Guest column Michael Thurston: Is there such a thing as political correctness?

  • Michael Thurston, a Smith College English and literature professor who was recently named provost and dean of faculty at the school.

Published: 3/15/2019 11:56:51 PM

It was heartening to read in the March 5 Gazette of the debate the Smith College Republicans hosted on the resolution that “political correctness” stifles debate and inhibits education.

But the resolution assumes definitions and shared understandings that in fact need to be demonstrated before arguments about the power of political correctness can most effectively be addressed.

For example: What is political correctness? Who determines whether a policy, a statement, an action or a reaction is politically correct? And does political correctness exist in the first place? These questions are especially important in the setting of education not only because that setting is where debates over political correctness most frequently and loudly play out but also because that setting is where we should be most precise in our language, most careful to match our words to the things we hope to name.

While it has a longer history, the term “political correctness” came into public prominence in the “culture wars” and campus speech conflicts of the early 1990s. At that time, scholars and activists in ethnic studies, gender studies and other fields called attention to power assumptions embedded in language and sought alternatives that either resisted or made explicit those power assumptions.

In reaction, conservatives on and off campus labeled their efforts “political correctness.” Someone points out the inherent sexism of the generic “he” pronoun or discourse about “mankind”? Dismiss that interlocutor as politically correct. Unhappy that someone has pointed out the racism or homophobia of certain favorite epithets? Ah, another person just being politically correct. Irritated that you can no longer talk about “jewing” down a price or being “gypped”? The politically correct thought police are at it again.

The problem with this characterization is that it polemically renames processes and priorities that already have good names, thereby casting political aspersion on legitimate intellectual and social work. When we try to be mindful of the metaphors and power assumptions latent in our language, we are simply seeking clear and careful expression. That is at the heart of education, as we learn better ways to express our thoughts and values.

Often, this greater precision of expression also helps us to avoid logical fallacies; cleaning up our language clears up our thought. For example, when I find your argument to be specious and I call it “lame,” I inadvertently link physical disability with flawed logic. That linkage is itself flawed logic. When I become aware of this, my language becomes clearer: “Your argument is flawed.” And my thought often becomes clearer as a result: “Your argument is flawed specifically because its conclusion does not deductively result from its premise.”

In addition, my new awareness of the logical flaw in my language heightens my understanding of my own assumptions (“Wow, I was making a completely unfounded connection between two unconnected things”) and of how those assumptions have consequences (“The ascription of poor thinking to physical disability is a form of prejudice”). Attention to my language, not in an attempt to be “politically correct” (whatever that means), but in an attempt to be clear and precise, has made me smarter. Getting smarter is the point of education.

In its more recent history, “political correctness” has been wielded as a cudgel against college students who express their disagreement with certain speakers. Berkeley students demonstrating against the planned appearance on their campus of infantile provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos are labeled politically correct, as are students who protest planned speeches on their campuses by such other right-wing hacks as Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter as well as unfathomable invitations to political horror shows like neo-Nazi Richard Spencer.

When students at Smith College expressed their disagreement with the college’s invitation to then-head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, to deliver the commencement address, they, too, were called politically correct. Here again, though, the label is pasted over terms and descriptions that we already have and that more clearly and accurately name the behavior in question. Such demonstrations, protests, calls to resistance and even prompts to disinvitation are simply the expression of dissent that self-described opponents of political correctness claim to value. To vehemently disagree with someone else’s speech — even to disagree with their qualification or appropriateness to speak in a given space or situation — is the vigorous rough and tumble in the “marketplace of ideas” that’s supposed to be the point of free speech.

If we have more accurate names for the things “political correctness” is supposed to identify, then we should ask whether “political correctness” exists at all, or whether it is instead a deception or projection itself aimed at stifling speech one doesn’t like. When you notice who throws the term around and whose speech it’s usually aimed at, that question starts to answer itself.

Michael Thurston is the Helen Means Professor of English at Smith College.

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