If Emily Blunt hates America so much, she better pack her bags and move back to Europe. That’s the story coming out of Fox News today, following the Devil Wears Prada actress’ seemingly innocuous jokes about U.S. politics.
While promoting her new film, Sicario, at the Toronto Film Festival, Blunt told theHollywood Reporter, “I became an American citizen recently and that night we decided to watch the Republican debate, and I thought this was a terrible mistake. What have I done?”
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As the Brits might put it, Fox and Friends was not amused. In a segment that’s since gone viral, co-anchor Anna Kooiman responded, “You know what, then why don't you leave Hollywood, California, and let some American women take on the roles that you're getting.” Steve Doocy further argued that the actress “Dixie Chicked herself.” Doocy said, “She has alienated half the country, that now will think twice about going to one of her movies.”
Doocy is obviously referring to the 2003 incident in which the Dixie Chicks, then the biggest country superstars in the world, slammed then-President George W. Bush during a London concert. The comments ignited a culture war that led to fans burning their album and their Top 10 hit “Landslide” being immediately yanked from radio stations.
This invocation is not an accident: If America has remained in a constant conflict since the war that was criticized by the band’s singer, Natalie Maines, we also remain in a perpetual state of culture war. When one doesn’t exist, as the incident with Blunt proves, you have to create it.
The Internet era has perfected the art of the non-controversy. After a group of Duke University freshmen refused to read Alison Bechdel’s seminal lesbian graphic novel Fun Home based on their “moral Christian beliefs,” the coverage largely portrayed the decision as motivated byhomophobia. In response to the controversy, student Brian Grasso clarified the reasoning behind his decision to “opt out”:
My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. ... I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
I disagree with his choice and think Fun Home is worth reading despite your opinions of its graphic material, but I understand his reasoning behind it. (Perhaps he could have picked up an audiobook?) However, the incident is indicative of the fervor over the campus PC culture wars and the idea that young people today don’t want to be challenged. A widely shared Atlantic piece called this persistent meme “the coddling of the American mind,” which takes a smattering of discussions about inclusivity across college campuses and makes it into a goddamn P.C. epidemic.
In particular, writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt take issue with recent trigger warnings slapped on classic works like The Great Gatsby and Things Fall Apart “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” But that’s not really how trigger warnings work, exactly. It’s not a red light that says, “This is objectionable, stop.” A trigger warning is more of a yellow light, indicating that the reader should proceed with caution, should something like “graphic depictions of rape” be a dealbreaker for you. (Which is perfectly understandable.)
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As my colleague Miri Mogilevsky pointed out in a June piece, her response to a trigger warning isn’t necessarily to put what she’s reading down and never go back to it. Instead, her reactions have been more akin to “I think I need to take a few minutes to mentally prepare myself before reading this” or “OK, this is totally fine for me, but it’s nice to know what I’m getting into.” This is because most trigger warnings aren’t directed at those who won’t keep reading (although some folks may choose to take a pass) but those who will. As Mogilevsky writes, “What they do is allow people to engage with triggering content in a way that works for them.”
As I’ve written before, I’m not completely in favor of trigger warnings as a practice. Following Oberlin’s guide to trigger warnings, which are meant to indicate “classism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ableism, and racism” in reading material, I struggle to think of any novel that would pass the test—and it can be a limiting way to describe texts that are meant to inspire discussion. “In the case of a book as divisive as Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, the all-time king of trigger warnings, it’s difficult to know if the book is a critique or reproduction of sexism,” I wrote at the time. “That’s what makes it interesting and worthy of debate, 20 years after the book first pissed people off.”
However, I understand their necessity for survivors of trauma, and I’m not out to offer my condescending opinion about the kind of person who would ask for such a thing or suggest that it’s damaging the fabric of academia. I can agree with Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt that trigger warnings are perhaps an imperfect way to demarcate “racial violence” and “misogyny and physical abuse,” the descriptors used to offer disclaimers about Chinua Achebe and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s respective work, even while agreeing that giving people a heads’ up is a nice, perfectly reasonable thing to do.
What’s ironic is that Lukianoff and Haidt argue that these students’ need for “coddling” is the result of “[growing] up in a culture that was (and still is) becoming more politically polarized” without recognizing that their own work is a product of the same divide. The pair write, “As each side increasingly demonizes the other, compromise becomes more difficult,” but it’s hard not to see hand-wringing thinkpieces about the “P.C. culture war” as a product of this same lack of ideological centrism.
Thus, Lukianoff and Haidt are more correct than they realize: We’re becoming an “either/or” society. Either the Duke University freshmen are bigots or nobody should have to read Fun Homebecause it’s disgusting pornography. Either college students are spoiled brats or Oberlin wants to turn America into a P.C. Nazi state. What few seem to recognize is that there are two other versions of reality that are more telling: 1) Neither one sidenor the other are completely wrong, and 2) boththose who agree with you and the opposing view have a point that deserves to be heard.
Part of this is due to an Internet culture that feeds off ideological divisions—because if everyone got along, half the blogosphere would be out of a job. A world in which everyone is right and everyone is wrong won’t fuel clicks for your blog or views for your YouTube video because it isn’t an interesting story. This is truism since the dawn of literature itself—a narrative that has heroes and villains is simply a better story. It gives you stakes and a side to get invested in. You want Oliver Twist to overcome systemic poverty because he’s the protagonist and you’re supposed to root for him. No one wants to hear that our hero grew up to be a dick.
A world populated by heroes and villains might be true of Charles Dickens, but it’s simply not the way reality works. In March, some tweets from Trevor Noah, who had been recently announced as the host of The Daily Show, made their way around the Internet. In them, Noah made some eye-rollingly dumb jokes about Jews and women. “‘Oh yeah the weekend. People are gonna get drunk & think that I'm sexy!’ - fat chicks everywhere,” he wrote in a tweet posted back in 2011. Basically, your opinions on the subject boiled down to two camps—either Noah was a sexist, anti-Semitic villain or a hero wading against the waters of a hopelessly politically correct culture of social justice warriors.
Trevor Noah’s tweets were unfunny and gross, and Noah clearly still has a lot of learning to do. Despite a much-criticized Vanity Fair photo that illustrated just how male-dominated late night TV is, Trevor Noah told Newsweek that “women are more powerful in comedy.” But is it possible to recognize that, like basically everyone on the planet, he could do things we find objectionable and still be a decent host of The Daily Show? It might not make him perfect, but it makes him more human.
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In his essay “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald opined an oft-quoted truism: “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This is a marker that the Internet often fails. Instead of calling people like Emily Blunt and Natalie Maines traitors, the wiser thing to do would be to recognize that they might have opinions you do not like (even facetious ones) and that they shouldn’t be blacklisted over it. Instead of arguing that college kids aren’t all right, realize that they’re still learning and growing up—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to what they have to say.
Here’s the problem with inexhaustible wars: They might keep the troops rallied and ready to fight, but when there’s no end in sight, we’re all destined to lose.