Let me begin with an incision into one of my favourite TV shows simply to assure myself of my impartiality or lack thereof. I still believe, even at the end of my reading of the ideology that operates within the bounds of the cultural production and its relation to political correctness, that Scrubs remains one of my favourite TV shows simply for thematic and formal reasons. The problem for Scrubs, in the first decade of the new millennium, was that it had to come to terms with the increasing social pressures of diversity mediated through production houses and a form of comedy that is, in its accents and style, a product of a dominantly white industry. My argument is that even when Scrubs successfully navigates through these ideological oppositions (in fact, especially when it does) it fails to attain that elusive tag of cultural multiplicity for me even as we fallaciously attach it to certain TV shows in the current decade. It is all the more troubling that cultural representation in American Television has not really received the impetus we think it has in the last seventeen years. So how does Scrubs try to solve the resilient problems of multiculturalism and diversity? Two out of the four lead characters are non-white and two out of the four lead characters are women. Turk is black, JD’s college roommate and his colleague at Sacred Heart hospital, while Carla, Dominican, is a nurse at the same hospital. The episodes are all narrated through JD’s perspective and the division of screen time varies but is largely equitable in its distribution. In a way, the show ticks all the boxes on the political correctness checklist. However, what is hidden by this cosmetic amelioration of political tensions is the fact that the writing and narrative structure is still egregiously marked by gags, tropes and predictabilities that are essentially white in their history and generation. The equation corrects itself by mirroring the measures that have been taken to modify it. Turk and Carla become placeholders for an interchangeable set of black and Puerto Rican characters with traits that are deprived of the richness of their contexts. The show, even with its culturally diverse set of characters becomes essentially a politically correct white-man production. The treatment of women can be seen in a similar perspective, Eliot being the hyper, obsessive, career-conscious idealised modern woman and Carla being the ball-busting mother-figure.
Nevertheless, Scrubs remains a fairly self-aware show, exploring a range of flawed, evolving characters like Dr. Cox and internalises a form of noxious masculinity (both his own and his father’s) as a self-loathing and conflicts it with his medical prowess, at one point forcing him to admit, “I don’t even want to be me.” Dr. Cox is therefore the only character who exposes the Real in terms of an irreducible contradiction in ideology. Turk and Carla however, are characterised as strictly professional, isolated from any externalised circumstances of their characterisation, simply being involved in their jobs or with each other (they are married and briefly experience a few bumps in their marital lives but barely engage with the motivations of their larger cultures).
Coming to the larger points of political correctness, I think we can safely extrapolate that it is not impossible to make an entirely white show or movie with a cast of entirely black actors and actresses, and we are, sadly, moving in exactly that direction as a result of political correctness. Denzel Washington has alluded to this very fact, saying that we cannot expect any real change until we begin at the level of writing and ‘tell our own stories’. The word ‘own’ carries with it a weight that is inexplicably dense and in itself contradictory but the idea still remains valid as a possible route for praxis but I will remain within a theoretical framework for now and political correctness must be analysed within it as well. Political correctness identifies its own problems, sets about to fix them and, to that extent, is quite successful. However, it is divorced from the inherent inexpressible conflicts of multiculturalism. In other words, political correctness solves problems but only the ones it can solve. That is precisely why it not only becomes ineffective in resisting the racism of Donald Trump and the increasing frequency of mass shootings in the United States but also ironically assists it. For, on the one hand, political correctness seems to be solving one problem after the other, gaining victory after victory, but on the other hand, the problems it claims to be fixing become more and more virulent in their material manifestations than ever before. The crisis of political correctness can be understood as a liberal (not in the American sense of ‘left’) quick fix that is now turning the wound septic. To make a politically incorrect observation now, I have to draw attention to the confounding success of people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Tomi Lahren and Blaire White. All three hold identities that have been traditionally marginalised and suppressed. Bizarrely, they have emerged as the most vociferous supporters of Donald Trump. There is an extremely delicate tension at this point that must be dealt with carefully not for the sake of political correctness but because the pressures and conflicts that operate here are in a fragile equilibrium. What is obvious is that it is the incomprehensibility of their support for a bonafide bigot like Trump is precisely what makes them enigmatic but I fear the answer is not as simple as that. What is important is that the American culture at this junction of history has made it possible for them to be taken not simply as misguided idiots but as symbols of subversive politics. The continual patronizing humanitarian elevation of marginalised communities and cultures in America to a position of ideological power provides the symbolic weight on the other side of the see-saw to propel these relatively insignificant figures into the spotlight. In short, the agenda of political correctness has been co-opted by the conservative right. That’s not to say, of course, that the LGBTQ community, women, blacks and mexicans are given any real measure of power nor are they emancipated by their ‘elevation’ but simply that the tides of political correctness have been diverted into the corner of the republicans to generate more racial tension and cultural inequality. The role of political correctness cannot be overstated in the rise of the Right.
Political correctness can no longer sustain the fictions it has created and pretended to solve, while ignoring the very fundamental antagonisms that bring them into existence. The Real rears its traumatic head in the disruption of common perception and the degeneration of the artificial equilibrium created by political correctness has begun. The Syrian refugee crises sprung it into action, the Paris attacks initiated reactionary politics and the Right has taken advantage of it. Solutions to the problem must be drastic and must be based strictly on engagement and not spontaneous legislation inspired by liberal tendencies towards avoidance. Slavoj Zizek claims that the only way to solve the problems created by political correctness is what he calls ‘progressive racism’, which is an ironic reversal of political correctness, prompting us to engage in disruptive political practices like racist jokes, the idea being to recognise and parody racial stereotypes by using them paradoxically through a reversal of context. Zizek’s radical solution is one that works on a interpersonal plane but also one that has political and theoretical implications. While the proposition is immediately provocative, there is still a long way to go for us to devise a real solution to the problems of class, race and gender.
Whatever the case may be, political correctness has tried and failed to counter real problems by spontaneous socio-linguistic legislation but has failed to fix the conditions that make these problems possible in the first place. If you feel a certain sense of security because of trigger warnings and safe spaces, I beg you to reconsider the ideological contingencies that threaten to destroy much more than that.