By Dan Williams
I’d like to draw a line between two sorts of political correctness. On the one side is the good, the genuinely helpful, the uncontroversial need for there to be some limit to acceptable discourse, especially in a classroom, if any fruitful conversations are to take place. This sort of political correctness is on par with the principle of charity, in which someone’s words are given a “charitable interpretation,” even if they have misspoken in some way. I am speaking here of situations in which we are most concerned with finding out what other people think, what they know, or what they think they know, while at the same time we are uncovering what we think or
what we think we know through the process of dialogue.
But there is also the unhelpful sort of political correctness, which has been so prominent lately. The term may be approaching dog-whistle status, wherein politicians who rail against it are understood by a select cohort to be speaking against, say, dark-skinned people who have attained college education and the light-skinned “race betrayers” who have abetted their efforts. But we need not go quite that far, quite yet.
When I say the unhelpful sort of political correctness, I mean the sort that does not aid in enhancing dialogue. Rather, it shuts it down or prevents it from taking place. Presumably, this isn’t the goal, though it is nevertheless the outcome. The thought, I think, is that we don’t need to have a conversation about certain assumptions about racism, or so-called reverse racism, or gender “inequality” (I put this in scare-quotes because of the simple fact that genders aren’t equal in the sense of the very same, or identical). Such views may sound crude, but I assure you, they arise more from an honest lack of information than from a malignant racism or sexism. The difficulty, as I see it, is that in order to have a fruitful discussion about race and gender, we need a firm scientific footing. But this is just what is lacking in the humanities, where the tough conversations are supposedly going on.
In my experience, everyone is assumed to have the “politically correct view” when they walk in the door, and thus class discussions quickly descend toward the pit of universal banality. Teachers, of course, can be heard complaining of “silent students” all the time. Maybe that silence has something to do with fears of offending the overly sensitive.
Teachers cannot be held entirely to blame. It is larger than that. The “university as business” model has given students far more power over their teachers than they once had. Fear of lawsuits, fear of firing, fear of suspension, fear of being ostracized, all make the classroom horrifically stifling on any topic of serious controversy. In other words, on those topics which require discussion the most.
Fortunately, the University of Iowa is not an elite institution, in which these problems are the worst. There is less of a politically correct (in the bad sense) culture here than at most small, private liberal-arts colleges.
We ought to capitalize on this freedom to dissent without excessive and bizarre repercussion by offering honest appraisals of how things appear to us to be, regardless if that conforms to a pseudo-consensus of how things ought to be. But this should always be done with respect and humility, with an open and clear mind: one that is not unduly suspicious, nor one that is enamored with mere words. That is how we learn.