Was Political Correctness A Bad Thing?

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?




5 thoughts on “Was Political Correctness A Bad Thing?

  1. Interesting story. I never encountered this kind of situation in college, because most of my courses were in Physics and Medieval Studies, so I spent little (if any…) time studying non-Western thought. I think your suggestion that professors adopt a second level of judgement, with less authority than their assigned subject, to be sound.
    I think of political correctness as a form of politeness or manners. And the joy that comes from flouting it is similar to what was common in theater in the 60s and 70s, namely foul language and nudity. “Epater les bourgeois”, or shocking the nice citizens, was very rewarding then (and in the 19th cent, too), and I think it still is. But the way you do it has changed. God knows, foul language and nudity are utterly tedious now, and you can’t get away from it on TV.

  2. I am not claiming the same kind of authority that I claim when I tell you that your facts are wrong

    But you are? I mean, the whole ‘genetically inferior’ idea acts as if it sits upon the fact of the matter. Consider the certitude behavior shown – that once it’s a ‘fact’, they don’t have to think about that supposed genetic inferiority (question it) any more and can distribute it at will – and certainly you feel the same as an authority yourself. It’s just what is called fact or ‘fact’ differs.

    “But my facts actually are facts!”

    They feel the same way.

    Maybe it was a clumsy attempt, but perhaps that teacher was trying to show you that considering that the Hevajra Tantra might indeed be able to fly is what it is like for the people who profess the ‘genetically inferior’ idea to consider that it might indeed be that there is no genetic inferiority. “No genetic inferiority? When monks fly!”

  3. Political and correctness are bullshit words that someone thought up for the general public to say. Politics and politicians have learned to used a studied correctness aimed to the majority of people who need influenced. – – – Does anyone here choose their words carefully? And do you mean it? Or is it just group speak? Easier to keep ones yap shut and think as one pleases. Prevents fisticuffs in many places.

  4. I am reminded about a book, The Faith Healers, by James Randi. He was quite scathing throughout at the hucksterism, the exploitation of the ill and frightened. But there was one church and pastor for which he had a different reaction. I don’t have the book in front of me… but in this church, they said they could “heal” you, and the congregants would converse after services about how good it felt to be “healed”, but it was never about curing disease. They didn’t (if I remember correctly) bring shills onto the stage to suddenly walk. They used the word “heal” in a subtly different sense – not strictly physical or medical, but rather in an undefined way that you might call spiritual, emotional, or psychological. And Randi had no argument with that.

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