By Donella Meadows
–September 12, 1991–
Young people are now streaming back to universities all over the nation, where they will be shot down by the label “politically correct” whenever they try to be decent. At an age where social acceptance is everything to them, they will learn that what makes them acceptable is cynicism. Any gesture they make in the direction of compassion will be greeted with mockery.
It’s very sad.
The “PC” taunt is not just a campus problem. It started in politics, it has penetrated the media, it’s society-wide, and it’s ugly. If we ever want to live in a harmonious world, we had better look at this phenomenon hard and understand it clearly enough to put it in its place.
The people who hurl the accusation “PC” sow confusion, because they’re pointing to a real problem, but they themselves are among its worst perpetrators. The trick they are pulling is that of the pickpocket pointing off into the crowd and yelling “Thief!” There may indeed be thieves. But the purpose of the accusation is not to stamp out thievery, it’s to disguise the wrongdoing of the accuser.
Let’s start with the general thievery and come back to the pickpocket later. Part of the “PC” accusation is correct. Public speech is not free on campuses, any more than it is anywhere else. It is constrained by social approval, political interests, current fashion, and hidden agendas.
Universities should be places where words are used carefully, opinions expressed freely, and ideas tested calmly for their validity. That does happen in the presence of the rare true scholars who have the courage not to be swept into AC — Academic Correctness. On the whole, however, universities are places of institutionalized intolerance to new ideas, or even to old ideas from different disciplines. Academically Correct often means hewing to the party line so you will get tenure. It means publishing in journals read by people who think like you. It means shunning interdisciplinary cross-fertilization.
Once when Dartmouth was building a new social science building I made the suggestion that the offices of professors of government, economics, and sociology be mixed together, instead of segregated on separate floors. That idea, I learned quickly, is not Academically Correct.
The AC problem is less severe in the sciences, though I suppose the human instinct for it is as strong there as anywhere else. The scientific culture, however, requires testing ideas fairly rigorously against nature. Nature demolishes Scientifically Correct thinking regularly, imbuing most scientists with a certain humility, at least when it comes to scientific ideas.
I would be grateful to the PC accusers if they were pointing at these rigidities of university thought, but many of them are prime practitioners of it. They would have us believe that the only ideas worth studying are those of male Europeans of the past few hundred years. They imply that anyone who is not white must have qualified for admission to either student body or faculty only by special privilege. This charge is occasionally justified and usually not. It can be counted upon to cause great pain to people who are fighting internal battles for self-respect against a world that has always told them they are inferior.
But the PC-taunters are oblivious to any pain except their own. Nothing indicates that they have taken to heart the real problems of intolerance in our society or in our universities. Nothing in what they say suggests the least compassion for those who have been the victims of Bigotedly Correct speech for generations.
The campuses and the society are burdened with two kinds of harmful speech. One is exclusionary, ridiculing language that demeans people, stops thought, and creates in-groups and out-groups. The second is speech that goes so far in the other direction that it becomes downright silly or intolerant itself. The PC-taunters speak the first kind; their targets sometimes speak the second.
Universities should never forbid any kind of speech, but they should establish and demonstrate the highest standards by which to test, judge, arbitrate, and recognize the truth content of all kinds. They should acknowledge that the language labelled “PC” is at least an attempt at inclusion and morality, though any morality can be debased by pious self-righteousness. The kind of talk engaged in by the PC complainants — snide labeling, subtle or not-so-subtle bigotry — should also be judged for what it is. Though it can’t be silenced, it should not be sanctioned.
The PC dispute is actually a great educational opportunity. The universities could use it to show students how easily we use words as labels, weapons, smoke-screens that prevent us from having to comprehend real, complex people or new, threatening ideas. They could demonstrate how a community devoted to truth can sort through statements about the world, demand evidence, and politely but firmly correct error.
If the universities don’t do that, who will?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991