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Political Correctitude

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Ye Merry Gentlepeople

In my boyhood, the members of my father’s church put a lot of effort each year into their presentation of the congregation’s crèche.

“Real hay!” marked the best nativity scenes in the area. Having all three wise men was another sign of a quality Christmas in the pine-straw frost of South Carolina. And what kind of revisionist delusions had possessed that Baptist parish a few blocks away with just two wise men and only one shepherd?

Bonus: if you positioned your wise men so that they arrived from the fabled East—because they three kings of Orient were—your sanctuary might be thought to hold out special cleverness to worshippers, a slightly dashing sense of internationalism.

Holly-and-ivy Protestants that we were, we’d stare, scandalized, at nearby Catholic churches which had some very uptown-looking crèches, indeed—”real sheep!” doing real damage! to the church lawn—but with Mary looming over everything as an oversized figure. Rome’s emphasis on her, full of grace, held no sway in the Methodist mind. No, our focus was on the offspring, pa rum pa pum pum, and parents bringing children to see the crèche gently worked to get the kids to notice the baby.

Girls were quicker to get down to talking about the swaddled icon. Boys tended to like the animals much more than the kid: while wishing for camels, it was at least a plus that at this time of year, you could get away with saying “ass” in reference to the donkey.

It was while watching the Adoration of the Southerners one year that I noticed the infant in the manger had blond hair and blue eyes.

Granted, one of the three wise men was black, another token of Methodism’s worldly perspective, surely. But the unthinking dodge of those golden locks made it easier finally to get away from the crèches of organized religion and walk, solo, out into the spacious mystery of personal inquiry.

Jesus and I now have a winking relationship.

And that’s not the disrespectful thing it might sound. Being a minister’s son, I understand the church as a family business, a service of services. My father was good at what he did, and I honor this, especially because he had a rich sense of humor and bona fide dedication to his ministry in the Deep South. He knew that political correctness meant picking his battles and that sometimes you needed buy-in to fix a crèche.

During this tortured year, we’ve heard a lot about being “too politically correct.” What does it mean to your work? That’s my provocation for you today.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

A Year of Ridiculosity

Have you felt at times that “political correctness” was overrated? I have.

I’ve been defensive when it was suggested that a literary effort needed to be “corrected.” Struggles around this concept, of course, have gone on for some time in reference to the Mark Twain canon and other works. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I had an interview this week at Publishing Perspectives [1] with the founder of Sweden’s diversity-driven children’s publisher Olika [2]. The output of that company could clear a school board meeting in a hurry: here are books about Konrad, who wears dresses, about the female footballer Kosovare Asllani, about pirates who are girls.

But does the definition of what’s politically correct change in the multitude of a hellish host of news stories like this year’s? Does your approach as an author shift in response? In the mind of the beholder, the concept of what is or isn’t “correct” is being pulled right, and left, sometimes with violence. Hymnals and matching carpet might look a lot better soon than the vault of a night sky with no star of any Bethlehem for guidance.

Thinking about this may have no bearing or impact on your work whatever. That’s fine. Another reason I left the crèche is that I don’t like a missionizing faith, one that wants everyone else to believe its story: my story is better and so is yours, because we’re writing them.

But while still winking at you know who, I’m asking if “political correctness” isn’t, in fact, more important now, not less, for authors. You’re going to say that the term itself is all wrong. Okay. But is the principle of considering how our words and work land on people somehow wrong, too? Even if considering our own prejudices doesn’t change how we write, querying ourselves on our assumptions may be critical in producing, as our colleague Don Maass has been writing about [3], work that makes a contribution, work that might change the world if you put your purpose on the page.

An analyst on CNN recently spoke of making a decision to “pace my outrage” in this profoundly political year. It was both a funny and serious moment when she said it. But surprisingly, the notion behind the derided phrase “political correctness” may now have new value, in finding the pace you need under the relentless assault of this bleak midwinter.

If political correctness implies social inclusion and self-examination—rather than unwittingly bowdlerized scriptures lovingly served up on real hay!—then the wink coming back to us from the void may mean we’re moving in the right direction.

For 2017, I wish you the peace of knowing that you stopped to think. No one else’s gospel matters. Write your own, that’s the one we need now. We can work to correct our politics together.  Your role in the effort will be valuable because you brought your own hay.

Do you feel that the events of 2016 may impact your work in terms of what you, and your readership, may see as “politically correct”?

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About Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) [4]

@Porter_Anderson [5] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [6], the international publishing industry news magazine of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman produce @The Hot Sheet [7], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [8] in London. He is also a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [9] series, often in association with PorterAndersonMedia.com [10] | Google+ [11]