“Please don’t tell gay jokes-there are gay people on this bus!” my cousin called from her seat. The darkness of the humid Tennessee night made her request anonymous.
“Oh yeah, who’s gay on this bus?” the joker fired back.
“Do you need a sperm donor?”
The bus was filled with awkward laughter and then a pregnant silence.
When we arrived at the hotel, I decided to confront the provocateur. I felt myself rambling as I explained why his jokes had been insensitive and disrespectful. His breath heavy with the smell of champagne and bourbon shots, he responded, “I’m sick of all this political correct bull shit. I love gay people-I have no problem with them. I think we all need to lighten up and learn to laugh at ourselves.”
This exchange made me realize this: political correctness may have gone too far, but the backlash against it has gone even further.
Many believe that political correctness-designed to protect minority groups from feeling further marginalized by derogatory language-is a form of censorship. It creates strict rules about what we can and cannot say. It leads to awkward terms such as “Indigenous People’s Day” and “life partner” that seem to highlight a person or people’s otherness rather than diminish it.
In response, we have received many salient scoffs at this movement: Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, John Stewart’s Daily Show, and South Park are all notable examples. By taking aim at a variety of groups across the spectrum, these celebrities and shows create the comfortable space for us to laugh at our differences, articulate our biases, and dance the gutsy line between stereotype and truth.
Have these shows made us too comfortable? Have they created a lack of inhibition that itself is problematic? When this boisterous wedding-goer feels comfortable offering up his DNA to my lesbian cousin across a crowded wedding bus, has he fallen too deeply under the spell of South Park‘s sardonic humor?
I cannot blame South Park for this guy’s misstep. I would not want to let him off the hook that easily. However, I do think that his hurtful quip and South Park‘s irreverence are rooted in the same source. Both take issue with a culture that has scripted what we can and cannot say. Both seek to engender normalcy through banter rather than carefully-phrased language.
The difference between South Park running an episode on a gay dog and someone shouting across the bus is that the latter lacked the context to make the humor digestible. Political correctness was invented to make people feel more comfortable. In a country where 13 states passed legislation specifically outlawing same-sex marriage in 2004, a joke by a random guy about sperm donors is hard to disentangle from a political environment where gay rights are constantly being challenged. Because my cousin does not know what lies behind his comment, she is compelled to assume (and feel) the worst, which is why language is such a powerful force.
Until we live in a world where gay rights are not under attack, where women earn salaries commensurate with men, and where racial minorities have equal opportunity to buy a home in an upscale suburb, we will have to watch our language. Until an individual from a marginalized group has the full context on who we are and what we stand for, we will need to pick our jokes carefully.
On the flip side, political correctness will need to find its proper boundaries. Policing language and inventing inane holidays to pander to different interest groups does a disservice to the movements and groups it seeks to protect. These advocates should focus on the more monumental task of creating a climate of inclusiveness rather than an extensive lexicon designed to mask our society’s bigotry.
The wedding bus ride would have likely gone smoother if my cousin and her “life partner” did not find themselves in a political environment of intolerance and discrimination. Absent this societal baggage, my cousin might have laughed and ironically declined the joker’s politically incorrect genetic material. Until our culture becomes more open, he should keep his jokes (and sperm) to himself.