Discourse on
"political correctness"

by various (group discussion)

On March 24, 2018, the ABC website published this article: Political correctness 'stifling Australian cinema' as indie filmmakers rebound in Adelaide by Malcolm Sutton. It's basically an interview with Adelaide filmmaker and indie film culture spokesperson Mike Retter. At one point in the interview, Retter states that "political correctness is the death of art". The article started great debate on Facebook, and we here present one of these debates, taken from the Facebook page of Bill Mousoulis.

LEFT: Youth on the March (2017 feature by Mike Retter). RIGHT: Mike Retter

Daryl Dellora I totally reject the term "political correctness", it comes from a right wing vocabulary which includes other meaningless or oxymoronic put downs that mainstream media have totally bought into, such as "union bosses" (I don't think so), "mutual obligation" (the poor have to contribute more to the rich) and even "freedom of speech" (everyone has the right to be a bigot – my freedom to be racist, sexist etc).

Liz Burke Yep. I immediately get my back up when I read stuff about how terrible "political correctness" is. It’s usually just white boys whingeing because they haven’t got what they think they deserve, which is everything. Sorry to be so negative, but this article shits me to tears.

Chris Luscri Except that everything Mike says is right Liz Burke! Too much emphasis on identity politics and none on the very real underlying problems of class, which is how an autistic on the dole (much like myself) and a Cambodian–Australian can team up to produce one of the best Australian films in recent memory, and so get ignored by the mainstream film establishment. They're not part of the "in crowd", which usually means connections and access to money through "correct procedure" (i.e. don't make a no–budget film because it threatens the union–negotiated film wage system). I might not agree with Mike on some of his finer points, but that doesn't bug me as much as the general reaction against raising these issues in the first place!

Daryl Dellora Nailed it Liz Burke. Every three years someone writes an article like this – insight into the Australian film industry it is not. Repetition of hackneyed (dare I say it very conservative views – best movie in recent years was Red Dog funded by mining industry?!? Screen Australia might take issue with that). How about some facts? Too much to ask from the new dumbed down ABC.

Liz Burke Yep, let’s hear from some non–Anglo women about what an easy ride they’ve got from film funding bodies. All the research tells us who gets the lion’s share of funding: white men.

Bill Mousoulis I agree with both of you that there is danger in criticising PC endeavours. I solidly believe that "political correctness" is called that because it is "correct". But political correctness should not be immune from its own closed–mindedness and fascism and racism and sexism – which it does have. We need to call out any discriminatory behaviour, including from lefties.

Daryl Dellora Definitely Bill, accurate and reasoned criticism definitely needed, but terms like "politically correct" are just loaded – whose politics? who is making the corrections?

Chris Luscri Liz Burke Co–writer, producer and editor of Mike Retter’s film Youth on the March Allison Chhorn is a Cambodian–Australian woman, and very much an artist in her own right, both in terms of visual art and film–making. She made her own feature last year titled The Plastic House which is currently in post–production. Mike and Allison are very close and supportive co–collaborators. They also very much agree on the state of film funding, the difficulties of no–budget methodologies on an industry level, and the problems with modern identity politics and its censorial impact on Australian cinema.

Chris Luscri Bill Mousoulis Yes, "political correctness" is a catch–all term and rather too generalist and unspecific. In the case of what Mike is talking about though, it very much equates to a form of political censorship where certain voices are "unallowed", not just in terms of political persuasion (rightists, sure, but also "bad leftists" like myself), but also on the issue of class, as discussed.

Nicholas Nedelkopoulos The headline "Political correctness 'stifling Australian cinema'" is eye catching. After reading the article I have come to the opinion that it is just a vehicle for publicity for the filmmaker’s film and his, and other independent Adelaide film activities. (Publicity that they normally would not get). As we all know it is extremely hard to get a film funded by a government body, so if you go down that road be prepared to be disappointed. The writer did say he was told that he was knocked back because his film was sexist. I suspect it may have been because he had put in a weak application, after all, he had no film training. There are a lot of unfair practices in the arts and entertainment industries. If you don't take responsibility for your own fate then it will be left to the whim of others. There is a growing sexist and racist trend on FaceBook – it comes in replies when referring to positions of power. It was good to read that there are people in Adelaide having a go at making the film scene more interesting there.

Bill Mousoulis Spot on, Nicholas. If one sidesteps the hand grenades in the article, it's just publicity for some indie filmmaking.

Nicholas Nedelkopoulos I do know that it can be hard to get publicity for indie activity and I would rather have them get it, to help make indie activities viable otherwise it will be a very dull scene.

Jake Thomas Wilson Frankly, a lot of this reads to me like reactionary boilerplate in the Mark Latham vein. What exactly is his point about Christmas movies? There have been a couple recently in Australia, both horrors – Red Christmas and Better Watch Out.

Chris Luscri I guess he means "wholesomeness" – i.e. the kind of movie that's sweet–natured, perhaps a little aspirational, naive and simple. In contrast to (as he sees it) films that trot out the oppressor–oppressed narrative in luridly exploitative (and thus ideologically incoherent) ways, like the awful Hounds of Love.

Jake Thomas Wilson If that's it, fair enough. Maybe I sensed dog–whistling where there was none, but I couldn't help hearing echoes of the stock complaint about a "war on Christmas" – a recurrent right–wing talking point for aeons, lately revived by Trump.

Chris Luscri Hahaha Jake. I've not asked Mike about his opinion about whether he thinks there is a "War on Christmas", so I dunno. Maybe?? I wouldn't be surprised. So what, in any case? I'm just marvelling at people's ability to get worked up over what is obviously polemic, and in my opinion much needed polemic. Is there too much rape in our cinemas at the moment, at the expense of good [non–denominational] spiritual wholesomeness? That's an obvious oversimplification, but it chimes with many people's lived experience. It has the veracity of a common, accepted truth, so I'm willing to accept it, particularly in light of Mike's point (made in this podcast, but not in the article) about the important role relativist post–modernism plays in poisoning the current cultural landscape. That seems incontrovertible.

Jake Thomas Wilson Hey Chris – surely polemic wouldn't be much use if it didn't get people worked up? I suspect we have some significant philosophical differences here. Relativist postmodernism isn't a name I'd use for any enemy I recognise – we seem to be in an age of plentiful dogmatic moralising on all sides – and I'm not sure I understand what you mean by spiritual wholesomeness, or how that relates to whether a filmmaker chooses to represent rape or any other evil. But keeping the discussion to cinema, I'd be interested to hear more about how all this relates to what you see as lacking in specific films.

Chris Luscri Well Jake ... I'm glad you asked! The way I see it, there's a fair bit of difference between what postmodernism stood for in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and what it is now represents vis–a–vis the prevailing cultural power structures. Granted "postmodernism" can be just as catch–all a term as "political correctness". I mean it here to stand for the popular understanding of postmodernism – the idea of cultural collation, referentiality, mash–up/mix–up logic, the relativising, dismantling and complications of personal, collective and political ideologies etc. This was fruitful at one point, but no longer. The main difference now, as I see it, is that a new consolidation of power has occurred, which actually takes the postmodernist agenda as a smokescreen to preserve the same hierarchies, the same imbalances. It is exceedingly subtle and insidious, particularly where areas of identity politics are involved, and thus to be fundamentally against this is to risk being seen as supportive of the "plentiful dogmatic moralising" you mention (which, though I share some of the same common frustrations and concerns, is much more to the Right of my own beliefs). But any ideology that works in tandem with the concerns of modern corporate capitalism (through the guise of marketing and communications structures, for instance) is one to be treated with a deep suspicion.

Chris Luscri And "spiritual wholesomeness" means exactly that, literally and un–ironically. There used to be a greater concern around the ethics of representation as a matter, concentration, discipline, imagination and, yes, spiritual commitment (Bresson, Mizoguchi, Akerman, Costa) on the part of the viewer than there is today, where all manner of technologies enhance and reinforce moments of screen trauma (oppressor–oppressed) to an almost nauseating, pornographic degree. What to show and what not to show has become a matter of striptease (cf. that awful rape scene in Sweet Country) or outright disregard in deference to sensorial involvement (cf. Gasper Noe, Haneke et al) rather than ontological ethics.

Jake Thomas Wilson I have some sympathy with what you're saying, but my feeling about the argument against postmodernism would depend very much on what you're arguing for in its place.

Chris Luscri In place of post–modernism? Radical inclusionism, a politics of disruption, the application of close, detailed and specific listening, an openness to individual idiosyncrasy, an understanding that the correct social orientation is that the whole is only as strong as the individual (and not the other way around), the end to party–politic thinking, the pursuit of the strange and particular and voluminous for its own sake, i.e. for knowledge, rather than for either (a) employment or (b) cultural power, which often amounts to the same thing, the beliefs that narratives, symbologies, archetypes and histories hold intrinsic meaning.

Bill Mousoulis Sounds good!

Jake Thomas Wilson It sounds pretty good to me too, though I don't see why a card–carrying postmodern relativist – if there still are any – couldn't subscribe to nearly all of it.

Bill Mousoulis Yes, in the spirit of "inclusionism", indeed!

Richard Tuohy I hope the headline about political correctness is merely lazy journalism here. It reads like the author thinks political correctness is actually a thing, rather than the term being just a bit of reactionary bile from people who are unable to appreciate that those less privileged than themselves are affected by less thoughtful people's words and deeds. There is no positive program of political correctness. God, I hate even hearing that term. All there is is common decency. And as culture moves, what is understood to be decent will also move. We now know that attitudes we unreflexively held in the past were wrong. We should also know that attitudes we are unaware of holding now are also potentially problematic. Culture is a thing that grows. If you think you are being chastised for being politically incorrect, it's time to take a good look at yourself to try to understand how what you are doing is impacting others.

Bill Mousoulis And if you are chastising others for being politically incorrect, it's time to take a good look at yourself to try to understand how what you are doing is impacting others. That's the only decent thing.

Chris Luscri It's a poisoned discourse, on both sides. Better always to look at the specific issue at hand. So let's be specific – Mike is talking about the intersection of film–making and class, and the way that identity politics – and thus "political correctness" – is used as smokescreen to cover up the same disadvantageous (and thus inherently conservative, if one wanted to make the case that way) power structures. It's about lies and hypocrisy, the difference between actions and stated intent. That strikes me as inarguably true.

Chris Luscri Equal opportunity also! I'm very conscious as I get older of the kinds of opportunities out there and how to go about seeking them. For instance, knowing the right questions to ask is very important. And that comes through knowledge, trial–and–error, experience ... and education. Education is the most important bargaining chip in the scheme of things, and opening up avenues of opportunity for others who wouldn't ordinarily have access to is what "in theory" identity politics is designed to address. The jury is still out on this for me, but I obviously am viewing things from particular, telegraphed perspective i.e. film–making – one very much in accordance with Mike in many ways. I just don't see how identity politics is opening up channels for more poor people to make and show their films and, when they do (as in Mike's case), they come up against the same institutional power structures and those that run them that pledge allegiance to the "commons" or a "shared public" but in fact stay very much within their comfort zones in terms of what they do, who they network with, who and what kind of work they choose to support (usually industry–based) and why etc. In an earlier time, we used to call these people Champagne Socialists.

Bill Mousoulis haha, indeed! That's a phrase that hasn't been used much recently! I think by "class", in Mike's words, I take that to mean, of course, wait for it ..... indie filmmaking without funding! These filmmakers are totally being discriminated against currently, when it comes to the major film festivals.

Jake Thomas Wilson The trouble with terms like “political correctness” – or “virtue signalling” or “performative wokeness” or other near–synonyms – is that they provide a convenient way of labelling other people's views as shallow groupthink ahead of any argument about the substance of these views. If the claim being made is (say) that certain affirmative action policies are misguided, or that funding bodies tend to favour projects that stigmatise the white working class, having that spelled out specifically would be more useful than broad assertions about the perceived vibe.

Chris Luscri Jake, performative wokeness is rife within the lobster hierarchy.

Jake Thomas Wilson There's a sentence I never expected to read!

Chris Luscri Well, I've been hearing both terms a lot recently, and both seem more than faintly ridiculous.

Chris Luscri And yes, agreed about the need for clarification and finer detail. That's why I don't personally like or use the term "political correctness". I prefer to engage in maddening, maniacal and potentially eye–roll inducing detail on the complexities of the issues at hand. Broad generalities tend to evoke all manner of confusions and misinterpretations. I act to push for clarifications.

Jake Thomas Wilson What interests me are the actual areas of disagreement, not the complaints about holier–than–thou attitudes and parroting of an official line – phenomena which certainly exist, but aren't restricted to one side of any given debate.

Further responses: We are happy to post some further responses (to the above) here, as a post-script. If you have a comment you'd like posted here, please email Bill Mousoulis.

Christos Tsiolkas It strikes me that all the participants here seem to be ignoring that “political correctness” was not a term that arose from the reactionary right but was a term coined by left-wing communists to identify “right” or correct thinking. The straight-jacket of political correctness was historically utilised by left-wing governments, organisations and coalitions to censor and undermine artists, writers and dissenting activists. Though I understand why the contemporary use of the term by the right-wing is something people are reacting against, I think we have to always remember that history and resist forms of politics and censorship that would silence or cower artists and writers. I hate the current dichotomy being set up that asks that I have to choose between identification with an increasingly puritan and censoring identity politics left-wing or somehow have to side with the extreme free marketeers of the libertarian right. I refute them both. There used to be a tradition in the left called “anarchist”. Is that no longer a useful tradition for us?    (April 25, 2018)

Published April 24, 2018. © Bill Mousoulis, Daryl Dellora, Liz Burke, Chris Luscri, Jake Wilson, Nicholas Nedelkopoulos, Richard Tuohy and Christos Tsiolkas 2018.