Political Correctness in Academia: Many Faces, Meanings and Consequences

Article excerpt

"I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it." -- Voltaire

Of the many issues pertaining to education in Canada, political correctness or "PC" has garnered significant attention and generated considerable controversy. The nature, extent, and even the existence of PC has been debated (Berman, 1992), decried (Ellis, 1992; Gabor 1994; Phillips & Kurzweil, 1993), and denied (Ehrenreich, 1991). To say the least, PC is a very controversial topic.

What is political correctness or "PC"?

One would be hard-pressed to define the term "political correctness" (PC) in a way to would satisfy all parties. Political correctness has many faces and, therefore, many meanings. Essentially, however, the term "political correctness" appears to refer to a way of thinking and a way of life in our society that espouses sensitivity, tolerance, and respect for another's race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, religion, age, physical handicap, or other characteristic, especially if it differs from one's own (Thalasinos & Hwang, no date).

The term "political correctness" was first used in the 1930s among Stalinists and it resurfaced in feminist circles in the 1970s (Keefer, 1996). In 1975, it became formally associated with a movement led by Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) (Thalasinos & Hwang, no date). Now is the American association supporting equality for women. They attempt to eliminate discrimination and prejudice against women in government, industry, religion, education, medicine, law, and labour unions.

Since 1975, there has been a surge of articles and texts written about the subject. Some of these texts view the issue as a large joke, while others assay the matter with a mixture of outrage and worry. The term "political correctness" has become a figure of everyday speech. In many circles, it also has taken on an inescapably pejorative tone and to call an act politically correct has become grounds for discrediting it.

Why is PC being the focus of a debate?

If you believe that all human beings deserve to be treated with civility appropriate to basic human dignity, you may be wondering why everybody is not a fan of PC. After all, the PC philosophy believes in increasing the acceptability of diversity in culture, race, gender, ideology and alternate lifestyles. Unfortunately, it is not so simple.

Almost nothing in the recent years has provoked more debate or awakened a greater polarity of views than this PC ideology. Proponents believe that morally and socially all special groups of people must be treated equally and with respect. Opponents fear that being unable to make negative statements about special groups of people when warranted threatens freedom of expression and amounts to censorship. The former believe that special privileges will correct past injustices, while the latter believe that reverse discrimination is also unjust. Moderates (i.e., those who refuse to be labelled either "proponents" or "opponents") argue that desires to be morally and socially correct must be weighed carefully against the: concern about the gradual erosion of fundamental rights and freedom of speech.

The current degree of support for these views on PC in the general population is unknown. However, a survey conducted in the spring of 1995 of persons between the ages of 16 and 29 by USA Today and MTV (study cited in Leonard, 1995) suggests that people are more or less equally split over the issue of whether political correctness has gone too far or not far enough. Forty-eight percent of the 891 individuals polled said people need to be more sensitive in words and actions to avoid offending women and minority groups. However, 42 percent thought it had gone too far because its demands for greater sensitivity had become unbalanced with the right to free expression. Seven percent said both statements were true.

Why should academia be interested in PC? …