Political Correctness

When Beatlemania Is a Microaggression…

It is time to rejoice, for all our troubles are so far away...


Over at National Review, Kat Timpf (also a featured panelist on Greg Gutfeld's Saturday night Fox News show), relates a tale that sums up the low stakes of much debate over political correctness, microaggressions, and the like.

Forget about mediocre ethnic food served up in cafeterias, claiming that "America is the land of opportunity," or saying yoga is yoga, rather than "mindful stretching."

It's Beatlemania that is culturally insensitive and intolerant. Psychology professor Adam J. Rodriguez of California's Notre Dame de Namaur University tells the story of a friend who "is a really, really big Beatles fan" and "insisted that I dedicate time to listen to them."

Summarizes Timpf:

Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican, explained that his friend was part of "the dominant culture" that makes people Beatles fans — and the fact that he dared to criticize Rodriguez for not being one was insensitive and meant he just didn't recognize the "power and privileges" he had as a white dude that Rodriguez did not have.

"All cultures contain within them many subcultures, with one cultural dimension often dominant," Rodriguez wrote. "When one is a member of the dominant culture, that person enjoys particular power and privileges, including the freedom to not have to consider other perspectives."…

According to Rodriguez, his friend was just not culturally literate enough to realize that while he "grew up a white middle-class male in the 70s and 80s, to parents who grew up on the Beatles," Rodriguez grew up "a Puerto Rican lower-class male in the 80s whose parents played guajira, salsa, and Motown/classic R&B/soul."

Timpf's piece is here. Rodriguez originally wrote his article in October for Psyched in San Francisco and it was reprinted a few weeks ago at The Huffington Post. He explains further:

My lack of interest in [the Beatles'] music could only be understood by [my friend] as psychopathology. I was flawed….

Note though that I do have a historical appreciation for the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Andy Warhol and The Great Gatsby. This is because these are important cultural elements of the dominant culture within which I live. Oscar Hernandez, James Jamerson, and Hunger of Memory are not part of the dominant culture in the same ways. This dynamic occurs in many situations: The person from the non-dominant culture is knowledgeable in dominant culture ideals and values, but the person from the dominant culture is not conversant in aspects of the non-dominant culture. For example, at the playground, heteronormative parents playfully ask my 3-year-old if he "has a girlfriend yet" despite the fact that I truly do not know what my son's sexual orientation, or gender identification for that matter, is and will be. Because the dominant group's perspective is vast institutionally reinforced, this can lead to others feeling excluded, other, or "less than."

There is an implication of a paradigm of normality, and when someone does not fit into that paradigm, it can be uncomfortable for that person, especially if they are dismissed because of their difference like I was.

Read more here.

For the record, I sympathize completely with Rodriguez regarding his opinion of the Beatles, whom I've long seen as a plague upon pop music and generational equity. I'm also willing to stand toe to toe with anyone when it comes to knowing every stupid detail of the Fab Four's history (for an excellent Reason story about why the Beatles remain so popular, go here).

And as the child of parents raised in immigrant households in the 1920s and '30s, I also have a strong sense of how dominant cultures can oppress newcomers even when they are relatively welcoming and ultimately accomodating to all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. For the record, my parents had no appreciation for or understanding of the Beatles, either. Indeed, when I came home from a late night the evening that John Lennon had been shot, my father told me that "one of those Beatles had been killed." When I asked which one, he shrugged and said, "Not the one with the nose, the one with the wife."

To be sure, Rodriguez's friend, like all friends who have a band or performer they absoutely insist that YOU MUST LOVE, sounds like a real pain in the ass (however well-meaning he might be).

What bothers me ultimately in all this is the sheer banality and humorlessness of Rodriguez's complaint, the hypersensitivity to real and imagined slights, especially at a time when the most serious and punishing forms of racism and cultural insensitivity have mostly been vanquished from everyday society. Which isn't to say everything is peachy. I suspect he would agree with me that the drug war continues at least in part because of institutional racism that views black and dark-skinned casualties as less worth of concern than, say, Al Gore's son. Immigration policy has always been influenced by manifest and latent racial prejudice and that certainly still is the case. White Americans tolerate and even insist on maintaining godawful urban public schools because the mostly minority kids who go there don't matter to them (this is changing, of course, and many advocates of school choice talk about the issue as the civil rights struggle of our day). And on and on.

Yet on virtually every level, things are vastly different than they were when, say, my Italian relatives in the '30s and '40s were dismissed out of hand as not being college material due to their ethnicity and lower-class status. If you're getting that bent out of shape because your friend (friend!) is forcing you to listen to the French horn solo on "For No One" or pretend that "Revolution 9" doesn't totally suck, you've got nothing left to complain about. And that's not even addressing the fact that knowing both dominant-culture codes and non-dominant-culture mores clearly gives a person more ways to operate within a given system. 

When you go back and read Hunger of Memory, the great 1980s memoir by Richard Rodriguez name-checked by Adam Rodriguez, being forced to listen to the Beatles as the result of an overzealous friend isn't the heart of the matter. Richard Rodriguez, whose books and essays explore what it means to be Mexican American, working class, smart, gay, Catholic, and more was pilloried for questioning bilingual education and affirmative action quotas in higher education. A thoughtful progressive, he told Reason in a 1994 interview that there existed a serious resistance on the left to actual diversity of thought:

What people mean by multiculturalism is different hues of themselves. They don't mean Islamic fundamentalists or skinheads. They mean other brown and black students who share opinions like theirs. It isn't diversity. It's a pretense to diversity. And this is an exposure of it—they can't even tolerate my paltry opinion.

There has never been less of a dominant monoculture than ever before and there has never been as open a standing invitation to open people's minds to what you like, care about, and think is totally fab and gear. Without a doubt, there are people who are convinced and terrified that the world they grew up is in its death throes (watch this if you don't believe me), which only underscores the point that the mainstream has shrunk since the mid-'90s when we talked with Rodriguez, much less 1970, when the Beatles broke up (thank you for that, Yoko Ono, thank you, thank you, thank you). From that 1994 interview again:

Most people tend to use culture in a static sense—he represents this culture and I represent this culture. I think culture is much more fluid and experiential. I belong to many cultures. I've had many cultural experiences. And the notion that I've lost my culture is ludicrous. because you can't lose a culture. You can change a culture in your lifetime. as in fact most of us do. I'm not my father. I didn't grow up in the state of Colima in Western Mexico. I grew up in California in the 1950s. The notion that I've lost his culture is, of course, at some level true, but not interesting. The interesting thing is that my culture is I Love Lucy.

For the perpetually aggrieved, time has stood still as it did for Miss Havisham and they mistake the current moment, which has different problems and advantages and contexts, for a past whose issues and indignities no longer pertain in the same way. The hunt is always afoot not for moving to a future that is open-ended, inclusive, and far more interesting and innovative than the present but for reviving and maintaining grievances, no matter how trivial and inconsequential. And in the grand scheme of things, there are far worse things to deal with than having to brush off questions about your toddler's sexuality or suffering through "Octopus' Garden."

In 2014, Reason TV talked with some of the students responsible for instituting "trigger warnings" at University of California at Santa Barbara. Take a look: