Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On "political correctness"...


I helped a student with a paper last night.

He was writing about affirmative action and how he saw it as a failed and unethical policy. He wrote one sentence to the effect that such legislation "is against people like me." I asked him what he meant by that he said that such policies were only around to hurt white men "like him." I advised him to rewrite the sentence to read that the political policy is "unfair for everyone," thus mitigating the charged nature of his initial language and hopefully getting more people to listen to his argument with a fair and open mind.

It was in that moment that I'm certain someone would have accused me of engaging in "political correctness." That's the conservative phrase, isn't it? Used to dismiss a social concern or to cry out about the "liberalization" in higher education or the "censoring of thoughts?" Or more likely, the phrase employed when someone is bemoaning that they can no longer say something offensive with impunity. So-called "politically correct" terms came about simply as a manner of showing someone or a group of someones respect. It was an effort to help put an end to harassment, bullying, racism, and misogyny. It's just about treating people better.

As I worked with that paper, however, I began to wonder if conservative pundits, for all their loudmouth bluster and whining about being termed "haters," might have something of a point. Many policies, however well-intentioned, can end up having unforeseen consequences. Could one of these unintended consequences for "PC" be that it shuts down conversation? Here's what I mean.

The student I was working with was objecting to affirmative action on the grounds of it being an unfair and failed policy. He supported his case with data that claimed to demonstrate that the policy isn't even really helping the people it's intended to. I don't really agree with him, but that's not the point. What matters is that I could envision situations wherein this student would be immediately shut down even for suggesting this. He might even be called racist, even though there was no textual evidence on which to base that claim. Is it reduced to such a binary state that if you are against affirmative action you must therefore be racist?

I then began to wonder what other issues foster the same response. For example, I might instinctively be revolted if someone tells me they are against same sex marriage. "They must be homophobic," I'd think, even though as Ricky Gervais says, there's no phobia involved there. They're just being assholes. Do I know that's the case though if I haven't heard them out? Perhaps they have concerns beyond the biblical. I won't know unless discussion is engaged. All this then caused me to recall a fracas on my campus when a professor read slave narratives in their original language and inflection and was called racist for doing it.

How are we to move forward if we cannot have an honest look at the past nor have open discussion about where we're headed?

It should go without saying that use of any language that is racist, misogynistic, or certainly belligerent towards someone or a group of someones, that should be shut down. Immediately. Period. There is no longer a place for it in society and it must be eradicated. Cry free speech all that you want. That simply means that the government will not prosecute you, not that the rest of us won't ostracize you, isolate you, and fiscally starve you.

On the other hand, the discussion of concepts and policies as a part of the "free marketplace of ideas" is critical. I said yesterday that philosophy is still a much needed discipline as the concepts of justice and morality are always central to discussion. In much the same way, open and respectful discussion about the issues of our time and our future is essential. What do I mean by "future?" Well what about hate crimes against cyborgs for one. No I'm not kidding. Read the link.

In other words we do need to treat each other better and we do need to end hate speech. But in our passion to protect, we must not squelch debate.



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