The Blog

When Did it Become Cool to Be Politically Incorrect?

The unquantifiable currency of cool is elusively directed by politics, pop culture, and that one kid on the playground. But we've used it to measure the world around us since we were little things. What is its relationship with being politically correct?
Getty Images

The unquantifiable currency of cool is elusively directed by politics, pop culture, and that one kid on the playground. But we've used it to measure the world around us since we were little things. What is its relationship with being politically correct?

When I was a kid, I didn't understand what PC meant. But when I found out my grandpa had wished I were a boy, my parents told me they loved me more than anything in the world, and it didn't matter that I was a girl. That was cool. When I went to school in Finland, some kid asked me why I looked different. But my teacher said I was as good as anyone else, even though I didn't have blue eyes and blond hair. That was cool too.

In our formative teenage years, we became capable of defining cool without teachers. The pop stars we worshipped preached rights, equality and empowerment - well, they mainly preached sex, but the there was the occasional platonic education. It was uncool to be uncool about a mate's skin colour, or when a friend was brave enough to come out. You just knew this stuff, and you meant it too.

On the rare occasions we came off the internet and unplugged our iPods, we learned about the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, suffrage. It became cool to know things, and to have morals and opinions about human rights and equality. I remember one of those pre-Facebook networking sites. There were groups you could join, much like the pages we can now "like". Some of the most popular ones decried racism and stereotypes with admirably passionate uses of emoticons. It was cool when a boy Googled feminism and used it with high-brow 15 year old intellect. It was cool when celebrities said they wouldn't get married until gay people could. It was cool that Finland had a female president.

It's not like this has stopped. If anything, it has proliferated of late. It was cool when Frank Ocean came out on Tumblr. It was cool that Pussy Riot stirred up such a storm against repression. It was cool when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis rapped for gay rights.

But then I really observe the society I live in. Here's a question. How many times, in the last year, have you heard a joke about girls, Indians, black people, Jews, homosexuals, or Muslims?

How is it that somewhere, between the morals that we learned as kids and the way they shaped us into adults, it became OK to be politically incorrect again? I've been racking my brains for the moment in time when people became decidedly tired of maintaining PC. I think comedians may have something to do with it. Let's face it, it's not funny unless it's pushing a button of some sort. From the show titled Politically Incorrect to this UPS commercial, comedians relished this undefinable line. They crossed it, came back from it, and pushed it further around. Understandably, comedians argued against being anally PC. And because they made us laugh, we defended them.

But here's what I think. Most people aren't comedians. First of all - comedians are funny. Secondly, comedians tell these jokes for a living, and their material is publicly assessed. What one person says to a friend over a beer and a stereotype or five is not. But the underlying assumptions, no matter how unjust or ignorant, pass by without judgment, or any kind of further thought, because that wouldn't be "cool". The element of provocation gives us something of a rush, after which only those who can't take a joke stay on it.

It's not like all these little quips here and there come from ignorant people. When they do, the problem is obviously ignorance, which is surely why we needed political correctness in the first place. By political correctness, I don't necessarily mean the guide by which American television is censored, but the general agreement in society to not behave like a fool. But some of these knee-slappers come from well educated individuals, who eat well, exercise regularly, and always use protection during intercourse. They would probably all vote in favour of gay marriage, and would have a real problem with actual bigots. Most importantly, these are astoundingly successful individuals in their early twenties, which means that in the near future they will be the leaders of industry, business, and culture. Am I the only one who is slightly worried that a lot of these people won't think it's important to be politically correct?

A friend recently told me that it was OK to make slightly incorrect jokes now, because they're harmless, as no offence is actually meant. The only damage, here in this wonderful university bubble, would be hurt feelings. Granted, damaging prejudices exist out there, in the real world. But what's the harm among friends?

But how can we be under the illusion that there is a magical disconnect between university and the real world? Or between a harmless joke and the way we think? The fact is that what we say consciously, through an assessment of what is cool, affects the vast potential of our subconscious. When that part of our brain returns to affect our decision-making, say in choosing someone to hire in the workplace, or how we raise our children, we'll have far less control over it than we'd like to believe. Furthermore, I don't think our society has yet developed to the stage where the vast majority of us have been cleansed of prejudice to the extent where a good giggle about something inappropriate would have no formative consequences.

I know people are going to tell me not to get my panties in a bunch. I'd like not to, but the reality is that it is no longer uncommon for some of my Facebook acquaintances to post things about their offspring. You all know what I'm talking about. Try as I may to ignore it, it would appear that the future is no longer very far away. Funny is funny, I'm not denying this. But cool at the price of prejudice really isn't. And we are worryingly close to being at the point in our lives when we're responsible for passing this message on.

Thinking things through before we say it costs nothing. That's all I'm advocating, in the hope that what's cool keeps taking us down this road, and doesn't turn us in the wrong direction.