Political Correctness: Reflections on a Political Debate

By Dobson, Keith S. | Canadian Psychology, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Political Correctness: Reflections on a Political Debate


Dobson, Keith S., Canadian Psychology


As an academic, scientist, teacher, psychologist, psychotherapist, and parent I have been struck by the range of response that the issue of political correctness has evoked, and continues to evoke in the university. The articles in this series attest to the continuing affective power of the political correctness debate. In reading my colleagues' articles I was struck by how often the rhetoric is not dispassionate argument, but is personal and self-revealing. At the same time, I am deeply appreciative of the range of arguments made by the authors in this series both for and against the imposition of "political" agendas on academic behaviour. My response to these articles here will be two-fold. First, partly as a reflection of the personal nature of some of the other articles, I want to share what I hold as "truths" relevant to this debate. Secondly, I will suggest some aspects of the other articles I found less than helpful. I will close with some hopes for the future.

Whatsoever, these things I hold to be true...

In re-reading my previous submission to these series, I was aware that there are a number of embedded beliefs and values. These various ideas are summarized below, and other beliefs are also exposed:

1. I believe that by nature humans engage in an active process of giving meaning to their experience. This process of giving meaning is both in terms of content (i.e the structure of how experience is organized; the schemas, beliefs we all hold), and in terms of value (i.e, what we prefer or disapprove of; the value we attach to experiences and what they connote). Humans are bound by their ideologies, although these very ideologies can evolve over time as a function of new experience, and self-awareness. For example, I cannot avoid the facts that I am a white heterosexual tenured male professor (plus many other things) as I consider these issues. I can only hope to be able to understand other individual's perspectives.

2. As a result of the first position, I hold that humans are inherently "political". We take positions on issues that affect us, and will argue these positions despite an absence of evidence, or sometimes, even in the face of contrary evidence. Most typically, we take our position as "correct", and therefore typically see alternative views as incorrect, or at least worthy of a healthy dose of suspicion.

3. Power differentials do exist among individuals, and groups of individuals. These power differentials can be based upon sex, gender, race, culture, money, history, roles, employment categories, and many other factors. Power differentials can be the basis of victimization of those with less power, but are not necessarily so used. I agree with Dr. Stark about the need to protect those who are vulnerable, and "to do no harm".

Tied directly to the issue of power differentials, I hold that the best method to negotiate differences in a pluralistic society is through public consensus. Sometimes these differences can be discussed and individuals can agree to recognize differences between or among themselves. As a formal method, free and equal voting is the optimal method to reflect pluralism.

4. In an "ideal world", the abuse of power differentials would be minimized. Canadian society recognizes that all citizens are equal before and under the law, and in an "ideal world", every person would work to recognize and stop the abuse of power differentials. Acceptable institutional tools to redress power differentials include the establishment of codes of conduct, complaints committees for sexual harassment, the invocation of affirmative action programs, civil proceedings and other policies and procedures as may be needed when a documented power differential exists.

5. Academic freedom is not a freedom at all, but is a legal, institutional and negotiated privilege. …

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