Subrat Kumar Behera: Mythological Paradigm Prophesised (2106), Lithographs, Kochi Biennale, 2016.

On Consuming and Creating Art in the Age of Political Correctness: What Really Matters?

In today’s age of wokeness and political correctness, there are many instances I am thankful for. And others, where I am constantly anxious — something I share with a few friends as well. Among the ones I am thankful for, are the spaces where I can confidentally recognise people who cut my conversations short simply because I am a woman; where I can speak with conviction to my friends about my experiences with bullying or depression; where I can call out people who think that it is okay to make jokes about Reservations or our personhood based on eating or dressing habits.

I am also learning to understand my own internalised forms of misogyny better — I try to refrain from commenting on people’s weight — a habit formed from years of people commenting on my own weight. I learn to accept my privilege and be accountable for the ways in which they have denied another. But among these instances are also instances where I am so caught up trying to be perfectly right, that I forget what is really important — validating experiences and fighting against discrimination. You see, I constantly have the image of the weight of political correctness sitting in my head like Amma’s nagging sound of disapproval that I’ve imbued subconsciously. While it allows me to better myself, sometimes it can become debilitating — when I let it get bigger than the context it is born in. Paromita Vohra, an independent filmaker (@bombay.rosie) shared a little excerpt today, that encapsulated our reading and consuming practices in a social media world/culture. It uses the example of twitter — “What’s on Twitter ends up having outsize influence, because the people who are on Twitter percieve Twitter as being bigger and more representative (of the world) than it really is.” She says that “in order not to be determined by these [social media] formats, we need to be poetically and politically self-aware about ourselves in them.” This piece is my attempt to navigate my own choices and actions in an online world that is constantly threatening to overpower my sanity, while also being a dear lifeline.

Nisha Susan in this essay makes a case for the artists who create art in the age of cancel culture and its grammar book— Political Correctness. She addresses how this culture tends to seek justice in art, and not as much or at all in politics. Parodevi’s shared excerpt offers an explanation — our times are increasingly based on “paranoid readings”, that focuses on what is wrong about something rather than “reparative reading” that seeks out the nourishing and healing parts of art, despite its flaws. But paranoid readings are increasingly the norm — check every content for political correctness, if one tiny little detail falters, we cancel and move on. And this, I realise is where my anxities are now located. I am terrified to write. I am constantly worried about the politically correct boxes, and less about what I actually want to write that most often — I don’t write at all. I desperately search for answers — why must I write at all, if I am going to fail to be perfect? if I am just another presumptous woman trying to write in this world full of injustice? As always, my teacher has an answer. At this interview with Blue Club, Vj Ma’am says that the Savarnas would prefer that Dalit persons keep writing about caste and inequality because that would let them continue writing about art, writing and culture — escaping all scrutiny and at the same time making it all the more difficult for others to follow. Although I am not Dalit, it answers my struggles.

I shall now attempt to make a case for what really matters, with the example of sitcoms/comedy shows and the “problematics” that surround them.

I don’t enjoy sarcasm/satire/irony all the time. So, my sister, L and I are constantly arguing about what makes a good comedy show/sitcom. I believe that in the name of comedy, many experiences are invalidated and “problematic” jokes are reiterated. I understand that B99 has been a much better sitcom in recent years to address gender and racial discrimination, but the way in which it makes a joke at the expense of diversity is something I cannot understand. I’m sorry that I cannot sit and watch Jake Peralta in Brooklyn 99 go, “Oh I’ll get you a chocolate milkshake and a vanilla milkshake for me” and then suddenly catch himself, and laugh at the possibly racist joke he just made. No, don’t tell me that that’s how the tool of “satire” draws out the issues of racism — it may very well be, but it just isn’t something I enjoy or understand. And how is it okay by your politically correct standards that Scully and Hitchcock are constantly made the butt of everyone’s jokes, often veering on bullying?

No, I would rather watch Friends. Do not make any mistake — I am not validating the show and its problems. I am aware that it is acutely white, sexist and homophobic. I watch it because, in a time when I was ignorant of political correctness but terribly depressed (ironically because of my experiences as a heartbroken queer woman), the only thing that helped my fear was slowly laughing at the way Pheobe ran — because that’s the way I ran. I am simply choosing to watch it because certain moments in the show make me smile, and are associated with healing memories. So please don’t cancel me and my experiences. I am still perfectly capable of calling out their problematic content. And I would happily let you watch B99, if that’s what gives you joy, but don’t come at me with the weapon of political correctness and take away my happiness.

Political Correctness arose as a way of validating diverse forms of experiences — whose histories and voices were erased, and worse — silenced. The key here, being experiences. If we go around sticking hard and fast to the rules of grammar that were created to defend those experiences, we do not make space for the ever-changing spectrum of experiences themselves. And political correctness will suffer a slow disappearance into irreverence and oblivion for its confusing rigidities. Just like Latin and every other language that stuck to its grammatical righteousness. And then, political correctness like these classical languages will be excavated to be transformed into a weapon in the hands of the Savarna, the hegemonic population(I hate using this academic word, but its the one that seems to best fit here). Under the garb of political correctness, they can demand acquiescence while shedding their guilt and continuing their discriminatory practices, because performative activism absolves them on screens.

Another weaponisation is within its irrelevance — this becomes dangerous because the other set of guitar/veena strumming Savarnas can continue their “birth-given” art practices, sighing a breath of relief — nodding to each other, “we told you this will end”, and continue without accountability to histories that are erased or over-written. It could also be used by community members to gatekeep and disregard emerging narratives across the spectrums of experience. A kind of example of this would be the Chimamanda Adichie Twitter rant directed against the non-binary author, Akweke Emezi. What she effectively does is cancel the culture of online political correctness and in the process belittle a queer individual’s narrative and writing experience. For others who have faced other valid experiences of being cheated by mediocre popularity-driven-content, they will turn to her words that critique this online culture while forgetting that she is cancelling another person’s experience — very much contradictory to what she says about stereotypes endangering the range of gender and cultural experiences in this TED talk of hers.

Since I’ve used the example of humour TV, I might as well end with one. I discovered this show called Why Are You Like This? on Netflix, that used dark humour to address the often counterproductive nature of wokeness. In vastly different ways, I related both to Penny — the cishet white woman who is extremely politically correct and racked in White guilt, and to Mia — the well-off bisexual Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant woman who sometimes uses the rules of political correctness to her advantage, in order to get away with laziness and/ self-serving motives. I couldn’t personally relate to Austin — the white gay man who pursues drag as a hobby, and struggles with acute depression — but I loved him fiercely for obvious reasons. I excitedly showed this to my sister, happy that I could finally find a work of satire that I enjoyed, but she just shrugged. She said it was bad stuff simply reinforcing stereotypes and defeating the point entirely. I felt hurt and when my attempts at explaining that “stereotypes were bad, not for not being true, but because they would be touted as the ONLY narrative”, went wrong — I walked away. I searched the internet for words to validate my feelings about the show. And I found this Guardian article and this review which said the show used offensive humour and that it may not be for everyone. It even spoke of the show being an example of contemporary satire. But some things that L pointed out weren’t false — there were defintely elements of reinforced stereotypes about race, so why was I okay with this, but not with B99? At this point, this essay probably feels like a way to justify my own shortcomings, and maybe it is. But bear with me.

I understand that I was okay with it because it was written by Penny herself — Naomi Higgins and Humyarah Waheed, her friend (the character of Mia)— who have unashamedly written themselves into the characters of the show. The thing about woke culture/ political correctness is that it sometimes drives to make us feel like we need to drive to an ideal human self that is incapable of making mistakes or slipping up. But that isn’t true. As the creators say, “there is inherently good and bad in all of us. In the struggle to point out the bad in others, we sometimes forget to look at ourselves — how bad we are.” And looking at ourselves is the first step to understand our own experiences — the vastness, the histories and the differences within it. (If you remember, this comes close to the grounding exercise that Paro devi suggests). Many times, art is a by-product of such experience. But in this age, it is slowly becoming a by-product of consumer culture — online, performative, clout gathering, seeking viral validation and ticking all the politically correct boxes. In the avalanche of this need to create more, be better and be perfect, we sometimes forget our own experiences — the flaws in them, its mediocre beginnings, that it is mistakes that lead to better art or writing, and not vice versa. And in the process of consuming art created here, there is much anxiety and no value for experience — the memories of which started it all. I think it’s time for us to go back and celebrate experiences, instead of blindly guarding the grammar books.

So pick up a pen or a pencil or sit at your computer/laptop/phone, and write or art — about whatever the hell you want. Provided you do not pee on another person’s joy — because that is just reprehensible, as my beloved teacher declares.

Note: This was an article I read that nicely incorporated elements of critique that wokeness often exposes us, but seldom allows us to practice with such sensitivity or precision.

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Anna Lynn

Anna Lynn

Writer. Research Scholar. Curious Creature. letters on art and culture, words and sentimental opinions.