Chamseddine: When Students Fear Dialogue

by Reem Chamseddine | 8/20/15 5:28pm

The college experience is increasingly isolated from the real world. Dining halls with all-you-can eat buffets, friends living all around you, caring professors and advisors and beautiful green lawns are not often found as one leaves his or her’s undergraduate institution. Add to that political correctness, and you get idealistic students who are quite unprepared for the world outside college, where many people don’t think twice before causing offense.

Political correctness is the belief that both language and practices that could offend political or personal sensibilities should be avoided or, in some cases, altogether eliminated. Political correctness can stifle discussion, promote personal censorship and create a community that is too comfortable for its own good. But, does political correctness serve a moral purpose, or is it something else more calculated?

As a recent piece in The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind”, point​s out, college campuses across the nation are becoming increasingly more politically correct. For example, people use the relatively new term microagression to refer to unintentional and intentional daily indignities. I have seen the term microagression used in angry Facebook posts, in the classroom and between my friends. While I recognize that there are some serious microagressions, such as asking someone where they are “really” from, I find that the term has become a go-to in shutting down any further discussion.

When I set out to explore the level of political correctness on campus, several students interviewed requested to remain anonymous citing concerns of backlash. This fear among students reflects the polarizing nature of political correctness and illustrates that our campus is no exception tot he trend noted in The Atlantic.

From these conversations, I wondered whether we should censor all possible offensive speech or ideas, and if it would even be possible for a student body of more than 4,000 to agree on what is offensive and what is not. Moreover, is absolute inoffensive speech possible or does no opinion exist that is offensive to no one?

By making students fear speaking their minds, a rigid attention to correctness risks stripping away much of the intellectual discourse for which liberal arts schools are known. I have sat through classes and wanted to disagree with what students and professors said, but I was ultimately worried about causing offense. I will never know whether there was a valid counterargument to my thinking — I was too afraid to challenge my classmates by saying something potentially upsetting.

Aine Donovan, director of the Ethics Institute, said that the “college experience stretches one’s intellectual muscles,” and there is much to be learned “from debating people with different belief systems.”

Isaiah Matthews ’17 said that he believes students can learn from discussions, noting that, “when people or organizations are politically incorrect, we can overreact and miss a teaching moment by responding too forcefully.”

This is not to suggest that political correctness cannot be constructive. It can increase one’s awareness of others’ experiences with injustice. In this way, political correctness can create a culture in which students become considerate and nuanced thinkers. Further, understanding various perspectives on a certain issue makes for more informed citizens.

Torri Lee ’17 said that while she felt limited in her ability to speak freely as a freshman she know appreciates political correctness “because it stems from awareness.”

Similarly, Josefina Ruiz ’17 said she sees political correctness on campus as a sign of awareness and openness, rather than censorship.

Morgan Sandhu ‘17 agreed, saying that ​“students are largely interested in having an open discussion rather than automatic condemnation.”

So again, political correctness has its merits. Yet if we allow it to go rampant, we risk muting alternative voices and inhibiting intellectual growth. We all have the right to object to political incorrectness, and everyone has the right to speak, even those with whom we do not agree.