Friday, February 16, 2007

Symbolic Correctness and the Triumph of Bland

Yale University is embarrassed by the man for whom it is named. Boston 1775 says:

The Hartford Courant has reported that Yale University will remove a portrait of early benefactor Elihu Yale (1649-1721) from a meeting room because it “shows the wealthy merchant being waited on by a black man with a silver collar around his neck—an unmistakable symbol of bondage.” The college will hang another of its many portraits of Mr. Yale instead. (It seems there isn’t a big market for them outside New Haven.)

The University of Illinois, which was founded after Emancipation, is no less embarrassed by its symbol, and will retire Chief Illiniwek after the last home game on the men's basketball schedule. As commentator Andy Martin said in October, 2006:
Chief Illiniwek—a student who entertains at football games and dances an Indian dance at half time--and who once embodied the University of Illinois as the emblem on almost every document and artifact—is being phased out in deference to the ultimate God of our era: political correctness.
The College of William & Mary, has a controversy over another symbol, a brass cross that has been present in the Wren Chapel there since 1940. To make the chapel less unappealing to non-Christians, the cross is now available by request, rather than being removed by request. Blandness absolves us from the sin of displaying differences.

Multiculturalism, the notion that all cultures are equally valuable and must be preserved, has been turned into a new form of segregation. We must hide from ourselves any evidence of our differences, while claiming to celebrate them. And above all, we must not offend. By sanitizing symbols, the multiculturalists fight against the very diversity they claim to seek.

In a 1994 article for the Chronicles of Higher Education, Nell Irvin Painter, dealing with what she saw as a double standard for black versus white anti-Semitism, wrote:
I'm not advocating hate-speech codes or calling for protests. I am suggesting that various kinds of insult be taken with the same gravity. It is time that we reaffirmed the values of fellowship and decency by admitting that intolerance -- whether anti-Semitism, racism, or homophobia -- intimidates and injures others. Better to reach out to one another and acknowledge that any hateful invective hurts its intended targets -- and should be subject to quick condemnation. It's time to bury accusations of political correctness.
And yet, political correctness is exactly what she advocated. And the "hateful invective" that she at that time decried has now been redefined to include anything another group (or even someone who purports to speak for that group) doesn't like. Raise the spectre of offense, and there is no need to assault to gate; its owners will tear it down and ask forgiveness. Nothing is now acceptable but the bland, especially in our symbols.

The world is diverse enough. Mankind is bent on diversity, in dividing into groups and allowing each group to distinguish itself. It is innately human to pursue such distinction, and to be alternately repelled by and fascinated with our differences. Furthermore, the repulsion and fascination are inextricably linked; to suppress one is to quell the other.

The Elis are hiding the offending portrait, the better to pretend that it doesn't describe their origins; the Illini will stand ready for battle with no ancient guide to lead them; and those wishing to pray at William & Mary will have to file some paperwork.

It's a small price to pay for bland.

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