A war of words beyond PC, ‘Western values’

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/18 20:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Before addressing questions of political correctness and discrimination, let me make this clear: Anyone who claims that Air China's inflight magazine was not in the wrong by warning Chinese tourists to London to be wary when visiting areas "populated by Indians, Pakistanis and black people" is wrong. Also wrong are those who attacked the ethnic Chinese TV producer who brought the offensive article to the public's attention - including accusations that she was "turning the smoking gun on her own people." And those who criticize the magazine, China Wings, and Air China for their apologetic statements, saying they were "bending to Western values," are wrong.

The controversial sentence in the magazine's special edition promoting tourism to London caused international outcry after Haze Fan, a Beijing-based producer at CNBC, took a photo of the magazine page and tweeted it. Both China Wings and Air China acknowledged the wording was inappropriate in written statements. Air China also recalled all copies of the magazine. It seemed like the matter was closed. But then, China's nationalistic netizens started chiming in.

Don't get me wrong. I hate unnecessary political correctness. I think it is laughable to describe all black people in the US as African Americans (because many are not, and some don't identify in that way). I don't think a barber shop should be fined simply because it lists different prices for men and women. I don't think Ivy League colleges should favor Hispanics and Black students over scholastically stronger Asian applicants in the name of equal opportunity in education. Political correctness like this can often be dishonest and unfair.

But in the global waves of anti-political correctness, triggered largely by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, many people seem to have confused unnecessary political correctness and basic respect for other human beings.

In his book 1587, a Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline, the late historian Ray Huang summarizes the views of Ming Dynasty scholar Shen Shixing (who was Emperor Wanli's Grand Secretary) by writing, "he thought idealism and euphemism are different from hypocrisy. Under these umbrellas, one can still remain sincere and honest."

Contemporary American novelist Jonathan Franzen in his latest book, Purity, calls the phenomenon "savage naïveté." "Like the kid who thinks adults are hypocrites for filtering what comes out of their mouths. Filtering isn't phoniness - it's civilization," Franzen writes.

I also have experienced it. The other day, the deputy superintendent of my building told me a handyman would come to fix the pipes in my apartment. I couldn't figure out which handyman he was talking about until he pulled up the corners of his eyes - indicating the one Asian on the maintenance crew. Problem solved. No one was offended. The superintendent, a Hispanic, the handyman, a Thai, and I, a Chinese, all get along well.

But I wouldn't recommend the superintendent go to Chinatown and do that to people on the street, just like you wouldn't walk into a McDonald's and greet customers by calling them "fatty."

For those who insist the magazine only was providing the facts and owed no apologies, I say provide stats to support your assertions. I doubt you could prove your case. And even if you could, civilized people just don't say things this way. That has nothing to do with Western values. It is basic manners. And if it was not tweeted by Fan, it was destined to be tweeted by someone else.

But inappropriate generalized warnings like this, as harmful as they are, usually only result in emotional pain. It is more chilling to see an atmosphere of hate stirred by something like the Brexit debate in Britain.

Recently in Harlow, a town near London, two Polish workers were attacked by a group of teenagers. One was killed, the other badly injured. A lot of the propaganda circulated by the anti-EU camp focused on Eastern Europeans such as Poles. The message was clear - you are taking our jobs, and you are not welcome in Britain. This provided justification for racist thugs who wanted to throw insults on the street or even - in this case - assault and kill. Never mind that many Poles are hardworking and perform the construction, plumbing and other labor-intensive jobs that many Brits don't want to do, or don't do well. And it isn't like this was an isolated event - other Poles have been attacked in recent weeks - just for being Polish in Britain. And remember this is white-on-white crime.

It seems minorities in the UK clearly have much more to worry about than barbed words in Chinese airline magazines.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: Columnists, Viewpoint, Rong Xiaoqing

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