctness

I have a friend who attended Harvard, and whenever someone asks him where he went to school, he hems and haws. If eventually forced to give an answer, he'll meekly fess up, looking horribly uncomfortable. At some point, I felt compelled to point out to him that, really, Harvard's not that big a deal, and that the pains he takes to soft-pedal it transparently reveal how earth-shakingly impressive he actually deems it.

I happen not to be intimidated by Ivy League degrees. But if I were, I'd take umbrage if an acquaintance felt compelled to keep his under wraps in my presence. After all, what does this say about his attitude toward me?

The irony is that my friend thinks he's being modest while he transparently signals the very opposite.

On a similar note, I agree with the Right's notion that political correctness is arrogant condescension at best, and crypto-racism at worst. As I wrote in my entry about the film Winter's Bone (which some critics lambasted for the negativeness of its portrayal of Ozark culture, despite its being based on a novel by an Ozark native):
As a member of five or six minority groups, myself, I find myself cringing whenever I see groups to which I belong depicted or discussed with anxious care and glossy patina. What awful thing, after all, are they so carefully dancing around?!?"


joshi said...

i couldn't agree with you more. when i first got to the us, i was always hyper-sensitive around african americans because, well, they were african americans. it took quite a while to be natural.

and i can't resist passing on this anecdote: a few years back, christine and i went to a party for the school teachers and their spouses (christine is the school librarian). introduced to a youngish fellow, i asked what he did for a living. he looked sheepish and mumbled something about 'the city'. he was hyper paranoid that his job might sound overwhelming for this crowd!

Jim Leff said...

First step is to stop calling them African Americans. The only people who actually use that phrase are 1. nervous white people, and 2. academics.

Again, it's a "tell" that one is nervously stepping around some fearsome thing. And what's to be nervous about? Where's the beast?

Anonymous said...

Second step is stop calling them them?

Ha ha, not tweaking your nose, from the wording it just jumped out at me. (a ha ha only serious!)

Jim Leff said...

Yeah, some people sneer when someone refers to a group he/she's not a member of as "them". I never really got that.

This should really be its own Slog entry, but Chowhound has a really smart (I think) policy regarding offensive language. All sorts of language is fine, just so long as it's not used in anger or with intent to provoke. So "white trash cooking" is ok, but "you dumb piece of white trash" is not. "Jew soup" is ok, but "Jew prices" is not. It's good crisp common sense, and avoids miring in the countless issues countless people have with language.

I guess "them" could be intoned with a vibe of poisonous condescension. I can see that. But it was clear I wasn't doing that. And the entire point is that it's not the words, it's the intent.

Poisonous people can be assholes with any words. And nice people who innocently stumble into a "wrong" language term are still nice people. So the words aren't the problem. They're red herrings. And I happen not to be malevolent, so I choose not to restrict my expression...though I do recognize that there are those who live to take offense, and who can never be appeased.

joshi said...

i used the phrase 'african americans' to be hyper correct and underscore my point. meant to be slightly ironic, but it got lost in translation.

when we came over from india, we thought everybody listened to the blues, everybody got mugged in nyc .. and every black person was the victim of prejudice and justly smouldered with anger. so we were always tip toeing around, till we finally realized that everyone is jes folks after all.

Blog Archive