Presented at the Forty-eighth Annual Meeting of the American Conference of Academic Deans, Washington, D.C., January 9, 1992
One of the hottest topics about higher education today—if not in higher education—is “Political Correctness” or “PC.” In the last eight months hardly an issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education has not included at least one article with that phrase in the headline; magazines from Change to Newsweek have featured it.
But what does “political correctness” mean? To some it seems to present a crisis in higher education as profound as McCarthyism in the 1950s; to others it is a smokescreen, a diversion from the real issues at hand. To many it is a confusing issue, in its substance and in the way the various players approach the debate.
Gary Trudeau took a stab at defining political correctness by parodying it last spring in a Doonesbury cartoon, where he depicted a middle-aged commencement speaker, probably the college president, addressing the graduating class. This is his speech:
Graduating Seniors, Parents and Friends:
Let me begin by reassuring you that my remarks today will stand up to the most stringent requirements of the new appropriateness.
The intra-college sensitivity advisory committee has vetted the text of even trace amounts of subconscious racism, sexism, and classism.
Moreover, a faculty panel of deconstructionists has reconfigured the rhetorical components within a post-structuralist framework, so as to expunge any offensive elements of western rationalism and linear logic.
Finally, all references flowing from a white, male, Eurocentric perspective have been eliminated, as have any other ruminations deemed denigrating to the political consciousness of the moment.
Thank you and good luck.1
Trudeau’s cartoon reflects the fears of those who are attacking what they call the PC movement. Charges of political correctness (usually made by conservatives) imply that certain people, factions, or committees (usually liberals or leftists) are enforcing particular political views on others: teachers on students, students on teachers, or people in one or another group on each other. These charges imply prejudice, hypersensitivity of minority groups, intolerance, repressiveness, lack of respect for dissent, violation of the principles of academic freedom and free expression.
In some instances, charges are made against the use of institutional authority to advance a political agenda through decisions on hiring, promotion, tenure, research grants, or other decisions that have a direct bearing on the careers and academic opportunities of individuals. Such charges imply a disregard for professional, non-political standards of intellectual quality and productivity or pedagogical skill.
This is the sort of charge that has been aimed at Duke University’s English Department. To the extent that political criteria displace other measures of academic or intellectual quality, then we should worry about academic standards and academic freedom. For my own part, I have little concern about this kind of problem, however. Carleton, like most colleges and universities, prides itself on having a diverse range of viewpoints represented within its faculty. The value placed on diversity by most institutions is so high that relatively few departments are likely to be “captured” by particular political schools of thought, and the loss of reputation suffered by those that are is likely to limit the damage.
Other charges of political correctness are more general—directed at an atmosphere of intolerance for differing (i.e., conservative) points of view. The analysis implicit in this conservative complaint is that there is an orthodoxy of the left that sees American society as fundamentally discriminatory against blacks, women, and the poor, and regards conservative thought (that is, white, male, Eurocentric thought) as having the effect, and perhaps the intention, of perpetuating that discrimination. Since discrimination is immoral, those whose thoughts and words help perpetuate it are seen as immoral. Immoral arguments are not respected as alternative views worthy of serious debate; rather, they are to be exposed as hypocrisy, labeled “racist” or “sexist” and rejected, along with their proponents.
If the conservative complaint is valid, if the Doonesbury parody is based on truth, then of course there is legitimate cause for concern. For the very foundation of American higher education is and must be the principle of academic freedom, a principle that not only undergirds the otherwise quaint or merely expedient practice of tenure in faculty appointments, but a principle that is essential to the classroom, the curriculum, the library and the bookstore, and in everyone’s study and conversation on campus. If there are groups attempting to short-circuit that conversation or limit study to preconceived “correct” topics or approaches or texts, then we do have a new form of censorship of which we should indeed beware.
It is difficult to verify or evaluate these charges of political correctness, however. At a Carleton faculty meeting last spring, a faculty member announced that three colleagues had stopped teaching particular courses in recent years because of student pressure—complaints about the syllabus or the faculty member’s politics or background. This was appalling news, and it convinced some that academic freedom was under attack at Carleton. Nat Hentoff said as much when he picked up the story and repeated it in one of his columns in The Washington Post.2 Yet in subsequent discussions I had with the faculty members named, and publicly in several faculty workshops we’ve had since then on teaching sensitive issues, it became clear these cases involve many other factors and the faculty members involved did not see themselves as casualties of a “politically correct” attack on academic freedom.
This episode, among others, confirms my suspicion that the charge of political correctness has been levied much more broadly and freely than the actual severity of the problem, as defined by the conservatives, justifies. Too often it is pointed not toward the imposition of certain beliefs or coercion to focus on certain topics or texts and exclude others, but toward the beliefs or text themselves, beliefs or texts that the accusers simply don’t like. Given the charged atmosphere surrounding the issue, in these cases the very accusation of political correctness acts to stop the conversation, silence the debate, and discredit those who may be honestly and searchingly seeking to broaden understanding and include new points of view. In such cases, such charges constitute “the PC frame-up” emphasized last fall at a conference on the issue at the University of Michigan. This is censorship in an insidious, dishonest form by those who resist change in the curriculum and in the social climate on campus.
We end up with both sides hurling identical accusations at each other of practicing the “new McCarthyism.” While it is tempting to be amused by the irony of the political “right” trying to skewer the “left” with charges of intolerance and censorship, the underlying issues are too serious to laugh off.
So what can we do about the situation on campus? What can we as deans do about the confusions, the acrimony, the contradictions that are so rife? Is there a way to get “beyond” political correctness, as the title of this session so optimistically suggests?
One important step is to try to understand why the controversy over political correctness is rearing its ugly head now, and why some people are so vehement about it. What is the resonance felt on many campuses and, maybe even more, by the public at large? One popular writer asserts that the timing is explained by the fact that political activists from the sixties have just recently gained ascendancy in the academy; they are now “tenured radicals” who suddenly have the power to impose their views on the institution (never mind that most radical activist were much too busy demonstrating to go to graduate school and become professors).3 Others argue that over the last ten years or so, the swing toward conservative political ideas in the nation at large has posed a significant ideological challenge to what’s left of the left, which has responded by seeking to defend its stronghold in the academy (probably the only remaining) through institutional power and ad hominem attacks. According to both of these views, the charge of political correctness has arisen at this time because of changes in the behavior of liberals and radicals, who (it is said) have abandoned academic traditions of tolerance and academic freedom.
However, the most astute commentators I have read on the subject suggest that the PC tempest is simply the noise (albeit a loud noise) of change on our campuses. They point to the tremendous demographic changes that American institutions of higher education have undergone in the past three decades, mirroring changes in society. Predominately white, male, middle-class institutions have been transformed to include women and people from diverse economic, ethnic and national backgrounds. Curricula have expanded to include not only new fields like biochemistry and cognitive science, but women’s studies and ethnic studies, and traditional disciplines have been transformed by new questions and approaches. This is all part of the larger societal process of inclusion of previously marginalized groups that we have witnessed since 1960. Many welcome these changes; others are threatened by them; few find them completely comfortable. The important thing to note is that there is no unanimity about them on our campuses and the process of change is far from complete.
The tension is exacerbated, of course, by the recent financial hard times in our society and in academia. If the pie can’t expand, then for every winner there is also a loser. This puts traditional disciplines and groups on the defensive. One result has been a rash of incidents of racial, ethnic, or religious harassment on our campuses: instances of vandalism or hate speech have occurred all too frequently.
There are ugly reminders that the issue at stake is not only justice but power. One Carleton student I engaged in conversation seemed to recognize this, at least in a naïve way. When I asked her why some students are so passionate about their “political correct” views and seem prone to impose them on others, she replied that most of them have always felt deeply about social justice, the environment, etc., but that in high school, they had always been in the distinct minority and had felt silenced by the majority. Now that they are in the majority—well, it is only natural that they want their day! This only seems “fair.”
This may explain the passion with which some undergraduates approach the issue. But how do we explain the extraordinary vehemence of some nonacademic participants in the PC furor? Some commentators see it as part of a strong antipathy against higher education as a whole. They see the PC epithet as a new version of the red-baiting of the McCarthy era (which had to be replaced by something since communism is no longer available as a scapegoat), a new outcropping of the deep-seated anti-intellectual tendency in American society that Richard Hofstadter identified 30 years ago in his book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. These analysts see the anti-PC argument as part of the larger conservative attack on colleges and universities, and predict that it is not just a passing band-wagon they’ve climbed on as a whim.
All these issues are real, both within and outside our institutions, and the stakes are high. No wonder there is passion involved. But to uncover the real issues, to have any hope for constructive outcomes, we must try to rise above the acrimony and the confusion.
A place to start, I would suggest, is to avoid the phrase “political correctness” itself. This is simply expedient, since it is now so loaded with extraneous connotations and contradictory assumptions that one’s intentions in using it are bound to be misunderstood by some audiences.
But more importantly, the very idea of political correctness contains a profound contradiction. For the term “politics” inherently implies differences of viewpoint or approach, two or several sides to an argument. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state would seem to recognize this. Religious belief is based on moral conviction, which, if not absolute and immutable, still aspires to be universal and eternal. Political structures and processes, on the other hand, involve strategies, expediencies, compromises, voting, negotiating, and debate. The idea of political correctness, then, confuses politics and morals. It implies a final say, a “truth” about something that is always by definition in process, something that is arguable.
Of course, as Americans we do espouse certain political verities, such as those articulated in the Declaration of Independence: we believe that all men and women are “created equal,” endowed with the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These rights are elaborated and guaranteed by the Constitution in the Bill of Rights; yet, they did not imply a particular economic structure, a certain form of land use planning, or a specific literary canon. In an academic context, however, they point precisely to open debate with participation by all parties, academic freedom to discuss and study and pursue the truth as each individual sees fit. They point to a process rather than a particular body of knowledge or version of truth.
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that the First Amendment, guaranteeing the right to free speech, is often invoked in the current debates. It is used on both sides to complain about the silencing that is going on. But it is also used to defend drunken students hurling racial slurs across campus in the dark or ridiculing “ugly” women. Some campuses have dealt with the rudeness, incivility, and political violence of such incidents by formulating policies of civility or a “speech codes” as they have been called. Several of these have been struck down in the courts on the grounds that they violate the right to free speech. What is disturbing about these instances is the apparent conflict between rights (the right to free speech) and responsibilities (the responsibility to be civil to others). It has seemed like an impasse on many campuses.
Carleton has struggled with this dilemma, I believe quite constructively. Three years ago, as part of rewriting the Sexual Harassment Policy, it was decided not to include gender harassment there but to appoint a new committee to look at broader issues of harassment (gender, racial, ethnic, religious, etc.). After a year’s discussion, this Committee to Explore Issues of Discrimination drafted what became a Statement on Discrimination and Academic Freedom, which was adopted after another year of debate on campus. It’s a relatively short statement. It avoids talking about prohibitions and sanctions, but instead articulates values.
At its heart is academic freedom, which I believe is much more helpful as we face these issues on campus than its first cousin, free speech. Academic institutions are voluntary associations pursuing particular activities and goals; as the basic rule of the game we play in our institutions, academic freedom is more than free speech; it supports the right to free speech of individuals but also the responsibilities of individuals to the enterprise of learning and teaching. It means intellectually responsible speech. As the AAUP Redbook puts it, faculty members (and I would add students and staff—everyone on campus) must strive at all times to “be accurate…exercise appropriate restraint, (and) show respect for opinions of others.”4 Or, as Carleton’s statement reads, “While the nature of an academic community is to provide a milieu for the expression, criticism and discussion (and for the tolerance) of the widest range of opinions, it does not provide a license for a bigotry in the form of demeaning, discriminatory speech or actions.”5
At base, the use of demeaning, discriminatory words to describe or address anyone is a denial of human respect, a rejection of the person and what he or she represents as a valid member of the academic community, and a substitution of a simplistic, negative label for serious appraisal. Hence, we deploy discriminatory epithets or stereotypes directed at minorities or women. At the same time, we should also deplore the indiscriminate use of words such as “racist” or “sexist,” to dismiss the arguments of someone who takes a critical view of multiculturalism or feminism. In both cases, labels convert what might be a useful debate into a personal attack on the critic’s morals. Sometimes, even if the actual use of such pejoratives is rare, the fear of their use can have a chilling effect on open discussion and criticism.
The key point here is that in articulating a principle of civility in discussing differences of opinion—putting politeness back into politics (they do have the same Latin root)—we are not limiting free speech but upholding it. For discriminatory speech or personal attacks by one member of the academic community against another specifically and precisely impinges upon the academic freedom of the other. Hence, by deploring speech that creates a hostile atmosphere for others, we defend the very conditions of academic freedom.
This is not to say, however, that all comments that create discomfort are discriminatory. The AAUP Redbook notes that “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”6 As the subsequent Interpretive Comments make clear, the intention is not to ban controversy. Far from it, for “controversy is at the heart of free academic inquiry.”7 Or as Carlton’s Statement says, “Often, the educational process is disturbing and unsettling; when one’s ideas are under attack and one’s values are being challenged, the effect may be simultaneously painful and highly educational.”
I don’t assert that Carleton’s statement on Discrimination and Academic Freedom is a perfect document, though I think it’s a pretty good one. What has been most valuable about it at Carleton is the discussion it has produced. Whether the three faculty members I mentioned earlier were “hounded” out of teaching their courses or not, they made their decisions in isolation; now they and others are talking about the difficulties they face, and the strategies they use, in teaching sensitive materials and trying to create a good learning environment for all students. They are sharing ideas and, just as important, giving each other moral support. There is much more conversation among faculty that needs to take place. We need to do a better job of helping students understand the nature and value of academic freedom, and we need more dialogue between students and faculty about the difficult issues at stake. We need much more talk.
As deans, we need to be pretty good talkers. We are mediators, facilitators, referees, and coaches. We cannot settle the debate or chart the course, but we must not get mired in the arguments between the forces for change and the traditionalists. We must constantly try to turn confrontation into conversation, silencing labels into openings for dialogue. If we don’t, we risk polarization on campus, and we are in danger of feeling the fires of nonacademic critics who are attacking the very nature and purpose of higher education.
2. See Nat Hentoff, “Whitewashing Political Correctness,” The Washington Post, September 21, 1991, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1991/09/21/whitewashing-political-correctness/f6a8da91-83a0-4351-a180-6173306eb625/
4. Dr. McKinsey’s original article cited the 1990 edition of the AAUP Redbook or the American Association of University Professors Policy Documents and Reports (Johns Hopkins University Press). This quote can be found on p. 14 of the current (2015) edition, right-hand column, point 3.
5. Thirty years later, Carleton’s statement is still institutional policy and can be found at https://apps.carleton.edu/handbook/community/?policy_id=867538