Please excuse my political correctness


For those who do not eat in the food court of the Rutgers Student Center too often, there is this small mural near Gerlanda's that I find rather interesting. It depicts an idealized version of the campus, where students of all apparent ethnicities and backgrounds can be seen in one spot, eating, studying and talking. While having conversations near the painting, friends of mine, when taking notice of the image, have called it "the most politically correct image I've ever seen" or "corny." To a great extent, these criticisms are agreeable. However, the cynic in me can imagine different people making reactionary comments, and I feel compelled to defend the artwork from these imaginary statements.

Kidding aside, the words "political correctness" pretty much mean whatever we want them to mean. To some, they're words of safeness, what to say if you do not want to be a schmuck. However, a prevailing definition is that they are an Orwellian reconstruction of reality, an offense to the true emotions of the English language. Lately, the opposite words "political incorrectness" have been used positively to describe those who question what can be said.

We need to distinguish between the meanings of political correctness and incorrectness. Otherwise, the most politically incorrect thing you can say within a society that rewards political incorrectness is something truly corny and politically correct. Am I making sense?

The images of kids of different ethnic backgrounds playing with each other on a playground or of a diverse community working together for a common purpose are not entirely a manufactured contrivance to appease an image-conscious organization's sense of liberal guilt. Rather, it also reflects my experience growing up in New Jersey. While trying not to over-idealize it, as there is plenty of racism to go around, America is a salad bowl of backgrounds, faiths and ideas united by fundamental values. I developed some sort of idea of this very early on, and even as I read stories about hatred or tension, this view has not yet faded.

Recent political events seem to verify this. A senator from Virginia in 2006 made a racist remark in one of his reelection campaign rallies, invoking the idea of a "real" America and Virginia. The forces of anti-racism, backed by the discontent with the presidential administration in unrelated issues, helped to defeat him. The question remained: Would the rest of the country reject this kind of politics as well?

When a certain vice presidential candidate preached about the idea of real, authentic and patriotic America, and one that is opposite, critics were quick to call the speech divisive. Yet my own experience takes this a step further. The statements were reactionary. It gave comfort to people who flinch at the image of an immigrant family moving into their neighborhood. Was this interpretation a result in part of framing and selective sound bites? Possibly. But that didn't stop truly intolerant views from riding the coattails of that rhetoric. Weeks after the election, it's still very pleasing that the American public rejected that kind of politics.

Do not get me wrong. I have said many awful things in private. I have offended people often while making sincere remarks and prejudgment observations. I have said things that made me wonder if I was merely poking fun at racism or sexism or truly unintentionally reproducing those same sentiments faithfully, and yes, I have attempted to be funny by making statements whose only value is shock.

Almost two years ago, Rutgers University itself was the focal point of a controversy over what can and cannot be said over the airwaves. For the most part, the University community as a whole acted appropriately when Don Imus insulted some of its members. It was pleasing to hear that Imus personally apologized to our basketball team. Yet there were those who continue to believe that the man was a victim of the ideology of political correctness, corporate censorship and the media's obsession with conflict. This ignores his long time pattern of offensive remarks, and the incident with our basketball team could have been read as the last straw.

It was disappointing to hear how quickly Imus was able to find work again. While Imus, the individual, has been sufficiently stirred by the controversy, this does not send the right message to our media culture as a whole. "We will never forget about the things you've said… until we forget." This also sends a message that even after a wake-up call, the industry, if not the society as a whole, will continue to reward those who continue to offend, at the cost of aspiring broadcasters who would not.

While some recent events have been good signs of what direction our politics and language are heading, we still have a long way to go. It is always healthy to take risks and poke holes in the barriers of what is safe to say in our First Amendment culture. It's as cool to be politically incorrect as it is to be politically correct. We just have to watch out — are these holes pushing us forward? Or is it pointing us back to our hidden, deeper prejudices? We are still planting the seeds of what later generations will hear and believe, and we owe it to them that we leave our culture in a better condition than we inherited it.

Roger Sheng is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies. His column, "The Echo Chamber," runs on alternate Mondays.


Roger Sheng

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