My encounter with political correctness at an Ivy league university in the 1980s happened in a small seminar on the Hevajra Tantra in the Comparative Religion department. The authors of the Hevajra Tantra believed that the right kind of yoga and meditation could give the practitioners supernatural powers. For example they thought if you meditated for long enough in the right way, you could fly. I told the teacher that whatever we think about why people said this, we know it wasn’t true. She disagreed and said “That’s a very Western attitude.” I said something along the lines of “Fine, I’m okay with that.” This wasn’t the answer she wanted and she said “I should say that’s a very hostile attitude.” She meant it was a bad attitude, and one I should not have had. And she gave me a B, although that’s on me.
I will put this forward as an example of “political correctness”. The professor criticized me for having a view that took the point of view of dead white European imperialist males, and discounting the point of view of the Indians and Tibetans we were studying. She was using her position of academic prestige to tamp down a reasonable position on my part and was accusing me of a political or ethical lapse.
When I read conservative and even white supremacist people expressing themselves on the internet and on the radio, I get the impression they are responding to political correctness and enjoying the ability to say things they were forbidden to say in college. They call racist views “crimethink” — which makes a comparison between non-racist professors and the thought police in 1984 — and they call universities “secular seminaries” which makes a comparison between racist views and religious dissent. Upon being told that certain views are forbidden they revel in the ability to state them and to cast themselves as victims.
This makes me think that something went wrong along the way — that educators gave students the impression not just that certain views were wrong but that it was forbidden and naughty to hold them. And this gave the students an understandable impulse to rebel.
How then should educators deal with views that are morally abhorrent? The view for example that slavery in the South was a good thing because Africans are genetically inferior?
Forbidding the expression of such views has unintended blowback, making some students think the view must be correct, or else why would the authorities forbid its discussion? But allowing such views to be normalized is horrible too.
I can think of a couple of responses:
a)One would be for the educator to be upfront about his or her moral commitments. The educator could say, speaking as a person, I find racism abhorrent. My parents suffered from it or I have friends who still suffer from it. The quest for tolerance informs my decision to be a teacher. So I will not allow my classroom to be used to promulgate hate. But that is me speaking as a human beings to human beings. I am not claiming the same kind of authority that I claim when I tell you that your facts are wrong or your sentences are ungrammatical.
b)Another would be to allow students to express themselves but make sure they do so in an environment where they understand the human dimension of what they are saying. Bring the holocaust denier together with the children of holocaust survivors, and the racism-apologist together with the victims of racism. The educator could provide a safe space in which views could be exchanged and also allow students to explicitly discuss the pain and trauma caused by hearing their pain discounted. This would be education as group psychotherapy, but maybe that’s not such a bad idea.
I really don’t know the answer to this question though: how do you teach students to respect the values of tolerance and respect without them feeling bullied or shamed if they don’t have the values yet?
What do you think?