Political Correctness

Outrage Over Children's Book Parody Will Simply Feed Culture War Further

The cure for bad speech is more speech. The cure for bad jokes is … maybe better jokes?


Book cover

When I was in high school back in the 1980s the original "political correctness" and the "political incorrectness" backlash appeared to arrive nearly simultaneously. We had language policing (in a way that seems tame compared to what's going on now), and in defiance, the likes of Andrew Dice Clay.

Bookstores openly carried collections of "politically incorrect" joke books about various ethnicities and cultural subgroups that were both terribly popular and based on offensive stereotypes. I remember reading one joke from a book a student had brought with him to class about Mexicans, only to be told by a fellow student (who was Mexican) that it was terribly racist. That was the end of my adventures with those books, but they persisted for a while as an open show of opposition to the leftist academic push for more cultural sensitivity.

It's worth reminding that what's going on culturally right now with politically correct language police is hardly new, nor is a defensive embrace of the deliberately offensive. Today there's an outrage story about an offensive (to some) book, but it has some new millennium twists.

I have no idea how many people would have heard of Bad Little Children's Books before it became the focus of the latest outrage. The "book" is a series of parodies of children's book covers. They're deliberately designed to be offensive. According to the publisher, Abrams, and the book's author, under the pen name of the fictitious Arthur C. Gackley, the offensive covers were designed to mock "biases, stereotypes, and intolerance through the prism of questionable taste and dark humor."

We can guess what happened when social media got their hands on it. Individual book covers were shared separately from the totality of the book, and whatever "goal" the author might have intended with the parodies was lost.

But without defending the outrage-o-holics, it is really, really, really, really easy to misconstrue this "satire" as Clay-style "politically incorrect" jokes. Here's the parody cover that probably drew the most outrage:

book cover

It would not be so terribly unreasonable to look at that parody cover and assume that its creator was actually intending for the joke to pander in anti-Muslim stereotypes, not to mock them.

Abrams initially defended the book, but the author has decided to ask them to stop publishing the book. Abrams agreed.

In another time, this book would have simply wallowed and died in the highly oversaturated novelty market, all those little highly disposable "humor" books sold on the cheap. Frankly, it's surprising that this Bad Little Children's Book is a book at all and not just a Tumblr account.

But now is the time for being loudly, publicly angry at things that are stupid and so we have a "It's Not Funny. It's Racist," from Kelly Jensen at BookRiot. That headline itself sounds like the punchline of a knock-knock joke designed to mock the politically correct crowd. Despite saying at the top that she finds "dark humor to be something wildly enjoyable," her snarky responses to each cover illuminating her distaste ("Parental alcohol abuse is, indeed, a barrel of laughs. Especially for children impacted by it.") suggests that, no, she doesn't find dark humor enjoyable at all.

Mind you, I don't find any of the covers funny either and agree with Jensen that this crap brings nothing new to the table, but I am not going to even feign clutching my pearls at the idea of finding humor in alcoholic mommies (and my mother was an actual addict). Once we veer into the ethnically insensitive stuff is when the outrage boils over:

It'd be easy for certain sectors of our culture to say that we're too concerned about being PC; that humor like this is meant to be a satire on how wound up we all are about being correct and kind toward people. The reality is we've never been that culture and we'll never be that culture — certainly, we'll never be that culture with a xenophobic, racist, misogynist talking Cheeto in the White House who wants to begin a Muslim registry and who has incited violence, hatred, and bigotry to spread unabashedly throughout the USA.

What looks like "humor" here is the reality of how a big swath of our society views humans who are not white and/or are Muslim and/or are in any other way "Other" from the white, privileged, cis-het, penis-bearing norm.

This "humor" adds to the misinformation, adds to the hatred, and ultimately, makes living in this society more frustrating, difficult, and dangerous for so many. And this "humor" is the kind of garbage that needs to be eliminated at all levels, particularly in publishing.

So by talking about the book in these terms, Jensen is ironically enough, putting out a battle-cry to draw the attention to Donald Trump's supporters and voters to defend the book, even though the book's own creator says the point of it was to mock those people.

There is a great discussion possible here about how hard it is to use visual language for satire or parody purposes in a heavily fragmented, digitized society where imagery gets taken apart distributed piecemeal, misrepresented (sometimes deliberately), and appropriated in different ways.

But we can't have a discussion like that when everybody is stuck in culture war signaling. Her demand that publishing bow to her views of what sort of humor should be in the world is particularly absurd. Right now just typing "politically incorrect jokes" at Amazon lands me eight pages of matches. And that's traditional publishing. With social media and self-publishing, everybody's a parodist.

Cultural outrage often encourages defensiveness, not analysis. Certainly the way Jensen has decided to describe American culture is absolutely not for the purposes of creating discussion or debate. The ultimate irony here is that she is helping create the audience for a type of work that she loathes. And ultimately she's likely to see more of it from people who are doing it just to spite her and people like her.