An open letter about political correctness to my 20 year old self on the occasion of finding a since-shredded copy of his poem “ya figured me out, a**hole”
First, I really appreciate the spirit behind this poem. I remember how frustrating it was that virtually everyone in your poetry class at Rutgers assumed one another’s poems to be entirely autobiographical, which was indeed counterproductive to the literary spirit. In that intellectual sense, there was real merit to the idea of spewing hateful words of bigotry and violence in grotesque and deliberately incoherent ways towards a wide range of marginalized groups (including several to which we belong) to lay bare both the ridiculousness of that kind of bias and the irony that someone might attribute those sentiments to you because they were in a poem that was literarily presented in the first person.
Speaking with nearly 25 years of hindsight, though, this is what I wish your professor (with whom you rightly and earnestly consulted before submitting or sharing this poem) had told you – the world doesn’t need more of these words. The points you used them to make were valid and important, that’s true. And there is of course merit to free speech, so it’s good that you weren’t censored. But there are so many people who have experienced so much oppression and violence that even an ironic utterance of words that denigrate or threaten them is at best still another pinch of salt in the wounds. You were a clever guy, there are other ways you could have expressed this.
I know you would have been responsive if you had been talked to about this by virtually anybody who wasn’t a white, straight male (and probably even if by someone who was if he was trustworthy) and that you wouldn’t have moved forward with something that you perceived could’ve been hurtful. Props to folks like Randy Newman or Oscar Brown, Jr. or anyone else among those you admired (and I still admire) for their ability to take on a fictional character and walk the tightrope of putting forth vile things in the first person to make for a potent and damning narrative, and props to you for trying to do that. In the end, though, saying those words could be hurtful to already-beleaguered folks. While your poetry was admirable, it was never so good nor were you ever so serious to warrant that risk. Were you FREE to express yourself? Absolutely. No complaints on that level. The issue is not that you can’t say those things or even that I’m moralizing that you shouldn’t. The point is that saying those things can hurt people who I know you would’ve been horrified to hurt. Did you actually hurt anyone among the few who read the poem? We’ll never know, honestly, but we can agree to leave that experiment be and move on.
The good news is that I can say that you’ll grow past this. Society itself? Working on that. You know how with chronic pain it’s easy to just kind of plow through it and have it be a hum in the background? And then when you actually deal with it directly, that’s a step in the right direction, but more painful because you become acutely aware? That’s kind of what I see happening as society addresses bias. It’s better now than it was then in terms of acknowledging the obstacles and working towards equity . . . and as a result, the pain is in some ways more acute and the harm that words like those have the capacity to do is also more obvious.
Also, that haircut? Well, you’ll figure it out.