Michael Pattwell: No offence... but has political correctness gone a bit too far?

Let us not be so unreasonably thin-skinned, so says Michael Pattwell in his weekly column.
Michael Pattwell: No offence... but has political correctness gone a bit too far?

CONTROVERSY:Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come under fire for his ‘brownface’ appearance at a party in 2001.

A NEWSPAPER article last week had me quite flummoxed. My first reaction was: “Dear ***, how far more must we go down Nonsense Road?”

I was going to use the ‘God’ word but thought better of it because I’d surely be attacked for using the word — or for saying anything that might be regarded as supporting religion — in the face of the unbelievers who might read this column.

In any event, the article I refer to began with the following:

“Recently surfaced photos of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface while at an ‘Arabian Nights’ party in 2001 are disturbing on a number of levels.

“First, if you’ll allow me to point out the obvious, Trudeau is the only person in make-up! The other partygoers who are pictured are barely costumed, yet Trudeau looks like he just walked out of an old Tintin comic book as the stereotypical Arab villain.

“It doesn’t end there. The make-up that Trudeau is wearing in the photos is not limited to his face but is liberally applied across his breastbone and completely covers his hands. Imagine how much thought and action (and make-up!) must have gone into planning and painting young Justin Trudeau brown.”

In the name of ***! Oops! I nearly said it again. The man was attending an Arabian Nights party and what could possibly be wrong with dressing and making up to play a role?

It seems they then unearthed two more photos in which Trudeau made himself up in a blackface. They then come to the conclusion that the Canadian PM “seems to have a blackface/brownface problem”.

The author of the article, Moustafa Bayoumi, concludes that what such racial pantomimes do is “exaggerate the distance between white people and non-white people for the amusement of the dominant culture. Nothing underlines whiteness more than a white person temporarily and exaggeratedly leaving whiteness behind and acting like a person of some other race.”

Bayoumi is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and the author of some award-winning books, including, How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror.

He goes on to assert that ”racial pantomimes are not really about costumes or humor but are about power, the power to degrade the people of another race, the power to ridicule the manners of another ethnicity, and the power to make racism look like it’s all just good fun.”

I can only say, Lighten up, for ***’* (OOPS!) sake. I can’t help wondering who. exactly, has “a blackface/brownface problem”.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised really. It is over 40 years now since a very popular light entertainment and variety show (it was also a popular stage show), The Black and White Minstrel Show — which presented traditional American minstrel and country songs, as well as show tunes and music hall numbers, and with lavish costumes — went off the air after a 20-year run on BBC television. It was accused of racism and ethnic stereotyping by black anti-racist groups in the UK, such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, due to its use of black faces.

In its day, it had also been copied by numerous amateur groups all over the world. During its run, by 1964, the show was achieving viewing figures of 21 million.

The Minstrels also had a theatrical show at the Victoria Palace Theatre which ran for 6,477 performances from 1962 to 1972 and established itself in The Guinness Book of Records as the stage show seen by the largest number of people.

I wonder do real barbers feel humiliated when “barber-shop singers” put on a show.

The questions must be asked:

1. Othello, in the play of that name, is a black-skinned moor even though his military skill takes him to the centre of Venetian society. Can Othello ever again be played by a white man or if he is, must there be no hint that Othello was written into dramatic history as a black man?

2. Must The Merchant of Venice, before it is ever again put on, be amended to omit any suggestion that Shylock was a Jew?

3. In another Shakesspeare play, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare relies on racial stereotypes. Aaron’s blackness is associated with evil, maliciousness and barbarity. In the same play, when Tamora, queen of the Goths, rejects her own baby because he is black, she does no favours to the Goth people, of which she is one. What amendments must be made to The Bard’s work before Titus Andronicus can be put on again?

4. I have seen the character Pats Bocock from John B. Keane’s, Sive, played by a lame and deformed man. ‘Bocock’ derives from the Irish word for ‘lame’ — ‘bacach’. Must producers of Sive be more careful in future not to insult a member of the audience who might be lame or deformed?

5. In Sharon’s Grave, in writing a character such as Dinzie Conlee, the sex-crazed cripple, carried on the shoulders of his brother, did Keane again overstep the mark?

6. Should McDonagh have written The Cripple of Inis Meain?

7. Should every play or movie in which a person who stammers features be banned? That would include The King’s Speech.

I, as someone who has stammered for most of my life, would say, ‘No, of course not’. Stammering, like deformity, racial features and skin colour, are facts of life. They exist and go towards making up the whole person. Life itself is a drama and such people, because of one of those features, are often likely to be part of it.

I don’t know much about Justin Trudeau, except what I read on the papers or see on the television news. He appears to be a successful and popular prime minister. Must a bit of harmless play-acting now be used to try to damage him politically? I think not.

It seems to me we are going through a very liberal era. We have seen changes to what would have been regarded as ‘the rules of normal society’ that we, in my generation, could never have imagined. Constitutional changes on divorce, abortion, same-sex relationships, including marriage, the removal of ‘the special position of the Catholic Church’ have all been proposed and accepted.

Apart from the constitutional changes, other aspects of life have changed too; it is no longer a sin against society for a single woman to keep and rear her child; nobody blinks an eye now when a couple decide to set up home together without formally marrying.

The people have accepted all of these things, though it must be remembered that individual people find it difficult to accept some of them. I, for example, cannot accept abortion but that is my opinion, just as other people don’t accept the liberalisation of other aspects of life.

What troubles me is that the so-called liberals are very vociferous in calling for the establishment of ‘rights’ but very slow to recognise that others have the right, just as the liberals have, to voice their opinions and even to be active in campaigning for what they believe in.

If I were to write one of my columns opposing, say, abortion or gay marriage, I would be subjected to the most vile attacks, particularly by what we have come to know as ‘trolls’. (I have seen ‘troll’ defined as “a person who starts quarrels or upsets people on the internet to distract and sow discord by posting inflammatory and digressive, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community.”)

The whole question of being politically correct (P.C.), it seems to me, is sometimes over-emphasised. Dressing and making up as another person without the intention of hurting or insulting another individual or group cannot be such a big sin that it should be used to challenge a prime minister.

While it could, of course, be used to purposely hurt a person I think that would be quite obvious to any intelligent observer.

Most public figures will at some time or another become the victim of expert mimics. The Healy-Rae politicians are prime examples.

On the last Friday of each month, Joe Duffy has his ‘Funny Friday’ programme in which public figures, including prominent politicians, are unmercifully mimicked. I have never heard of any of them objecting.

Let us not be so unreasonably thin-skinned.

Contact Michael at pattwellsverdict@eircom.net

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