In and Out of the Classroom: Political Correctness Actually Restrains Open Dialogue

In January, Brendan O’Neill
published an article in Spiked Magazine entitled, “The new war against PC—it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target.” In
the article, O’Neill discusses
the historical origins of PC, or political correctness, arguing that it is born out of the rejection of traditional ideas, authority and morality. PC, he explains, is in response to deeply entrenched values that remain inherently prejudiced
against any marginalized group separate from the mainstream majority.

From my perspective, those who strongly push for PC also
encourage a revision of collective moral values on a broader scale. After
reading O’Neill’s article, I began to pay more attention
to the manifestation of PC in and out of the classroom at the Claremont Colleges.
When I think about the classic model of a liberal arts education (the kind of
education that William Deresiewicz advocates for), I see active and challenging
discourse at its base.

When I choose my classes, I tend to flock toward seminar classes
whenever possible. I do this because these seminars are more conducive to
higher levels of discussion that are not always available in bigger,
lecture-style classes. As a child, I was treated like an adult when it came to
dinner conversations. I was expected to have an opinion about whatever issue or topic
was being discussed while eating roast chicken. When I attempted to challenge my
mother or father to a debate, they would often take on the role of ‘devil’s advocate,’ arguing an
opinion that they likely did not truly believe in to challenge and expand my thinking. As frustrating as this was, I compare it to
the growing pains children feel in their joints, or the teething of babies—growth is uncomfortable.

Discourse is key to intellectual growth, but when political
correctness enters the picture, it can sometimes be a hindrance to the
process. For example, there is gray area surrounding the use of the word “African-American” vs. the word “Black” when referring to a Black person in the
United States. I sat down at a dining hall table one day, among a group of
people discussing this question. A woman asked if it was offensive to
refer to a Black person as Black, saying that she “felt more
comfortable” with saying African-American. 

Subsequently, it was explained that the use of the term “African-American” is technically problematic because it assumes that the person is of African origin when
they could be Caribbean, Latino/Latina or a multitude of other
identities. This interaction provokes a thought: Conversations on campus are unable to reach their full potentials, halted by the lack of standards about which words we can and cannot use.

The Claremont Colleges uphold and advocate for diversity, with a student body that includes people from different races, socioeconomic classes, religious
backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities.
Even beyond that, we are home to many systems of thought and value. I
believe that tolerance can only be achieved by having an open dialogue, even if
this dialogue is difficult to start and even more difficult to sustain. We need to discuss topics, even if they are taboo or difficult, or the conversation
requires non-politically correct language. It would be frustrating if
these conversations were unable to come to fruition for fear of
offending someone else.

I think the most sensible solution would be to accept a modern
reinterpretation of PC, with emphasis on basic respect rather than the nit-picking, hyper-sensitized and overly specific norms out of which we currently
operate. Perhaps, instead of accepting the new moral standards that have
been pushed by those caught up in the hysteria of political correctness, we can
come to an understanding that no one expressly sets out to harm another intentionally.

I hope that all who hold opinions, controversial or otherwise, are willing to stand behind the views that they espouse. These individuals
should support their arguments in the face of critique, especially in forums of
discourse. And to those of you who find yourselves monitoring the political
correctness of others, it may be more productive to skip correcting other
people’s political correctness, and to instead focus on the root of why they
may have used the term they used or said the thing they said. In the end,
simply correcting language does nothing to change the hearts and minds of those
around you. If we want to build a more tolerant world and cultivate an increased
tolerance in our individual communities, we must do more than redefine and surveil the words we employ.

Taylor Lemmons CM ’17 is an international relations and legal studies dual major from Denver, Colo.

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