Political correctness is (mostly) correct

Before I move into the heart of my opinion this week, I’d like to thank you all. Over the past three years, I’ve published an opinion piece in the Echo nearly every week. It’s become a ritual that I savor, not just because it makes me feel like a minor political pundit or some kind of anti-administration activist. I value the opinions section of the Echo because of its place as a two-page bastion of free speech and debate. When I was the Opinions editor, my favorite weeks were ones where people put themselves out there and critiqued past articles—even if the articles they were attacking were mine. Since coming to Colby, the places I have learned and reassessed my own views the most have been through argumentation, where students follow the ideals of J.S. Mill and question a long dead dogma. To the many students who have helped the Opinions section serve that function, I thank you.

This will likely be my last opinion piece for the Echo, and I’ve struggled figuring out what to write about. I was originally going to come full circle and write about the first topic I broached back as a sophomore—why Colby should do away with the hard alcohol ban. However, since I’ve written on that issue three or four times and the Administration has decided not to take any productive steps, I thought I’d try writing about something that we might actually be able to work on: the recent obsession with notions of political correctness—or “PC culture.”

For several years now, the term “PC culture” has become a pejorative umbrella term that people—in the past, mostly conservatives—utilize to describe the present societal shift where people modify their actions so as not to offend a particular group of people. The term has become both hollow and all encompassing, as everyone from comedians to pundits to certain billionaires-cum-politicians have used it to critique a movement that they deem harmful to our society.

Many claim that this shift in culture has led to the rise of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and gender-neutral pronouns. These critics denounce the rise of PC culture and the validity of “feeling offended,” asserting that these elements have culminated into the “pussification” of America. In justifying their aversion to these supposed manifestations of political correctness, the detractors often say that their beliefs come from a desire for free speech. After all, they say, a “safe space” requires that people censor their ideas and language in favor of another’s feelings.

While I suspect that many of these PC naysayers are more irritated that their repertoire of minority jokes isn’t funny anymore than the “loss of free speech,” more and more I’ve found normally tolerant people speaking out against aspects of the changing culture—myself included.

Before I continue, I’ll quickly recognize that I’m practically the poster boy of privilege. In addition to being a white male, I am cis, heterosexual, and come from a “traditional” nuclear family and a middle-upper class background. I have been afforded many opportunities that others haven’t. However, I have always prided myself at fighting against traditional power structures. I enjoy engaging people from diverse backgrounds to better understand these roadblocks that so many encounter. Moreover, I don’t think everything about the PC shift is terrible. I’ve met students on campus that have laughed at Colby activists, using the oft-repeated dismissal, “wait until they get into the real world.”

Hiding behind the mentality that activists possess little agency to create lasting change is counterproductive to what we do at Colby. As Ferentz Lafargue—Director of Williams College’s Davis Center—wrote in the Washington Post, “To be sure, the real world is full of anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexism and racism. The question is: Do we prepare students to accept the world as it is, or do we prepare them to change it?” As liberal arts students, we should be learning and working toward shaping the world into a more inclusive for our peers as well as ourselves.

However, the elements of this inclusive movement I disagree with most are the ones that fly in the face of inclusivity. Just recently, an activist group at Amherst—“Amherst Uprising”—demanded the Administration accept a “zero-tolerance policy for hate speech”—which I take to mean suspension or expulsion. While this drastic approach might seem like both an effective deterrent and a straightforward way to remove undesirables from campus, it’s extremely counterproductive to building the vibrant discourse an educational institution needs to thrive. 

No, I am not condoning hate speech. Targeting individuals based on their race, gender, or sexual orientation is abhorrent, and individuals doing it should be held accountable for their actions. By creating draconian punishments, however, we are not fixing the problem of prejudice, but merely moving it somewhere else and causing others to disengage. Ultimately, the unfortunate reality is that people will inevitably fuck up. The primary question we must confront then is what we do when our friends, our peers, or we fuck up.

When someone says something objectively offensive, it’s imperative that we call them on their mistake in a constructive way. If they messed up, they need to recognize that, but by actively engaging with them, I believe there’s a better chance that the encounter will lead to lasting empathy and understanding. However, the tact that many have resorted to—including some on this campus—is good ol’ fashioned public shaming.

As comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele once said on their hit show, Key & Peele, the word “racist” is the “N-word” for white people. At a school that annually questions whether Dana serving fried chicken during Black History Month is racist, it should come as no surprise that many members of our community are hesitant to engage on issues of race, sexuality, and gender. Who wants to speak their uncensored thoughts or opinions if there’s a chance they’ll be ostracized for them? In an era where people have lost careers over bigoted tweets, the fear is understandable.

Adding to this anxiety is the fact that we are in an era of transformation for various social justice movements. One of the clearest examples of this transition is the wide-acceptance that gender fluidity has gained over the past few decades. There is no doubt that this change is a sign of progress, but that doesn’t mean there are not growing pains. I have experienced several instances where people have chastised me for saying I was going to “his room” instead of “zes room.” I have no issue with altering my use of pronouns, but it surprises me when a mistake is met with vitriol. There is a huge difference between someone who says something out of ignorance but is willing to learn and someone who expresses ignorance with no desire to hear a different perspective.

In order to create a diverse and accepting community, we must foster an environment where all students feel free to speak their minds and listen to others without judgment. This ideal will be difficult to achieve, but it is necessary to the survival of our institution’s academic spirit. At the moment, the closest thing Colby has to this ideal is Yik Yak, which is used too often as a carte blanche for people’s unhinged shittyness. Colby has made good progress in combatting these tendencies over the four years I’ve been here, and I can only hope that they will continue pursuing this goal for all students. 

*mic drop*

  • dtizzlefosho

    “When someone says something objectively offensive, it’s imperative that we call them on their mistake in a constructive way. If they messed up, they need to recognize that, but by actively engaging with them, I believe there’s a better chance that the encounter will lead to lasting empathy and understanding. However, the tact that many have resorted to—including some on this campus—is good ol’ fashioned public shaming.”

    Here’s the thing though. Nothing is objectively offensive. The very nature of offense disallows it. It means that based on one’s worldview, and experiences, something said or done triggers some level of trauma. You make some decent points in the rest of the article that approach this general truth, but the problem is that you really can’t talk about what is “too PC” and what should be championed without first moving past whether or not it is even possible to be “objectively offensive”.

    Once that truth is accepted it becomes a much more difficult issue. You say that hate speech shouldn’t be condoned. Perhaps not specific hate speech, but the existence of hate speech is vital to the testing of free speech. It’s been upheld as a valid exercise and function of free speech on U.S. soil in everything from flag burnings to Nazi marches in Chicago. Because if we don’t allow this speech, or that speech, then we may have pleasant speech, but it certainly isn’t free. And it’s okay if what you value is pleasant speech. it’s just an opinion one. Not a very American one, but a valid opinion certainly. I value free speech infinitely more than pleasant speech. Ideas are the single greatest commodities on Earth and when you start delegating people as authorities on what ideas are “good”, “bad”, “harmful”, or “offensive”, you have effectively limited access to free speech.