A Vacation-Planning View of Political Correctness

Imagine, for a minute, that you have come to the United States as a tourist. You are from not-the-United-States, and you meet some friendly natives, or maybe you already knew some natives from when you both “studied” abroad in Barthelona. You tell these natives that, after a few days in [cosmopolitan East Coast city] you’re flying to Toledo, Ohio. If your relationship with the posited natives could be characterized as a deep, meaningful friendship built on a foundation of trust and honest exchange of views, then you might get, “Why on earth would you waste your time going there?” as a response, and really that is the only appropriate response to an itinerary which includes Toledo. But in general, my strong suspicion is that most people would say something to the effect of, “Interesting, I would not have guessed Toledo as a destination. Why did you choose to go there?”*

Now imagine, for a different minute, that you are an American tourist, visiting a country on the Balkan peninsula. Greece, maybe (though it really could be anywhere in the region). You meet some friendly natives, or maybe one of the people you’re traveling with is related to some. You tell these natives that, after a few days in Athens, you’re decamping to the mountains of Epirus, and not spending any time on one of the country’s more than 6,000 islands. No matter how your relationship with the posited natives could be characterized, they will respond with incredulity and the confident assertion that you are making a patently terrible decision, and they also might warn you to look out for Albanians, who are, as everyone knows, smelly and lazy and in the main not to be trusted.

I am, to be sure, painting with a very broad brush, and anyway these two interactions are only hypothetical. But they are illustrative of what I would suggest is a fairly real phenomenon, which is that, in the Balkans (and, one presumes, lots of other places – I got a taste of the same phenomenon traveling in Kenya earlier this year), nobody things twice about critiquing your travel plans based on an essentialist interpretation of the people who live in the places you’re going. By contrast, it is (for me at least – maybe I just hang out with the wrong people) very difficult to imagine hearing, “Oh don’t go there, the people are [derogatory characteristic],” in response to a stated itinerary in the U.S.**

There are surely many reasons for this (I won’t even begin to attempt an exhaustive analysis of them here) and I wonder if among them (in America at least) isn’t the country’s tradition of political correctness. It is a tradition which, in its most extreme forms, is rightfully despised as some combination of ludicrous and limiting, but surely there is a broad swathe of linguistic activity, blithe pronouncements about smelly Albanians included, that really shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilized society. Though she was writing more than five years ago about British politics, there is a universal applicability to the sentiment of this quotation from Polly Toynbee:

The phrase “political correctness” was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer, all those who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up. The politically correct society is the civilised society, however much some may squirm at the more inelegant official circumlocutions designed to avoid offence. Inelegance is better than bile.

Inelegance is indeed better than bile, and political incorrectness is “refreshingly honest” until it is not and all of a sudden the Greek restaurant owner’s willingness to tell you exactly what he thinks of your decision to eschew an island vacation has turned into a discourse on the perniciousness of the Jews or the problems inherent to a society like Albania’s in which just far too many people live in one house. It would be tempting to dismiss all of this as nothing more than empty rhetorical handwaving, except that people my age are reportedly the most tolerant generation of Americans ever. This could be a coincidence, but insofar as you believe things like racism or homophobia are socially conditioned and constructed, it could also in part be the result of a generation growing up in a society sensitive to the deleterious marginalizing effects engendered by even the most casual slurs. The only downside to all this tolerance is the dozens or even hundreds of ill-advised trips to Toledo tourists might make.

*This may be overly formal, but in general I think most people would be polite enough to respond with something other than “Toledo is a troubled, shrinking Rust Belt city and going there is a bad decision”
**This also may be entirely true in loads of other countries – I just don’t have the personal experience to comment one way or another. Don’t read this is a sneaky attempt at American exceptionalism