In the past few months, I’ve become acquainted with a 20-something Chinese woman, Ms. Yu, who is studying at the University of Michigan. Ms. Yu is smart, very observant of things American and speaks English with fluency and elegance.
Shortly after the election, I asked her to write up her impressions. As a Chinese national, she comes from a country that has developed its own authoritarian system of politics and governance and a heavily censored media. I found her comments on American politics both illuminating and thought-provoking:
“For the most part of 2016, I have been tiptoeing around the topic of the election, because such a discussion could easily trigger painful feelings or descend into a bitter quarrel,” she wrote.
“This campaign has pushed me to re-examine two concepts, the freedom of speech and political correctness. The heavily censored Chinese media is certainly not conducive to a well-informed citizenry, but I doubt freedom of speech alone is a sufficient solution to the problem. There is no doubt that media has contributed to the widening chasm between the left and right in the U.S. …
“It is too easy for people to cherry-pick a narrative that affirms (any particular) belief. The increasing dependence on social media exacerbates the selection bias. On Facebook, everyone has the power to silence a ‘friend’ who holds dissenting views.”
My Chinese friend is onto something important.
Years ago, in the days when the national media held sway, people read newspapers and watched TV newscasts that included a mix of items, some of which might be favorable to Republicans, some to Democrats. But citizens learned about both sets of views -- and thereby came to see that all the answers aren’t necessarily supplied by one party or any single ideology.
These days, social media exaggerates differences and conflict, as individuals are empowered to self-select the particular slant they wish to consume, thereby confirming their biases … and setting off heated emotional discussions around the Thanksgiving table.
In post-election Michigan, we seem to have separated into various tribes – urban/minority, rural, suburban, working class, conservatives and liberals or progressives of various stripes.
Each seems to be circling uneasily around the center of public space that formerly allowed constructive public discourse. When opinions are free and buttressed by mutually respected facts, conversations often wind up illuminating rather than concealing important political truths. Not so much these days.
My Chinese friend went on to discuss political correctness: “I am infuriated when the freedom of speech is used as a shield for hate speech. A speech should never be protected by the First Amendment if it strikes fear into a community. Just on Wednesday morning (the day after the election) violent hatred messages were painted on the Rock, a University of Michigan landmark on campus.”
She felt, not unreasonably, that “it is urgent that officials on both local and federal level take preventive instead of responsive measures to ensure community members’ safety.” But Ms. Yu added, “I think it would be wrong to overlook the role of political correctness when trying to comprehend (Donald) Trump’s victory.
“I came to the U.S. knowing little about the country’s social and political realities, and I learned to be mindful about political correctness the hard way. The obsession with political correctness is dangerous because it silences people across the board … by embodying the antithesis of political correctness, Trump unmuted the Americans who oppose progressive liberalism and wakened others who had their hands buried under the sand.”
For myself, I remember a waiter in a restaurant in what is sometimes wryly called “the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor” who described to me a dish of lamb stew as “politically incorrect lamb … but good though.” As a critic of political correctness, Trump yanked the bandage of ideological conformity off many discussions.
Frankly, confirmed liberals, of all people, should be sensitive to the ways excessive political correctness covers up what should be a wide search for truth and acknowledge the need for the free-form discussions that help reveal it.
A great deal of post-election chatter here in Michigan has to do with partisanship -- and not much with the larger agenda of trying to make Michigan a better place for everybody. Relying on the current political system of various tribes helps assure that it will be very difficult to develop and explain a road map for improvement -- thereby locking us all into the same vicious circle.
By focusing on freedom of speech and political correctness, my Chinese friend put her finger on two important parts of the current dilemma facing us in Michigan, something many of us may be too close to see. Listening to thoughtful comments from overseas visitors may just be an excellent place to start the process of reexamination --and then healing.