On Identity and Political Correctness in New York City From the Lens of a Middle-Easterner

By Edwin Saliba

Part I – Who am I? Where do I come from?

I’ve been wanting to write about identity for some time and the talk organized by the Diversity Committee some while ago encouraged me to do so. I salute their efforts to provide a well-needed safe space to connect people from different parts of the world. For those who do not know me, I was born in France and raised in Lebanon for most of my life until SIPA. Although I identify as Lebanese, I embraced some of the French culture through my education and upbringing. But what does being Lebanese really means? Our country was founded on the principle of religious co-existence, a unique feature among Arab countries, whereby the constitution recognizes eighteen religious groups and establishes equal power sharing among Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, fifteen years of civil war from 1975 to 1990 casted doubt on our national identity and reinforced internal divisions.

Typically, Lebanese are resilient and can withstand economic and political shocks including the assassination of a Prime Minister, series of terrorist attacks, frequent government collapses, postponement of elections and a refugee crisis. Lebanese are very hospitable and excellent entrepreneurs, with many owning small and large businesses around the world. Moreover, family relations play an essential role in society by providing a strong safety net for the youth and elderly, in light of weak public institutions. Individual liberty is less salient compared to Western countries as parents, and even society at large, have expectations of what their sons and daughters would study in college, who they would marry or how they would behave and dress. In general, we share conservative values on gender, sexuality, immigration, and other social issues.

More personally, I come from a middle, upper-middle class family that sent me to secular school and taught me the basic principle of respecting others regardless of their political view or religion. My mother devoted her life to raising up three boys and my father, although the only breadwinner of the family, would spend the little time he had outside of work to help us with our studies, dress the table or teach us how to ride a bike, which underlines a certain equitable but not equal division of roles within the household. My parents worked tirelessly to offer me the best possible education and always pushed me to study something I would enjoy rather than what society valued the most. They were considered cool parents by most of my friends because everything was allowed as long as it would not offend others or put us in harm’s way, which is kind of unique in a society of do’s and don’ts.

Part II – New York offers a new horizon

My first impression of New York was positive, and the city shares many similarities with Beirut, the capital of Lebanon (e.g. dynamic, very busy, chaotic, dirty, and extremely expensive). Obviously, keeping in touch with old friends and family, some of whom lived in the United States, along with globalization have played a role in easing the transition, but most importantly, New York embraces diversity and made me feel like a citizen of the world. It is a city where one would come across African-Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, people of all colors, blond, black, and red hair, young and old, tall and short, people with disabilities...

My experience in New York also allowed me to call into question many of my preconceptions on income inequality, sexuality, and gender. For example, the city unveils the entire social ladder with no scruple, and you can see in a single day the extremely high concentration of wealth together with homelessness. Although such contrast does exist in Lebanon, I was living in a bubble to realize how privileged I was, and the experience humbled me. Moreover, I came to understand that the LGBTQ community was being discriminated against for the sole reason of having an identity that deviated from the rest of society, and this realization allowed me to gain new empathy for their struggle. Actually, expressing homosexuality in Lebanon is socially unacceptable, and the word “gay” is used as a pejorative term. Although I knew that being gay was not a matter of choice or something inherently wrong, the lack of exposure to the community made me an accomplice in how language perpetuates inequalities. At SIPA, I invested personal time engaging with people in order to learn how people understood sexual consent in the United States. It suffices to say that the comparison with “tea consent” made common sense.

Having said that, I strongly believe that cultural differences do not necessarily make Lebanese inherently bad or Americans inherently good, but rather reflect the fact that countries are always at a crossroads and need to choose the right path leading to self-improvement. Failure to acknowledge that every country has a different starting point represents a crude over-simplification of the Westphalian world we live in. One cannot compare the United States, the oldest democracy in the world, to Lebanon which only won its independence in 1943, and yet the United States struggles with many unresolved social issues. Here, what I am trying to say is that the world is neither black nor white but rather somewhere in the middle, or in other words, a progression towards an ideal rather than the ideal itself.

Part III – The Limits of Political Correctness

One of the reasons I decided to come to Columbia was to achieve a level of personal development and become a more effective member of society. More specifically, I wanted an answer to how policymakers can create a cohesive environment for the various factions of Lebanese society. By studying at Columbia, I was able to approach the issue by looking at my country from an outsider’s and critical perspective since I had some distance from the culture in question. Nevertheless, my learning experience in the U.S. has been an extremely delicate process, and being myself would sometimes get me in trouble and offend Americans. I felt that there was often a disconnect between how I was perceived because of what I said, and how I perceived myself.

At one point, I felt that one of my friends thought of me as a macho and probably homophobic. I explained that I had gone a long way to better understand the struggle of the gay community but that I had still a lot more to learn. More specifically, the notion of homosexuality was practically new to me, since it was not visible when I was growing up in Lebanon, and although I felt sometimes uncomfortable dealing with the issue, I knew it was a problem that I had to deal with personally instead of scapegoating others. The message that I am trying to convene is absolutely not appearing the victim or blaming my friend in any way, but rather illustrating how political correctness can put people in a box without leaving room for discussion.

Because I was constantly afraid of saying the wrong things, I exerted self-censorship and through a trial and error process, which felt like walking on through a field of land mines, I gradually understood how society expected me to speak in public. The problem was that I didn't always know why I was offending people, and by censoring myself I often missed out on the opportunity to have those nuanced conversations. I do understand the merits of political correctness; however, I believe it can also shut people down, discourage dissent and make it harder to engage in a dialogue. According to a 2018 study published by More in Common, “82 percent of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but 80 percent also view political correctness as an issue.” Progressive activists, which represent roughly 8 percent of the population, stood out as the only group in support of political correctness. So the question remains, how do we create an environment conducive for dialogue without taking any of those two extremes?