“Political correctness” is about progress, not over-sensitivity
At a Des Moines’ town hall, Barack Obama joined a growing list of pundits who have complained that college campuses are “too politically correct.” On the subject, he said: “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative, or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either.”
While I was surprised to hear Obama say this, with a quick look at his political context, I saw why he would. In America’s bipolar party system, bipartisan lawmaking is considered laudable. Obama has been conditioned to see—or at the very least present—anti-politically-correct Republican ideas as respectable alternative viewpoints that are worthwhile for college students to engage with.
While Obama’s commitment to engaging with Republican ideas may be necessary for survival in the current American political climate, that does not mean such engagement is a good strategy for college students.
In the face of a whirlwind of different beliefs and opinions, exploring all ideas is a futile endeavour. Filtering out ideas, including some popular ones, is thus not an arbitrary act of censorship, but instead pragmatic prioritization that allows us to focus on developing solutions to real-world problems.
Take anthropogenic climate change, for instance. There are plenty of people in the world, including all but one of the declared 2016 Republican presidential candidates, who are willing to argue that it doesn’t exist. This view contradicts the findings of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists. Nonetheless, Bill Nye still has to engage in numerous public debates on the topic, and supporters of the fossil fuel industry, including Hillary Clinton, Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau are able to come across as environmentalist when such debates allow them to contrast themselves with borderline-climate-change deniers like Jeb Bush and Stephen Harper.
Now, imagine if climate change denial was successfully branded as hate speech against the Earth and then was effectively removed from our political debates. Suddenly, instead of meaningless spats between Jeb and Hillary on the existence of climate change, there would be space for debate between Hillary and (Green Party presidential candidate) Jill Stein on the degree to which we should pull out from the fossil fuel industry entirely. The question of how to transition to a green society is a complex one that requires debate in its own right—debate that must happen fast. Unfortunately, that cannot happen so long as the fossil fuel industry can continue to use its money to make the debate about the existence of climate change itself.
This logic applies to a plethora of issues. Doctors should be able to talk about how to best develop certain vaccines, not whether those vaccines will cause autism. Medical researchers should be able to discuss how a viral strand is evolving, not whether evolution exists.
Students who stand for political correctness are calling for similarly reasonable limits on debate.
LGBT rights activists, for instance, should not constantly have to devote time to debating those who insist on making the insulting and intellectually-empty claim that gay marriage is a sin. In calling for homophobic speech to be barred from campuses, activists are fighting for time to explore a greater plethora of issues facing the LGBT community (e.g., homelessness, police brutality, trans* health care), and encouraging non-LGBT students to engage with these issues rather than be distracted by debates that give merit to the positions of theocratic bigots.
It is hard to deny that the most privileged people in the world right now are wealthy cis white men. Nevertheless, there are speakers and organizations that will deny the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and/or economic inequality for the sake of defending their own privileges.
Therefore, when students protest things like men’s rights groups and white student unions, they are not simply protesting ideas they don’t like. Rather, they are fighting off forces that have come into existence solely to protest progress. President Obama can argue that protesting these ideas is not how you learn, but he has to face that engaging in tedious arguments about “Adam and Steve” is not a particularly intellectually stimulating experience either.comments powered by Disqus