Participation Awards Don’t Suck. You Suck.

So, my daughter has gotten into these live-action Nickelodeon sitcoms over the summer, mostly The Thundermans, Ricky, Nicky, Dicky & Dawn and Henry Danger. Not terribly compelling television, but also not so annoying I grind my teeth as I make dinner. It’s heaps better than Adventures with Tip & Oh and The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show she was previously binge-watching. Thanks to Henry Danger, though, I had to explain to her what the heck an anti-PC strawman was.

The episode was “Henry and the Woodpeckers,” from the just finished second season, and for some reason, Henry had been drafted to coach an elementary school basketball team. Over the course of the episode, he manages to whip the kids into a formidable team and lead them to various victories — which the school officials tell him is wrong and disgusting.

The three teachers in this episode are an almost cartoonish parody of the self-esteem movement, which I cannot believe is something we’re still putting in media in 2016. Parents at games aren’t allowed to clap for their child because it might upset children whom no one is clapping for. When Henry gets a trophy for his highest scorer, he is ordered to take it back from her and give equal trophies to the entire team so no one feels left out. When the team wins a game, the school lowers the basket for the next team they play to make it more “fair.” “It’s important no child ever feel sad” is an actual line from this episode. It’s basically “Harrison Bergeron” for people who didn’t get the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was screwing with those opposed to actual efforts toward equality.

Of course, our hero defies the school, leads his kids to victory and drops the mike by giving the teachers their own participation award. Freedom is saved, and none of us will ever have to worry about the PC-police turning the next generation into weaklings. Not while Henry is around.

Look, I’m going to tell you more or less what I told my daughter. These people do not actually exist. They are a straw man, an invented parody of someone used to argue with when the other person is inconveniently not actually wrong. This whole "no one can succeed because it makes losers sad" thing was invented by bullies who got annoyed when they were asked to stop being bullies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the best player getting a trophy, but there's also nothing wrong with everyone getting a little medal that says, "You were here with us. You didn't quit. You tried, and that matters." The only people who hate participation awards are those who feel like losers because they didn't even participate.

People are going to tell you all your life that the problem with the world is that we're weak and soft because we sometimes consider the feelings of others. This is inaccurate. The problem with the world is jerks like being jerks, and ascribe goodness and benefit to jerkhood. Those people are the weak ones. It takes a lot more courage to care than to not.

No doubt someone will rush to the comments to tell me about how PC colleges have gotten, how students demand trigger warnings and safe spaces, and undoubtedly someone will link to Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s Atlantic piece “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The thinkpiece crowd has made damn sure tales of political correctness and fragile millennials on campus are regular headline news despite the fact that most of those stories are generally more interested in an eye-catching headline than examining the actual culture on campus. Sean Trainor tells it better than I do, but the thing you can take away from his article is people are more interested in posturing about being tougher than a younger generation than in examining practices by schools that might be bigoted or harmful.

The thing I find the most galling about this denunciation of caring is its childishness. When confronted with a wrongdoing, most children will either immediately deny they did it or that it was wrong, or they will invent what seem to be sympathetic motives as an excuse for why they did it. It’s an attempt to avoid feeling guilt, something they share with most people incensed by participation awards and sensitivity training, rather ironically. No one is more thin-skinned than a person who's convinced of his or her utter perfection being confronted with the fact that he or she messed up.

The backlash against a less-exclusionary world is coming primarily from those who can’t come to terms that maybe some of what they thought was good actually wasn’t. They didn’t realize how racist jokes reinforce harmful stereotypes, or how asking a woman if she was just regretting a one-night stand invalidates her experience when she’s raped, or whatever else they might have done. If those things are bad and they did them, then they must be bad.

And if you’re one of those people, consider this your trigger warning. Go find a safe space if you need it. It’s perfectly all right with me. I didn’t enjoy learning my failings either, but don’t let the headlines (or a mediocre television show) lie to you. Political correctness isn’t the problem. The assholes who made it necessary are, and they want you to see them as the good guy, just like all bullies. 
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner