Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Of Political Correctness, Profiling & Social Disparity

Political correctness can sometimes be stifling; more so under pressures of passion. The higher a society rates on being cultured the smaller and tighter become the vents for simple retorts and spontaneous reactions. Or at least that’s the general idea.

It’s amusingly interesting how political correctness goes hand in hand with freedom of speech in this country. In my fifteen years here I've witnessed the worst of freedom of speech in ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ and the best of political correctness in the use of the word ‘different’.

It’s not an inviolable etiquette though; in fact it’s one which is expected to be forfeited in trying and maddening times. It’s also a career builder in the entertainment industry particularly when entertainment is not the purpose. Bill Maher rode the high tide while being politically incorrect, until he was taken off air in 2002. Rush Limbaugh doesn't and hasn't ever cared and Bill O'Reilly apparently follows a different etiquette where all is fair in love, war and politics.   

But, from where I come, political correctness is not a huge thing, probably because there it is a very homogenized society. Though color doesn't define race in Pakistan (Pakistanis are a mixture of many races) there are various other details which take care of keeping people divided both laterally and horizontally. If the Irish think they are always unfairly profiled as ‘stupid’ in jokes, they should see how Pakistanis combine homophobia with humor when the punch line to most Pathan jokes is a comment on their ‘presumed gay fetish’.

Then there is the “endearing” political incorrectness. My mother calls my younger son ‘baingan’ (eggplant) because he is dark skinned… and so is she. When we were younger my sister was often called ‘moti’ (fat) because she was chubby, I was called ‘lissi’ (sickly) because I was thin and our cousin with severe Down syndrome was called ‘jhalla’ (retard), because he was.

Out of the four examples above the first three can probably be justified on some level using Pakistani reasoning. The last one is cruel; and it’s from there that I begin wondering about what is that which demands political correctnessIs it simply sensitivity and empathy present in some people by nature or is it a lesson in how to train one’s self to when to rein in? Is it a matter of being excessively passionate or a case of personal preferences? Probably all, but I want to add another ‘reason/dimension’ here. I think that most (if not all) political incorrectness occurs due to a hidden, ever present  sense/need of superiority which makes itself visible for just that moment when the deed happens.

Let’s for example take a regular day to day situation involving food. I have yet to come across a society as morally invested in food preservation as Pakistani people. Food is not to be thrown away PERIOD. We are taught as kids to serve ourselves less than we think we desire to ensure a clean plate at the end of the meal. We must eat neatly so if anything is left on our plate can be consumed by a sibling, a servant or a beggar. We are accustomed to picking up food if we find any on the ground, kiss and touch it to our eyes and place it somewhere higher where the birds or squirrels can get it.

BUT, if the fish smells off at a restaurant in Lahore my expression and body language will show my displeasure and after summoning the waiter I will say something like:
دیکھ تو لیا کریں کیا سرو کر رہے ہیں آپ لوگ. اسقدر بو آرہی ہے. باسی مچھلی ہی  کھانی ھوتی تو ہم یہاں کیوں آتے؟"
(Why don’t you guys check what you are serving? It’s stinking horribly!  Why would we come here to eat if we wanted stale fish?)
Some might want to go a little further to show their annoyance and add something like:
اتنی اتنی قیمتیں لکھتے ہیں منیو پہ اور کھانا دیتے ہیں گندہ بو والا؟ شرم نہیں آتی آپکو؟
(You put such exorbitant prices on your menu and serve filthy stinking food; aren’t you ashamed of yourself?)

I wouldn’t do that in San Ramon. In San Ramon if the fish smells off at a restaurant I’ll say something like:
“Would you please ask the chef to check if this smells alright?”

Why on earth does that happen? Why am I so polite to the San Ramon waiter but not to the one in Lahore? Is one of the reasons because I know that the waiter in San Ramon is, for all practical purposes, my equal in rights and therefore is entitled to the same treatment that I’d prefer for myself. He/she could be a neighborhood kid waiting tables at night and going to law school in the morning (or vice versa) and, quite capable of eating meals in a similar or a better restaurant.

But in Lahore I know that kids destined for law schools do not take summer jobs or night jobs to pay their fees. Exceptions aside, those who wait tables in Lahore are there because that’s the best money making opportunity they could get. Therefore, the one serving me will have to be one of the following:
  • ·         From a far off rural village without light and running water, trying to work his way up a very very steep socioeconomic ladder with really far apart rungs.
  • ·         A newlywed with a pregnant wife in a small one room flat, trying to work his way up a very very steep socioeconomic ladder with really far apart rungs.
  • ·         An older son with aging parents and unwed sisters, trying to work his way up a very very (blah blah blah).

And I fear that this presumed knowledge controls my reaction. I stay polite to the San Ramon waiter because I do not feel superior to him but I take rude liberties with the Lahore waiter because if he is waiting tables then no way in hell could he be a rung above me on the afore mentioned socioeconomic ladder.

The above example might appear to be contrived/exaggerated to some but the fact remains that in Pakistan wealth defines social status and social status defines eligibility. The chasms between social classes are abysmal and human rights change definition from one social class to another. Therefore a separate bathroom outside the house for for all domestic helpers is not a polite gesture acknowledging their need for privacy but a silent announcement that they do not qualify for the same as their employers. The kids from the servant quarters may play with the kids living in the house but may not sit on the sofas and chairs inside the house and may not eat with their ‘superior’ friends’. Maids and nannies may accompany the ladies and kids to eating out sprees but should sit at a distant table while the family and friends dine.

I’m not going to address the sadness triggered by the above observations because that should go under a blog post titled “You are rich because I am poor”. I would stick to the discussion and move on from socioeconomic superiority to that involving ‘intellect and perception’. In this category, I’m afraid, between Pakistan and the US neither is better than the other and both are equally obnoxious. The realities may differ but the sentiment remains the same, consistently revolving around the notion of ‘I am better than you’.

Conducting his show on Racial Profiling, on May 7, 2002, Bill Maher had a panel of four including Kevin Nealon (SNL), Adel Iskander (Middle East media scholar), Salman Ahmad (musician/singer Junoon) and Arianna Huffington.  While in a heated argument  Maher gestured towards Iskander and Ahmed collectively addressing them as Muslims to which Iskander objected and accused Maher of profiling. Apparently Iskander’s Egyptian heritage and his connection with Al-Jazeera had led Maher to assume that he was a Muslim. “I’m a Christian” Iskander stated leaving his host visibly confused for a few seconds.

I considered this an error on part of the research team of 'Politically Incorrect' until Maher served us with ‘Religulous’ in 2008. The ‘research free’ and ‘argument less’ content of the film made me wonder if the guffaw on 5/7/2002 wasn't erroneous research but actually a reflection of Maher’s blatant derision of ideas and thoughts he personally considers wrong?
Why does Bill Maher use ridicule instead of facts? Why does Rush Limbaugh insult instead of argue? Why does Bill O’Reilly shout instead of talk? And had they behaved the same if they were not powerful known names in the media?

Pakistan has come a long way from the time when eating utensils in the use of 'Christian house servants' were neither shared nor touched nor placed with other utensils in the kitchen.
US has come a long way from use of racial and gender slurs.
But, on a certain level, there remains a mindset which secretly nurtures a superiority complex and we catch its glimpses every now and then in political incorrectness and profiling reminding us of numerous disparities among the human race.   

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