Evaluating Political Correctness: Anecdotes vs Research

Article excerpt


"Political correctness", by being linked with anecdotal accounts of some extreme: incidents, has become an epithet which is used by conservatives to discredit left-liberal policies, while conservative measures, which themselves endanger some of the most valuable academic traditions, are presented as economically necessary and inevitable. An even-handed evaluation of political influences on universities must abandon the anecdotal for a comprehensive examination of file overall positive and negative influences of all policies, regardless of their political colouration. Left-liberal and conservative policies are examined and compared in the contexts of women's studies, group difference research, affirmative action, and sexual harassment policies.

Whose political correctness?

Webster's New World College Dictionary offers the following definition of "politically correct": "conforming to what is regarded as orthodox liberal opinion on matters of sexuality, race, etc., usually used disparagingly to connote dogmatism, excessive sensitivity to minor causes" (Neufeldt, 1996, p.1045). This ironic vision implies that to be politically correct is to be wrong, a view reinforced daily by the information and entertainment media, in which, as Trillin (1995) remarked, to call an act politically correct has become grounds for discrediting it. Conversely, to declare oneself politically incorrect can cloak with virtue an action that may in fact be impolite, discriminatory, or even illegal. The smoker who invokes political incorrectness when lighting up in a nonsmoking area is heroically defying oppressive regulations (in the eyes of some -- bystanders who object to smoke in their eyes are discounted as fanatics).

The basic principles behind political correctness appear to be essentially prosocial: to remove traditional barriers to diversity, to discourage discrimination, disparagement, and harassment, and to broaden curriculum and research by including new material and points of view (see e.g., Fish, 1994; Wilson, 1995). The real irony may be that the concept has been ironicized, making efforts to promote these values appear to be part of a deliberate agenda to radically transform and undermine society in general and universities in particular, by lowering standards and reducing freedom of speech in the interests of a supposedly powerful and subversive left-liberal conspiracy.

Fish (1994) notes that the term political correctness is applied to only the left of the political spectrum, while behaviours and policies aligned with other political positions are not: represented as politically motivated, at least not by critics who view themselves as independent observers, and therefore correct, but a version of correctness which escapes ironicization by its pretense to neutrality. However, many of these critics speak from their own political standpoints, leading Fish (1994) to propose a neutral definition of political correctness: "the practice of making judgments from the vantage point of challengeable convictions... is not a deviant behavior, but ... behavior that everyone necessarily practices. Debates between opposing parties [are not] debates between political correctness and something else, but between competing versions of political correctness" (p.9).

According to Wilson (1995), "political correctness" was used in the 1930s within left wing circles as ironic self-criticism for overzealousness. Its new life as a shorthand dismissal of leftish ideas began in the mid-1980s. A NEXIS database search (Wilson, 1995) reveals that use of the term in the media grew from 7 in 1986 to 6,985 in 1994, with the major increase occurring from 1990 to 1991 (65 vs.1,570 references). This rapid conversion into public currency originates at least partly in the publicity accorded to Dinesh D'Sottza's Illiberal Education (1992) (f.1) in which he describes a number of episodes that he claims represent a general transformation of American universities, and which, according to him, depict a destructive onslaught on postsecondary education. …


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