On Political Correctness, its Abuse, and the Modern University

Legendary English comedian John Cleese recently recorded a BigThink.com video where he discusses the role of political correctness in society. (The YouTube version is here). I agree with John Cleese. Political correctness is a good idea when it discourages people from being mean or nasty to those who cannot necessarily change their condition or status, be it race, gender, ethnicity, body size and shape, mental or physical disability, etc.

But when it comes to ideas, that is, thoughts that are conceived and then spoken aloud, I think that these are appropriate to consider, debate, critique, and at times, mock. Of course, I want to hear all ideas, as there might be something new that I haven’t considered that might be useful to me or humanity. I should never be so stubborn or foolish to think that I am the sole proprietor of truth, or that my thoughts and beliefs have somehow achieved a privileged exemption from criticism based on the fact that they, for instance, are religious or traditional.

But when an idea is harmful to society, or when the idea is easily and has been repeatedly debunked with facts and evidence and logic and numbers, and when an idea has been shown to marginalize certain individuals or groups, then these ideas can and should be critiqued. If the one espousing the defunct, harmful idea continues to espouse the idea, then that is his or her right, but it is also our right as responsible citizens to continue to assail the idea (not the person, but the idea) with logic, reason, and even mockery, as public humiliation is often the only thing that persuades one espousing a defunct idea to cease its propagation. This goes for all ideas, including political, philosophical, economic, ideological, and religious claims–no idea is exempt from critique! And while the debate over some ideas will continue for millennia–fate vs. free will, which economic or political system is superior, how to handle certain ethical issues, etc.–many other ideas should be retired from mainstream discourse with the understanding that there will always be someone or some group that will continue to cling to outdated, debunked ideas.

Political correctness is a good idea when it is limited to the physical characteristics or status of an individual or society. But when political correctness seeks to prohibit the critique of ideas, and attempts to characterize any critical analysis of an idea as “offensive”, then political correctness has gone too far. This is true especially for university campuses, which exist, in part, to expose students to new ideas, foreign concepts, and different ways of thinking that are often unfamiliar or even exotic, and with which a particular student may disagree, and where all of this is done in a safe, creative, developmental, experimental environment where students can learn and try out new ideas and concepts, arguing for and against several newly introduced issues without paying the social penalty for nonconformity to the societal majority’s opinion.

Universities are the practice fields of the world’s future players. Like professional athletes, citizens of the world’s communities should be exposed to every possible scenario on the practice field, so that they can learn and plan to respond effectively as professionals when it’s game time. And part of being a responsible professional is learning how to behave professionally when interacting with others. Political correctness aids individuals in treating other individuals and communities with respect and dignity. In this regard, political correctness is a good thing.

However, to hide behind the shield of political correctness when one’s idea is criticized and when its flaws are laid bare is to misuse political correctness. And of course, it is this abuse of political correctness by the far left that those on the far right criticize and then use to mischaracterize all political correctness as the censorship of free speech in an effort to dismiss professionalism and common courtesy during civil discourse so that they can continue to espouse harmful beliefs, make false accusations, promote detrimental policies, and prop up discredited ideas.

There is a place for political correctness, but that place is not the censorship or critique of ideas.

If you are so sensitive that you characterize any idea, any thought, any different way of thinking, or any critique of your own thoughts, claims, or firmly held beliefs as “offensive”, then you have failed in your development as a responsible citizen. I recommend that you enroll in a university, even if only for a short time, so that you can at least be exposed to different ideas in a safe, inclusive environment. And I hope that you do not choose a university that actively seeks to shield its own students from critiques of ideas and beliefs in the name of political correctness, but rather one that encourages the free exchange, debate, and critique of ideas, for this is the only way one learns to handle the wild, crazy, bigoted, unsubstantiated, false, intentionally harmful, nonsensical, illogical, debunked, and irresponsible claims that are made every day in society.

It is the exposure to, consideration of, and the espousal or dismissal of–and not the shielding from–bad ideas that makes individuals smarter, our society better, and allows civilization to progress beyond a censorial tyranny that constantly invents new ways of being offended to mask the fact that the discredited claims they are perpetuating can no longer be defended with evidence, reason, or logic.


4 Responses

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post! This is the main reason why I do not attend our local Unitarian-Universalist congregation any more. The amount of unthinking Political Correctness — and the backlash at anyone (me) who points it out — is disgusting. There is no thinking, no questioning, no anything. In addition, for your information, in the world of devotional polytheists, which I am one, this particular phenomenon is bringing forth so-called neo-pagans and atheists united in believing that we have to be members of the Alt-Right because we believe that the Gods come first. It is almost too ridiculous for words. Anyway, I wish to thank you again for this.

  2. Scholars love to say how they are free to say whatever they want at universities, but I have read blogs where scholars have said “Now that I am retired, I can finally say what I really think.” They say this because they can’t rock the boat and risk their careers. Scholars are not really free to say what they want, but have to stay in the mainstream of their fields if they want to succeed and take care of their families. It isn’t just about political correctness, it is about everything in the academic world.

  3. Within many confessional schools (Christian universities that require a prof to attend a certain church or sign a statement of faith), but it is not usually the case for public universities. Likewise, this can be said about pre-tenure faculty, as tenure exists to ensure that faculty can say what their research dictates without the very pressures you describe above.

    The fact is that faculty at research institutions are actually encouraged to think new ideas and create new knowledge and say the unpopular. Anyone who claims what YOU said above probably didn’t do much of what I just said in the preceding line (for whatever reason).

  4. hi bobcargill, I understand your point of when political correctness is ok and where in some situations it is not, but if that is the case i fear it would be a line blurred by many. If not it would lead the the long debate of where that line should be drawn of when its ok and when it isn’t. I feel you could be on to something with where the possibility of political correctness shifts but why should we all have to stress over that? We should just all accept it as a part of our fast changing world because with the change of our word and how to communicate it is is where political correctness arises. Why make this confusing about when and when not, instead just accept political correctness as a worldwide part of communication. It goes with the saying ‘if you have nothing nice to say, dont say anything at all’. Clearly whoever said this didn’t know about PC so doesn’t it seem better if everyone says it goes about it correctly? Doesn’t that just make sense?

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