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'Transparent' and the Profound Dangers of Minimizing 'PC' and 'Safe Space' Culture

By Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate | Think Pieces | January 4, 2016 |

By Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate | Think Pieces | January 4, 2016 |

“If you know your history/then you will know where you’re coming from/and you wouldn’t have to ask me/ who the hell do I think I am.” — Bob Marley, “Buffalo Soldier”

The idea that we have become a nation of easily offended and thin-skinned people has been everywhere, echoed by everyone from Donald Trump to Bill Burr to Jerry Seinfeld. We’ve heard that over the years the validation of various forms of expression has turned us into coddled brats, unwilling to “grin and bear it” or “get over” various slights. Conservatives and liberals alike have bemoaned the lack of backbone shown by college students in a number of situations, and specific instances of cultural critique and requests for safe space have been roundly belittled and trivialized in the national media. This minimizing narrative has been used against many — including in particular the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies — but Trans people have also been singled out for ridicule for making a “big deal” of issues of sexuality and gender that just have never been a problem before.

“We never had kids like that in my school growing up.”

But in the second season of Transparent, creator Jill Soloway uses history to prove how profoundly dangerous this line of thinking can be. Departing from the format of the first season, this year the show traces the history of the Pfefferman family showing how Jewish thought, Jewish history and Jewish religious expression are both unapologetically critical aspects of the show and of the identities of each of its characters. Solloway forces viewers to confront the intolerance of the 20th century writ large — and not in the context of a fusty old documentary or newsreel, but in the lived experiences of real people in the present day.

It may be easy, sometimes, to identify with the Trumps, Burrs, and Seinfelds, especially when PC culture turns on a liberal darling like Stephen Colbert. But history has proven that the more historically disempowered people take control of narratives, use their voices and make demands, the more detractors find fault with the content of their speech, the questions they pose, and even with who they are. Despite the fact that this has been true for all of American history, an abiding commitment to ahistoricism continues to be one of our culture’s defining features. And despite so many instances of inhumane, horrific mistreatment by those in power against others, we still cast ourselves against all odds as doing our best, or at least meaning well.

This season of Transparent reminds us that our best efforts to outrun the past will always fail. We are our history. We are enacting and re-enacting the roles we have played and made others play. As a white, cisgendered viewer, I kept thinking about the Bob Marley song quoted above, and how easy it is for me to paper over the impact of history, to find fault with contemporary expressions of truth by people whose lives may seem different from my own, so different that they are scary, confusing, or hard to understand. So different that I am uncomfortable. The law sometimes uses the concept of “knew or should have known” to assign liability. Watching the show I was confronted once again with the fact that I can look away, forget, deny, minimize — and that when I choose to do so, I am exercising my power and maintaining my own comfort in the face of others’ pain is wrong. There is so very much I know or should know.

Soloway does not allow us to forget. Transparent deftly lays bare the devastating reality of “in my day people weren’t like this.” Trans people are not new. And these arguments are not new. Demonizing and deprecating Trans people is not new. We have been here before; let’s not go there again.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.