Political Correctness Is a Learning Process

Kenny Moran’s article entitled “Political Correctness Means Common Decency” in last week’s TSL was interesting and raised some very valid points. However, I take great issue with the assertion made in the headline. 

By equating “political correctness” with a much broader concept of “common decency,” the headline paints those would-be transgressors as indecent persons. In the cases of conscious disregard of sensitivity toward others—i.e., the person who understands that saying “I raped that test” could trigger horrific emotional reactions in those around them but insists on saying it anyway, with some lame rationalization along the lines of “I didn’t mean rape in the sense of Rape” or some other malarkey—I wholeheartedly agree that they are being indecent. My issue comes with the case of the ignorant transgressor.

Now, let me say first off that I do not claim ignorance to be a viable excuse for transgression. In fact, it is because I hold this view that I find this equation of the term “political correctness” with “common decency” problematic; the equation promotes ignorance. In the spirit of Moran’s argument, I would contend that we here at the Claremont Colleges come from a very privileged intellectual standpoint. What I mean is this: We live in an environment where racial, gender and other issues are extremely prevalent in our minds and discussions.

But these issues tend not to be at the forefront of discourse in high school, and I would go so far as to contend that a large portion of the incoming first-year class enters our progressive sphere relatively ignorant on such matters. Speaking from my own experience, I had never even heard the terms heteronormativity and cisgender before our first-year class meeting in Little Bridges. I remember coming away from those meetings, specifically the one that featured the student diversity panel, upset and confused; in high school I had no notion of how far from ideal our society was. Naturally, when I first started wrapping my mind around these bold critiques, I had questions.

I wanted someone to sit down and talk with me about why exactly my previously held conceptions of society were so flawed. Luckily, I ended up living across the hall from senior John Bonacorsi PO ’12, and the conversations we had, often into the early morning, were among the most illuminating and enjoyable experiences of my first year at Pomona. What was so great about those conversations was that John understood the limitations of my origins. In my New York State public high school, I had been taught about our nation’s racism, for the large part, as a thing of the past culminating in the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s. But John did not simply write me off as the ignorant straight white male that I was when discussing the problematic view of America today as a post-racial society. Instead, he considered me as the well intentioned, intellectually curious and open-minded individual that I was. Notice that the two identifications are not mutually exclusive.

Claiming that by being politically incorrect one is lacking decency is immensely detrimental toward the ultimate goal of scholarship: bettering one’s understanding of the world that we live in, as well as of oneself as an individual. There is nothing indecent about striving toward achieving that goal. If we allow the label of indecency to apply to those who, in their quest to gain a better understanding of prevailing social issues, might ask a question that is offensive in its implications, we do stifle future inquiry and, consequently, understanding. If students feel as though they might be considered indecent for asking questions that they have, chances are they will err on the side of caution and refrain from asking. How we discuss “political correctness” on campus does need to change, and in that stream Moran makes a valid point. However, we stifle intellectual inquiry with this connotation of “indecency” by creating an almost accusatory environment. Despite our intentions, we incidentally promote ignorance—which is not an excuse.

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