Political Correctness: Civility, Not Censorship

Contempt for political correctness has been pervasive this summer. It has been a continuing thread in the political rhetoric of the Presidential election (see here and here for examples). Political correctness has been a common theme in the plethora of blog posts and media coverage about trigger warnings in the classroom (see here and here). The University of Chicago’s welcome letter to its incoming class is one of the most recent entries into public discourse, prompting many responses decrying the letter, including this, this and this.

Here’s one version of the history of the term “political correctness,” which reflects how malleable and fluid the term has been. This interesting project from the Seattle Times provides a range of perspectives on the notion of political correctness from a wide variety of people. Many of their comments are similar to these: “It’s just basic human decency that we treat others with respect.” “How do I make sure I say things that respect the dignity and humanity of the person in front of me?” But there are also comments that are hostile to the term or invoke the idea of free speech being threatened by political correctness.

In BJ Gallagher’s column, he echoes this concern, arguing that political correctness interrupts “authentic speech.” He goes on to suggest that “[w]e will never rid our country of prejudice, racism, sexism, bigotry, and xenophobia by prohibiting uncomfortable, painful conversations.” Alyssa Rosenberg counters this point, noting that the “sad thing about so much supposed truth-telling is that their supposed transgressions aren’t remotely risky. They’re just rude.”

Today was Dickinson College’s Convocation. As Interim President Weissman welcomed our incoming class of 2020, he talked about the importance of civility in spaces where we want to – and should – have healthy, robust dialogue and discussion. As an educator, I know that sometimes the deepest learning comes from a place of discomfort. But there is a difference between sitting with discomfort in order to learn and to have courageous conversations, and the continued misguided and hostile insistence on having the right to use offensive and inflammatory language. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notes that “[o]ur country needs more sensitivity, not less.” I agree.

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center