Last weekend I had the opportunity to go home and volunteer at a drama festival I had participated in throughout all of high school. Drama fest was the highlight of my high school experience. I loved performing plays for other schools and being exposed to both good theater and horrendously awful theater. I loved seeing schools tackle challenging shows like The Laramie Project and do plays about controversial subjects like suicide and rape. And while I may not have always left the theater feeling particularly uplifted or happy, I left understanding the world and the people in it a little better.
As a volunteer at the festival, I was able to go behind the scenes and interact with the show directors as well as the competition judges. I listened to the show directors talk about how passionate they were about their plays and hear the judges explain the logistics of the event. And while I enjoyed most of it, I did find something slightly disturbing. When it came to show disclaimers, the judges said that any students who might find the show’s subject matter triggering or upsetting were allowed to skip the show with no questions asked. I’m sure that this is a policy that was in place when I was in high school, but I had never thought of the possibility that teenagers could possibly find any show controversial enough to pass on it.
When I was volunteering I noticed that a few students had skipped one play in particular, a one act about eating disorders, bullying, and suicide. And as I watched them goof off, I couldn’t help but feel like they were missing out on some kind of learning experience and that they used the PC excuse to get out of having to sit through another play. And that angered me immensely. It made me question the entire policy and made me want to roll my eyes at the adults who have babied and sheltered these kids to the extreme.
I want to state clearly that I don’t disagree with political correctness. In fact, I often think the people who bash political correctness do so as a way of justifying racism and other demeaning remarks. But at the same time, I’m a firm believer in exposing people to the reality of the world. Just because a kid skips a show about suicide or rape doesn’t mean that suicide or rape magically stops existing. And I do understand that for some people those subjects hit so close to home that they’re better to avoid. But what about the people who avoid talking about such things just because they don’t want to bother with the uncomfortable reality of the world? What does that say about them?
In elementary and middle school I was bullied because I was the fat, weird, potentially gay kid. I was called pretty much every name in the book and I often hated myself more than I care to admit. I was fortunate enough to have a strong enough support system, however, so I never let the words beat me down. And I do think to an extent that I am a stronger person because of it. I like to believe that my sense of humor stems from my resilience and ability to survive in a world that sometimes treats me more as an inconvenience than a person.
My experiences have taught me that bad things exist whether or not we choose to talk about them. And I think when we avoid them we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow. When we avoid uncomfortable moments we not only miss moments of potential empathetic learning but we leave ourselves more vulnerable to the ugliness around us. I think we need to acknowledge that there are shitty things out there. We need to acknowledge racism, homophobia, sexism, classicism- all of it. We need to tell people to quit hiding behind the wall of political correctness and stand confidently in the world. Because if you’re a gay person who only interacts with other gay people, chances are you won’t be prepared for the moment when you’re alone with a straight person who is just dying to call you a faggot. And while you may feel slightly powerful whenever you have the opportunity to police someone for their lack of political correctness, you won’t feel as powerful when you’re in a situation where no such political correctness exists.
Because at the end of the day political correctness is a social construct. What’s okay to say today will be considered politically incorrect tomorrow. And we can either pretend that the world is all sunshine and rainbows and avoid the truth, or we can live happy lives in spite of that darkness. We can either sit through that play about suicide and leave feeling distressed but more enlightened, or we can skip the play and leave the same clueless person we’ve always been. Growing up is painful and people can be awful, but its the bad moments in life that make the good ones seem so good. People will always have something nasty to say, that’s how the world works. And when people say nasty things to us we can do one of two things: we can stick our fingers in our ears and scream “LA LA LA” until our voice breaks or we can say “I am strong” and take what they have to say head on.
I know that there are people who need a safe space to go to escape the politically incorrect world we live in. Kids who are called faggot on a daily basis need to go a place where that world is completely outlawed. I understand that. But at the same time instead of hiding people from words we need to equip them with better ways of dealing with them. Instead of policing people over what they can and cannot say, we need to have friends and allies stand beside us when we end up in toxic situations. Instead of hiding in a room where everyone thinks the same, we need to go out into the world and open ourselves to the good and bad of it all. Because, like the great songstress Taylor Swift one said, “he haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate/ Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake/I shake it off, I shake it off”