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Critical engagement

Critical engagement

Critical engagement

17 April 2018

Photo: Heather Mount

By Amanda Merrett

Over dinner with a good friend last week, I light-heartedly shared how my housemates and I were in a very healthy stand-off over dishes left in the kitchen sink. I used the phrase “Mexican stand-off” as an illustration of the situation, but later thought to myself, “is that a racist phrase?”

A quick search of the internet revealed that the use of “Mexican” within the phrase is derogatory – it makes assumptions about the intelligence and stubbornness of Mexican people. At risk of being politically correct, I made a mental note to avoid using the phrase.

Political correctness – the idea that individuals should avoid offensive comments and behaviours, particularly to those from minority and disadvantaged groups – seems to have made a resurgence in our political and social arenas in the last few years. There have been many stories that have attracted the attention of those on both sides of the politically correct debate.

Among them was the response last year to the Victorian Education Department releasing its Respectful Relationships program. In the curriculum, it was suggested that there should be a critical engagement with fairy tales and any lessons or themes that emerge from them. Mainstream media outlets reacted strongly, reporting that fairy tales would be axed from schools. Cries of “political correctness gone mad” rang out across the state. But bear with me as I pull apart some of the themes within the Disney fairy tales many have grown up watching:

• Ariel (my childhood favourite) gives up her voice – her skills and achievements – to chase after a prince she has never actually had a conversation with.

• Belle is held hostage by an angry and violent Beast, but they eventually fall in love. This normalises a dangerous idea that a man’s aggressive behaviour can be affectionate.

• What may be seen as Aurora’s saving kiss is also physical contact without consent.

• Snow White seeks shelter from the evil queen in a house of seven men, where she takes on the role of house-mother, cooking and cleaning for them and simultaneously reinforcing the idea of male helplessness and the gendered role of housework.

In many of the early fairy tales, the princesses’ storyline is to fall in love, and only then will they live happily ever after. The women are passive, often a damsel in distress; they are valued for their physical appearance rather than intelligence. Their relationships with other women are bitter or estranged; female characters are seen as a threat rather than an ally.

I am not suggesting that love and relationships are bad, but what I am suggesting is that for years women have been constructed as objects, in need of saving, only valued when alongside a man. These themes are retold in many fairy tales that children grow up reading. They are values that harm men and women, and contribute to gender inequality. Ultimately, they are not just stories read before bed; they are narratives that shape our social relationships and our values.

As Christians who seek first the Kingdom of God and value human flourishing, why wouldn’t we want to critically engage with these themes? The core of political correctness is not that we would blindly embrace all cries to be politically correct, or even that we would stop offending people; it is that we would stop reinforcing power dynamics that insist on the worthlessness of particular people. It is essential that we critically engage and reect on the language we use. What does it reveal about the values we hold close to us? What are we trying to protect when we cry that something is too politically correct? Whose power are we trying to maintain?

When we claim that political correctness has gone too far, it is imperative to ask, “too far for who?” Too far for the women who have died at the hands of domestic violence? Too far for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have been campaigning to change the date of Australia Day since 1938? Too far for groups of colour who experience daily racism and discrimination?

As a Christian, I don’t want my language to demean and insult others; I don’t want my values to enforce stereotypes, insult people or deny the image of God in all individuals. We live in a fallen and broken world where systems work to oppress and exclude people. But God desires that all people flourish; that all people are given an opportunity to experience the Kingdom of God. We are invited to participate in this great work.

The next time there is a claim of political correctness gone too far, let’s gracefully ask, “does this usher in the Kingdom of God? Does this love? Does this include?

Amanda Merrett is Assistant to the Social Justice Secretary in the Australia Southern Territory.


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