Malbreaux: The Power of PC

Gaining power is the real motive of campus “political correctness.”

by Tyler Malbreaux | 5/4/17 12:35am

Dispelling the myths surrounding the term “political correctness” requires me to make both a concession and a confession before addressing the article’s central thesis.

First, I’ll start with the concession. Political correctness, as a term, originated as a tool for prejudiced, reactionary politics — a pejorative to insult those who take a more critical view on the development of Western civilization in general and American society in particular. Patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism — the unholy trinity — are the dominant themes of these views, which are held by those on the political left.

The narrative of leftist discourse on society’s structural flaws — systemic racism, classism and sexism — is not a novel one. Beginning in the 1960s, the ideology blossomed on college campuses. Protests erupted in schools such as the University of California, Berkeley and historically black colleges in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and the Equal Rights Amendment. Intense media attention forced college students into the national spotlight and gave them capability and influence never realized by prior generations. For instance, at the University of Georgia in the 1960s, dress code policies that were more restrictive on women than men were released following student-organized protests. The potential to affect university action has only increased in recent years. Students at Berkeley, for instance, prevented Ann Coulter, a prominent conservative speaker, from lecturing at a university event this year by threatening violence.

Power in the form of influence also gives students, to some degree, control over course curriculum content, especially in the humanities. Course evaluations, which are now required at Dartmouth before students are allowed to access termly grades and at many other colleges in a variety of forms, may impact professors’ careers. While there is no clear evidence, a recent New York Times article suggested that negative feedback on course evaluations can reduce enrollment in a particular course, thus affecting the professor’s reputation. With their influence, students can make demands for accommodations like trigger warnings and safe spaces — in many cases, their demands are fulfilled. This is especially true for history classes, in which topics may cover controversial areas of study like slavery; in these courses, students may petition to be excused from engaging with sensitive content.

The backlash to these changes, usually from those on the political right, is the charge that so-called “political correctness” is crippling free speech on college campuses. These critics have a point. For example, at many American colleges, especially elite institutions, the narrative of white supremacy is preached as dogma to invalidate white opinions, and anyone who presents an alternative is called a heretic. If someone is ignorant on the proper use of gender pronouns, they will likely be labeled a bigot. Rather than engaging in discussion, people shut down opposing viewpoints immediately.

But the more pernicious side of this hyper-politically correct culture is denying participation before words are spoken. A white male from a rural state cannot possibly comment on his apprehensions of more restrictive federal gun laws, for if he did, he would be portrayed as having no sympathy for victims of gun violence. A student from a state that is highly dependent on the oil industry cannot argue for the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, for he knows that if he does he will be labeled as someone who hates Sioux tribal nations. A student from Texas, who opposes illegal immigration and a pathway to amnesty, is discouraged from sharing this, regardless of whether he has legitimate reasons for his opposition.

I make these points to preface the aforementioned confession: I am no conservative. I align myself with left-of-center politics. However, even I have been the target of politically correct nonsense. It is no wonder that, starting in the late 1990s, conservative media outlets began to attack the left as the political spheres became increasingly polarized. A 2015 Harvard Political Review article notes that before the turn of the century, “Political correctness was no longer a compliment, but a term laced with partisan feeling, owned by the left and despised by the right.” Ever since, conservative politicians have used the term to arouse feelings of contempt among their supporters. President Donald Trump derided political correctness and brought massive crowds to his rallies. “I’ve been challenged by so many people, and I don’t, frankly, have time for political correctness,” Trump said in late 2015 to much applause. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”

All told, political correctness is not completely baseless. There are claims that can be made with legitimacy — for example, the history of white supremacy has cursed minorities with discriminatory employment and housing, along with more blatant forms of racism like the racialization of government welfare and drug use. And the right has its own form of political correctness as well. Claiming that working class whites in rural America are victims of neoliberal policies seems to be the dominant narrative of today’s conservatives, despite the fact that extreme poverty in minority communities has never been accredited to disastrous government policy but rather a supposed failure of culture, whether that be a lack of good parenting or rampant laziness that breeds unemployment.

The true motive behind both sides of political correctness is, nonetheless, to accrue power. On college campuses, leftist jargon is used by the elite to silence dissent and elevate their own class via contrived intellectualism. If college students truly, and not just superficially, long for the free flow of information, they must realize that the current use of political correctness unfairly punishes those with dissenting views and identities, and the use of technical, esoteric terminology only exacerbates the divide between student groups.