Posted in social justice

Political Correctness & the Importance of Understanding

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We don’t need “political correctness.” We need understanding, dialogue, and action.

First: What is political correctness?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary political correctness is: “conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated.”

I think an important thing to point out here is that identifying factors such as sex and race have become inherently political. This is a problem in it of itself: people’s mere existence has become controversial to the point where whether or not one believes it important to respect them is a question of politics.

Why are people offended?
Derogatory comments with histories rooted in oppression are ignorant of systems of inequality. I don’t condemn calling anyone names or insulting anyone based off of an identifying factor, but calling someone a cracker for being white does not bring back hundreds of years of stolen people, slavery, and lives lost. It is not because non-whites are “special snowflakes” who need to be treated better than everyone else. It is because history and oppression exist and those without privilege are forced to interact with that fact every day, whereas those with privilege can opt-out if they please. The simple fact is that power and history impact our lives today and the connotations that come with the language that we use, and I believe it is our responsibility as humans to be respectful of that and each other.

“Ok, so we stopped saying the offensive thing. Why isn’t that enough?”
The concept of “political correctness” I believe is a result of people wanting to be respectful but not understanding why things are or aren’t offensive. It is a whole phenomenon in which people tailor their vocabulary to what others tell them is the “right” way to speak without actually understanding why people feel that way and what the issue are that they are facing.

Nobody wants to be told what to say and what to not say, especially without an explanation, so this inevitably invites backlash. The problem is absolutely the people that people use offensive language, but the problem is also that some people who know better than to use it still don’t know why they shouldn’t be using it or know what struggles people that language affects are facing today. Many “allies” of various communities are in a space of being compliant, not in solidarity or in understanding.

Yes, “my friend who is a part of a certain community told me it offends them so I will no longer say that word” is an important, if not crucial, part of the puzzle. However, if it doesn’t go one step further, people aren’t actually learning why it’s not okay, why it’s hurtful, why it’s offensive- nothing is really going to change in the fight towards a more just society.  

I am not calling on the oppressed to educate the privileged, but the privileged to take a proactive step in educating themselves. If you really care about the person who told you not to say the word, figure out why they don’t think you should be saying it. Chances are, there’s a reason rooted in history and oppression that you either were never taught about or never understood the reality of. That history might be jarring and uncomfortable but sitting with that knowledge is what brings us together as people of different backgrounds and experiences.

The concept of “political correctness” does not invite dialogue, but rather ends it. It is never fun to have a conversation with someone or have someone else tell you why they think something you said is offensive, but when we call out our friends and ask them to challenge us, we grow. It’s okay to ask questions you think sound stupid, just try to ask them to Google or a friend and in a sensitive way. As long as everyone is coming from a place of respect and willingness to be educated, this dialogue is beneficial.

Dialogue is also important because not every term is a black-and-white “do not use” situation. There is a lot more grey area even within communities about how they want to be labelled and spoken about. For example, the term “queer.” I have friends who see it as an inclusive blanket term for the LGBT community, and also friends who don’t think anyone should use it to describe someone without that person’s explicit desire for them to do so. One of my friends who is very against the use of the word explained to me that it is because she grew up in a rural area in which queer was used as a slur to her when she was younger- it brings up very bad memories for her, and she’s not okay with people using it to describe her. On the other hand, many see it as a reclaimed term that serves as a helpful way to be all-encompassing of the community, and use it to be more inclusive than the LGBT acronym itself can be. Point is, we don’t necessarily understand people’s experiences and the language they prefer until we take a step further, until we ask questions and seek to understand the social injustices around us instead of simply following guidelines in order to be able to label ourselves as “not racist” or “not homophobic”. These waters aren’t always easy or straightforward to navigate, but they’re worth it. Not just to make others around us happy with us, but in order to be able to move towards creating in a society that truly treats people justly and equally based on identifying factors.

I believe most of us care about others, and thus, we need to understand the significance and context of the words that we use and don’t use. This education and dialogue elevates “political correctness” to understanding, solidarity, allyship, action, and eventually, change.

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Posted in social justice

Telling Diverse Mental Illness Stories & “To the Bone”

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TW: This post includes potential spoilers from the Netflix movie “To the Bone” and discusses aspects of and types of eating disorders as well as mentions depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and other mental illnesses.

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The other day, I caved and finally watched the new Netflix film “To the Bone”. As one could reasonably expect, it isn’t the worst movie ever depicting eating disorders but it’s also not perfect. I believe one of the most valuable conversations to come out of it is regarding the importance of telling different kinds of stories about eating disorders. “To the Bone” is just the latest in a long line of similar stories about eating disorders that focus on a white, dangerously thin, conventionally attractive, teenage woman who has been diagnosed with anorexia. This may capture a certain demographic that struggles with eating disorders at high rates, but does not paint a comprehensive picture of what it means to have an eating disorder. The vast majority of people who suffer from eating disorders are diagnosed either with binge eating disorder or OSFED/EDNOS, which contains eating disorders other than anorexia, bulimia, and binge. According to NEDA, three times as many people are diagnosed with binge eating disorder than are diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia combined. Still, typically binge eating disorder is either used as an offensive punchline or completely nonexistent in media. Further, people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and ages suffer from all kinds of mental illnesses. Where are the stories about binge eating disorder? Where are the stories about the people who aren’t white, aren’t teenagers, aren’t dangerously thin? Why aren’t these stories told?

In one of my favorite TED talks, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the dangerous of a “single story”. Adichie speaks from her perspective as a Nigerian woman and her experience with the American single story of what it means to be African. Her bottom line is: “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Mental illnesses are no different. Show eating disorders as white, young, starving, and pretty over and over again, and that is what it begins to mean to have an eating disorder.

There has been a growing movement demanding diverse stories in books, film, and television; demanding for people of color to create and headline movies and TV shows, for LGBT characters to be more prevalent and less dead, and for the general inclusion of more diverse characters as main characters instead of punchlines and sidekicks. People are demanding for media to stop adhering to inaccurate stereotypes and to challenge preconceived notions. This challenge should also apply to the media depicting mental illnesses.

Anorexia in the way experienced by characters like Eli is in some ways “glamorous” as far as eating disorders go. She simply doesn’t eat, and as a result, is dangerously thin. This is not the reality of eating disorders for most people who suffer from them, but it is the sick “goal” for many. This is a problem because people who are slipping into a bad place or who are already there may aspire to be like Eli and may think that they aren’t sick because they don’t look like or act like Eli. It perpetuates the idea that only people who are so thin you can see all of their bones need help. It prevents both people who are struggling and people who are afraid their friends or family are struggling from gaining a more fully accurate depiction of what eating disorders look like. The ability of a film about eating disorders to achieve it’s goal- to expand the conversation and awareness to help guide people towards recovery- is severely hampered by the single story that is created in these depictions.

To be fair, diverse stories are explored a little bit in the inpatient facility during “To the Bone”. There is one woman of color who is gay and is alluded to suffer from binge eating disorder, as well as one man, who seems to serve the purpose of the romantic subplot more than creating a different narrative. There is some insight into characters who struggle with binging and/or purging, mentioned mostly in passing. The film did not completely forget that all people with eating disorders aren’t the same, but regardless, the efforts to showcase diverse experiences are minimal and arguably rather ineffective.

This is not just an issue with depiction of eating disorders. The image of the someone who abuses substances is male and low-income. The image of someone with depression is a middle-aged women who never gets out of bed. The image of someone who self-harms is a white teenage girl who wears black all the time and listens to heavy metal. We are not getting the full picture of mental illnesses that exist or ways they are experienced, not even close.

For the sake of people who have struggled with these illnesses and those close to them who would like to help them, it is imperative that we begin to tell different kinds of stories about mental illnesses and expand upon the single stories we have created.