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Not so PC

October 19, 2011

Is political correctness crucial to living in a society, or does it just mask reality? A German theater production takes political correctness to the extreme to explore just how important it really is.

Anna and Torben in Ingrid Lausund's play "Benefit - Everyone Saves an African"
Just don't say anything wrong!Image: FWT Köln

The play opens with five members of a charity discussing how a planned benefit event could raise funds for a school in West Africa's Guinea-Bissau.

Oliver, one of the members of the charity, suggests that they invite a black person to make the evening more "authentic" since the evening concerns a school in Africa. Then a debate ensues about the pros and cons of inviting someone just because they happen to be black. The members discuss what they should call her since she was born and raised in Germany.

Once they settle on Afri-Cologner, Claudia asks whether she is "black enough" because of her mixed heritage.

All of these politically incorrect landmines occur in the first 10 minutes of "Benefit - Everyone Rescues an African," a satirical play on political correctness by Ingrid Lausund running at the Freies Werkstatt Theater in Cologne.

Scene from Ingrid Lausund's play "Benefit - Everyone Saves an African"
Serious social issues like hunger and illiteracy are brought to the foreImage: FWT Köln

Help or hindrance?

Political correctness is a sticky issue across German society. Turkish-German journalist Mely Kiya said that guilt tied to the Holocaust has driven Germans to overcompensate, going out of their way to protect some groups while ignoring others. She contended that even today, Jews are rarely spoken of negatively, while Muslims face significant discrimination.

"Political correctness is what allows people to talk about social issues without discriminating, and that's something we haven't been able to achieve in Germany," said Kiya.

But some feel political correctness keeps social issues out of public debate altogether.

"It's better to be politically incorrect than to be politically correct," said Freies Werkstatt manager Gerhard Seidel. Politically correct terms are just there to mask what people really think, he added.

These terms tend to be decided by influential opinion shapers who appeal to the media, according to Maternus Millett, author of the book "Das Schlechte am Guten: Weshalb die politische Korrektheit scheitern muss" (The Bad in the Good: Why Political Correctness Must Fail).

Political correctness trends, often set by a select few, are robbing individuals of their right to express themselves and engage in a dialogue, Millett told Deutsche Welle. "'I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend your right to say it,'" he added, citing French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire.

Return to old archetypes

In Lausund's play, one of the characters disparages another's sense of design, saying it's too "schwul." The term, which applies to homosexual men, was historically disparaging before it was used as a self-identifier by gay men. Yet young people today again are using the word "schwul" as a synonym for uncool.

Scene from the 2007 film, "Mein Führer"
A scene from "Mein Führer" - some things are no longer tabooImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"This questionable trend shows that young people are turning to old archetypes," journalist Gesa von Leesen said, noting that she hadn't heard older people use the term.

Theater manager Seidel said he believes that such a tendency is the result of a backlash against political correctness. "Political correctness is not taken as seriously as it was 10 years ago," he said.

Taboo subjects like World War II are even entering the realm of acceptable humor in Germany, as comedians are more willing to take a satirical approach to this once untouchable topic.

This can be seen in the 2007 film "Mein Führer," which takes a somewhat comical look at Hitler, and "My Best Enemy" from 2011. The latter satirizes the friendship between a Jewish art dealer and his best friend, who later becomes a member of the German SS during World War II.

Germans are able to laugh at it, but it's the younger viewers, it seems, who laugh the loudest.

Author: Chiponda Chimbelu

Editor: Kate Bowen

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