On a recent episode of the popular game show “Family Feud,” the contestants were asked to name something most commonly associated with San Francisco. Like Mormons to Utah or Dukes to Hazzard, everyone and their brother knows San Fran is a haven for homosexuals, but after saying “trolleys,” the “Golden Gate Bridge” and “Rice-a-Roni,” the feud ended with both families refusing to answer the obvious. After their defeat, the number three answer on the board was finally revealed and lo-and-behold, the survey said: “Gays.” The contestants pretended to be surprised. I couldn’t get over their cowardice. “Gays” would have been my first answer.
And unconstrained by the rules of political correctness, no doubt “gays” would have been most people’s first answer. There’s nothing wrong or homophobic about noting that there are a lot of gay people in San Francisco, but like the mere mentioning of blacks or Jews in polite conversation, simply broaching certain subjects—particularly relating to minorities—these are things we are just not supposed to talk about, that is, unless one happens to be black, Jewish or homosexual. If either of those feuding families had an openly gay member, they might have won the game, but as for the rest of us, we have been trained well—and no doubt, political correctness now dominates much of our public discourse.
Political correctness did not hold sway when actor Mel Gibson went on his now famous phone tirade, spewing racist and violent language at his former lover, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva. Many observers agree that Gibson’s movie career might be over and after hearing the phone call, it’s easy to understand why—as you listen to this vile man verbally abusing the mother of his child in the harshest manner imaginable.
But what aspect of Gibson’s behavior is now being called a career-ender? That he was misogynistic? “30 Rock” star Alec Baldwin physically threatened and verbally abused his own daughter in a voice message that was released to the public and his career couldn’t be better. Was Gibson’s worst offense that he physically threatened a woman? Actor Charlie Sheen shot his ex-wife Kelly Preston in the arm, was recently charged with assaulting his third wife, Brooke Mueller, and yet his television show “Two and a Half Men” is about to begin taping a new season, with its main star in tow.
No, when you break it down, Gibson’s worst offense seems to be that he used racist language, even using the “N” word. The well-publicized phone call only reinforced the image of Gibson as a racist and homophobe, based on his past remarks about Jews and homosexuals, and his conservative Catholic creed certainly doesn’t win him any affection from the rest of the Hollywood set. Still, if my own father ever heard me talking to a wife, or girlfriend, or any woman, in the same hateful way Gibson did, he would slap me silly and rightfully so. The racism would not be condoned or go unnoticed, but in the grand scheme of my offenses, it would be an afterthought—and also, rightfully so. Would a black man, whose wife or daughter was treated in this manner, be more concerned that their abuser used the word “cracker,” or about the physical threats and abusive language specifically? Would a Jewish man react any differently? A homosexual man, in defending his sister or mother?
Gibson’s blatant racism is not to be excused, but what does it say about a society in which men can viciously abuse women, verbally or physically, with less damage to their career and reputation than if they use racial slurs? What does it say that director Roman Polanski can drug and rape a 13-year-old girl and Hollywood rallies to his defense, but Gibson is now—possibly permanently—persona non grata?
Political correctness is a hell of a thing. It’s the reason in old episodes of “I Love Lucy” the actors are always smoking, yet still sleeping in separate beds, while today having a cigarette on screen receives an R rating, but near soft-core pornography is commonplace. It’s hard to imagine comedies like “Blazing Saddles,” “The Jerk” or “Airplane” being made today, all full of racist and gay stereotype humor. This is not to say that genuine racism or homophobia should be promoted or even tolerated, only that the degree of offense we place on it today is perhaps perverse in its proportion, stifling speech and even art in unprecedented ways. What is socially acceptable to discuss continues to become narrower. And in the 1970’s or 80’s, contestants on Family Feud would have been much more likely to acknowledge the basic, glaring fact that plenty of homosexuals live in San Francisco.
Despite their various offenses, I remain a fan of Baldwin and Sheen’s work, and even Polanski’s, whose latest film “The Ghost Writer” is a solid political thriller. The same goes for Gibson and I would like to see more out of this great actor and director. His language in that phone call was deplorable, but far worse is his treatment of women, something that hasn’t seemed to affect the careers of many of his Hollywood brethren.
At root, political correctness represents a political morality—something that continues to trump old-fashioned, conventional morality in the most bizarre ways imaginable.