A Response to 5C Political Correctness: Moving Toward Critical Understanding

Last week’s Opinions section included a piece by Aidan Orly PO ’16 about political correctness and stereotypes at the 5Cs. Most of the piece centered on a discussion of a table tent distributed by the Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault to advertise a talk about rape and abortion in the 21st century, and a few things stuck out to me as topics for further questioning. 

The aforementioned Advocates advertisement used the following language: “Do you feel like the Republican Party has a personal vendetta against your uterus? Are you shocked and appalled that all these straight white men are attempting to moralize and legislate your sex life?” 

Orly first took issue with the Advocates’ apparent transference of frustration regarding the restriction of reproductive rights onto “the whole of the Republican Party,” and then onto straight white men. I think this may have occurred due to a difference in defining “Republican Party.” When I read that, I understood it as a reference to the formally organized party leadership and the platform that comes from those leaders. “All these straight white men,” according to my understanding of the ad, are all those straight white men who control the Republican Party and its platform. I do not think the Advocates were talking about people like Orly, a college student who is politically conservative. The fact of the matter is that the restriction of reproductive rights is very real part of the Republican Party’s platform.

Even if you disagree with my analysis that the Advocates’ ad was not targeting the straight white men in our college dining halls, there is a lot more to say about the power of words to be injurious when targeting specific groups of people. To thoroughly address the issues of power and privilege (yep, I brought up that dreaded word!) would require a separate article, in which someone could cover the history and persistent threat of violence and silence against marginalized groups. Instead, I want to present a different set of challenges regarding the myth of political correctness at the 5Cs. 

Several online comments on Orly’s article expressed that this newspaper has repeatedly published pieces about political correctness. I have read many of those previously published pieces, and I have always been confused about the use of the term “political correctness.” The way that term is used by many at the 5Cs does not align with my understanding of its meaning.

Personal definitions aside, I don’t think we truly operate in a community that practices “political correctness.” It is not politically correct for wealthier students to make fun of homelessness or appearances of poverty. It is not politically correct for a student to start chanting, “Kill the faggot! Kill the faggot!” after a disagreement with me at a party. Political correctness is not something that many progressive students I know strive to establish as a culture. “Political correctness” seems to be more about skirting around issues and finding ways to gloss over conflict, and therefore, I don’t think it should ever be the end goal for any person or community. Instead, political correctness—and all the silence and avoidance that come with it—should serve as training wheels. The goal should be for us to eventually take the training wheels off and try to reach a point of critical understanding. We will fall off the bike many times along that ride, but we cannot rely on the training wheels forever.

Critical understanding includes examining the different levels of safety and comfort everyone experiences on these campuses. Orly commented that we are “universally accepting of minorities, lower-income people and LGBTQ students,” but what in the world does this mean? How is it possible that one person could make a claim such as that? It may be because we are not having conversations that challenge everyone to reach a place of critical understanding. Getting to that place means that sometimes people who live lives of greater privilege than others—whether they be white students, wealthy students, straight students, cisgender students, all men or any other group—will need to simply listen to the stories and perspectives of those who do not have the same levels of privilege. 

This does not mean you can’t ask questions and engage in conversation. It is not, however, productive to support the goals of political correctness, when those goals include the equalization and neutralization of identities and communities. Critical understanding means taking the training wheels off and continuing to pedal in order to persistently inform ourselves about the ways difference, power, privilege, safety and history affect how we think, the choices we make and the immensely disparate levels of access we are granted.

The first thing we can do on our campuses is to accept where we are and push for change. Critical understanding entails a process of constant motion; we can’t give up when it gets difficult. We just have to keep moving, keep challenging each other and ourselves.

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