What Kim Kardashian, Nike and the Dalai Lama’s bowing to political correctness says about censorship in the Information Age.
Yesterday, I spoke with my dad who lives in Singapore. I live in Hong Kong, where local protestors had recently broken into and vandalized the legislative council building to show their displeasure at the Hong Kong government’s pro-China stance. A fortnight before, I had written a story about why Hongkongers aren’t happy with China’s influence, which was published in Medium’s GEN on June 20. Within two weeks, 1.7 thousand readers had viewed the article, including my dad who found it through my Facebook post. He did not approve of the content, and told me that I shouldn’t share my opinions so openly. He warned me to be careful less I incite the wrath of China officials who might dispatch operatives to Hong Kong to kidnap me, take me to China, and “punish” me for speaking negatively about the Chinese government. Of course this is a highly unlikely scenario. I knew my dad was just being paranoid, and also that this was his way of showing his concern for me with a little humor. I rolled my eyes as I listened to him nag, but coming from Singapore — a nation that’s ranked 151 in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, two spots below Russia, and where political dissidence isn’t well tolerated — I understood why my dear dad would think this way.
Press censorship in Singapore is a topic that’s been discussed in hushed tones for as long as I can remember, and though not overt, Singaporeans like myself know that you shouldn’t shout too loudly about the shortcomings of the nation’s ruling People’s Action Party. Though we’ve learned to live with it, I was so confounded by the subject of press freedom, or rather the lack of it, in my home country that the topic of my dissertation as a journalism student was titled “Lee Kuan Yew, Lessons from History: A Defence of the Singapore Press”. I didn’t begin with a plan to defend censorship in Singapore, but as I did my research, I found mounting evidence as to why it made sense — in the context of a post-colonial, multi-cultural, island-state beginning its first leg of independence — for Singapore to reign in the powers of its Fourth Estate. In due course, I discovered one of the main reasons why censorship isn’t contended as much as one imagines it would be in a developed, forward-thinking city like Singapore – the majority of Singaporeans are willing accomplices to the government through a public consensus of self-censorship.
Singaporeans support their government because we feel it is our moral responsibility to keep alternative views at bay. This responsibility is carried out by censoring of self, as well as others in the family, school or work place through a form of chastising not unlike what my father did with me. “Social pressure can be used to stigmatize certain questions and beliefs. It can be used to make them seem embarrassing or even shameful” writes author Stephen Law in “The War for Children’s Minds”. In Singapore, some of the strongest measures of censorship are not carried out directly by politicians, but rather by parents (like my dad), those in “middle-management”, and other community or industry leaders who take it upon themselves to be gatekeepers of their societies. The censors, according to James Gomez, author of “Self-censorship:Singapore’s Shame” are “ordinary citizens who second-guess the desire of the political authorities based on their own calculations, to censure and contain political expression”.
When I interviewed Singapore’s former Solicitor General and political exile Francis Seow in Boston for my dissertation, he said that self-censorship [defined by Merriam-Webster as the exercising of control over what one says and does, especially to avoid criticism] “is the most insidious type of censorship”.
Not all self-censorship however, is done to placate political authorities. In the digital age, a new, more amorphous and subtle form of self-censorship is being encouraged through the indiscriminate shaming of public figures for political incorrectness.
From equal opportunity to eco-consciousness, from Corporate Social Responsibility to the necessity of gender-neutral words (not mankind, but humankind, not craftsman anymore but craftsperson), the media has been reiterating messages about “attitudinal appropriateness”. Because of this subliminal conditioning, we end up censoring ourselves not out of fear of political punishment, but because we want to be seen in good light. We want to be seen as people fighting the good fight, and for most of the educated world, this fight involves championing the democratic principals of citizen participation in political and public life, free opposition to authority, and equal rights for all.
Over the last two weeks, events in the news involving Kim Kardashian, the Dalai Lama and Nike had me thinking about how political correctness can make us all accomplices to censorship.
Donald Trump, who has had the audacity to publicly used terms like “lowlife” and “animals” to describe non-whites, and “fat pig” and “horseface” to describe women, and who has referred to nations in Africa, Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole countries” takes political incorrectness to its extreme. This has no doubt created an atmosphere of heightened public sensitivity to anything that might be construed as an attack against ethnic minorities or women. While it seems fair that blatantly offensive behavior and comments from leaders and celebrities deserve criticism, in the last two weeks, debatably innocuous actions from Kim Kardashian and Nike, and words from the Dalai Lama have also come under fire. This makes me wonder if we’re taking “being PC” a little too far.
Kim Kardashian has dropped Kimono as the brand name for her new shapewear line because she received too much backlash from the Japanese and other users on social media. Kardashian was accused of cultural appropriation.
Speaking to the BBC recently, the Dalai Lama, when asked about the prospect of a future female Dalai Lama and his own possible reincarnation as a woman joked, “If a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive.” He received flak for this, and was pegged by the media as sexist and superficial. In response to negative public perception, his office issued this apology: “It sometimes happens that off the cuff remarks, which might be amusing in one cultural context, lose their humor in translation when brought into another. [The Dalai Lama] regrets any offence that may have been given.”
As a Singaporean Chinese living in Hong Kong, I understand the cultural nuances of such a joke when made by elderly Asian males whose first language isn’t English. What I heard in that comment was a self-depreciating jest: “If a female Dalai Lama comes, she should be more attractive [than me, because I’m just a unattractive old man, and people will pay more attention to attractive females, and thus Tibetan Buddhist teachings].”
A day before the Fourth of July, Nike withdrew their new line of special edition trainers with the old American Revolution, Betsy Ross flag, because Nike-sponsored NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick said the flag was offensive because of its associaton with the era of slavery in America. Twitter users added that the flag had been used by white nationalists. Nike recalled the shoes, reporting that they were concerned “it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday”. Republican Arizona governor Doug Ducey who had planned to give Nike $1m to open up a factory that would create an estimated 500 jobs, reacted to Nike’s recall by withdrawing this funding, and tweeted: “Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation’s independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism.” A week before this, Nike had pulled out another line of limited edition shoes in China. In this instance, it was because the Japanese designer who created the shoe was seen sharing his support of the Hong Kong protests on Instagram.
“#MeToo”, “racism”, “homophobic”, “culture wars” and “cultural appropriation” have more clout than ever before, in part due to the Trump era political divide, and in part due to the overuse of these terms on the web and social media. While public opinion always matters because it holds those in power accountable, in the hands of a hypersensitive, undiscerning and overly-judgy crowd, political incorrectness becomes a cudgel used too lightly for unnecessary shaming.
Will a 1,200 year old, Japanese cultural attire be viewed differently or forgotten if a Hollywood celebrity adds “ono” to her own name as the brand for her line of shapewear? Will a few hundred people (the exact number of shoes planned for the release is not known) walking around with Betsy Ross flags on their limited edition sneakers incite racial unrest? Is an 83-year-old spiritual leader humorously stating the truth about the attention-grabbing power of attractive women really that offensive?
These days, the media and Internet trolls seem all too eager to find targets that allow them to jump up on their soap boxes in the name of political correctness. Public consensus is crucial for calling out leaders who are abusing their powers, but when taken too far, a world constrained by political correctness can be an unpleasant one. Un-PC shaming has the potential to breed social paranoia, which in turn erodes the spirit of honest and authentic communication between individuals, and between the public and its political, creative, industry, and thought leaders. Instead of being candid and creative, those in the public eye will have work harder at presenting “acceptable” public personas rather than on improving what they do, and how they actually contribute to their respective fields of work. They’ll have to spend more time thinking about how to please a crowd who are bouncing rocks in their hands. Over time, this could create a throwback to a culture of witch-hunting and hypervigilance, where we have to constantly look over our shoulders, and where self-censorship controls more aspects of our lives than we’d like.
Despite my father’s concerns about me being abducted and “punished” by Chinese officials, I have not felt the need to apologize or retract my story in GEN. Kardashian, the Dalai Lama and Nike on the other hand, all very quickly succumbed to pressure from the media and angry commentators when accused of being politically incorrect. It seems to me that un-PC shaming does a quicker job keeping individuals and businesses in line than threats from authoritarian governments. Political censorship is no doubt harmful, but so is an overly sensitive public who can’t tell the difference between an elephant and an ant.
Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”