Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Nanny State and The New Puritanism

Dame Edna was on CBS Sunday Morning last week. During the interview she referred to political correctness as "this new Puritanism." Such an incredibly on-target statement caught my attention, and reminded me of a blog I was planning to write several weeks ago, on the Nanny State. When Dame Edna made this remark, it struck me how interwoven these concepts are.

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, "Nanny State" refers to over-protectionism and parental-like interference on the part of a governing body. Some would argue that seat belt laws fall within this category, although it's my belief that seat belt laws save the state hundreds of millions in health care each year - in this situation I believe there is logic behind the Nanny, so I tend to agree that there should be a law. What would however fall under Nanny State laws are those that prevent one from getting a tatoo - or purchasing alcohol on Sunday - or smoking marajuana. These are victimless crimes, and these laws do nothing but press the will of some onto the lives of others.

Blue Laws, for example, are textbook Nanny. In fact, they're often the most insidious type of Nanny laws. These are revenue generating laws - the cost of licensing, fines, added taxes, all revenue generators disguised as Nannies so more people would support them. This is a double-edged hypocritical sword that pains me when people can't see through it.

The bar on trans-fat in New York restaurants; the proposition that cigarette smoking become illegal in one's own home; mandates that bars close at a specific hour; these are Nanny doctrines that threaten to propel our country into a day care. A prime example was raised when my mother, when in Australia, discovered a sign in my Aunt's house that dictated the proper way to evacuate one's bowels. Mom blogged about this recently. In her entry she brought up the idea that this is not something that needs to be taught. This is a basic human function that we do quite naturally without the help of an illustrated (yes, illustrated) flyer. This is the end-product of the Nanny State: a population made to feel dumbed down to the point of receiving instructions on basic human functionality.

So what does this have to do with the New Puritanism? Absolutely everything.

When did we learn to fear words? When did it become not okay to refer to a black person as black? (I could take this argue further and ask why we need to define anyone by their ethnicity anyway - "race" wasn't even a term used until relatively recently, and will hopefully phase itself out as we blend as a world population - but I digress). Why does one have to be "African American?" I would imagine many black people find this term offensive. And what of white people from the African continent who immigrate to the US? Are they referred to as African American? What of blacks who move here from a continent other than Africa? Are they African American? Or would they be, say, African-Canadian-American? Where is the line drawn?

Then there is the term "people persons of color." This is just ridiculous. This is as much defining a person by their ethnic background as referring to someone by their ethnicity before profession (i.e. African American Lawyer or Asian News Anchor." This falls into the same category as "my woman-doctor" or "male teacher." By using these terms as defining characteristics we're perpetuating the myth of our differences by nature of background.

Politically correct speech is harmful much in the same way as Affirmative Action is inherently racist. I am not a Gay American. I am an American. I am not a European Male. I am a male. Who I am - who any of us are are defined only by that - who we are. However, if we need to identify someone and utilize their physical characteristics to do so, that is entirely different. If I am referring to a black salesperson so that I can get their name from someone else, there are those who find this offensive somehow. It would be the same if I were to ask for the woman wearing pink.

And while we tiptoe around the correct terminology, we avoid real, honest conversation. We become so afraid of offending anyone at all that we purposely stunt our communication and feelings. We subvert those feelings and they fester. The only way an honest conversation will ever occur is if we're not afraid of our words.

This goes both ways. I could care less if someone calls me a faggot. They do not define me by their words. My three closest friends are Jewish, Black, and Hispanic. None of them would care if a derogatory term were used in connection with their names, because they do not allow the uneducated to define them by irrelevant characteristics. Why are more people not like this? Those that tiptoe around terminology and those that profess their proud ignorance through slang are on the very same page, as far as I'm concerned.

It's time to stop obsessing over our differences - it's time to discuss them when appropriate, and move on. We're all much more alike than we are different. Tolerance goes both ways. In order to expect the intolerant to learn the error of their ways, we need to not expect them to dance around the issue. Otherwise we'll never discuss the issue, and we'll never move beyond it.

If we avoid the serious topics by dressing them up in pretty words and remain terrified of offending someone, we are headed to a new Victorian Age, a Puritanical Nanny State that wraps its xenophobia in an ornate cloak of the enlightened. It's not enlightenment. It's fear.