and Political Correctness
By Marilyn Edelstein, Ph.D.
The term "political correctness" is itself a misnomer, a straw
man (straw person?). Political correctness, at least on our
campuses, has been defined by those opposed to and fearful of
viewpoints they lump together under this loaded term. No one
of good sense or good will would favor something called "political
correctness" as the term is used today. But there are persons
of good sense and good will who favor views sarcastically dismissed
as "politically correct" by their opponents.
Critics of political correctness combine and often distort
three different but related issues. First, political correctness
is used to describe the goals of those advocating a more pluralistic,
multicultural, race-, gender-, and class-sensitive curriculum.
Second, certain academicians are branded politically correct
for insisting that intellectual inquiry reflects, to some degree,
the values and interests of the inquirer and that aesthetic
judgments are always intertwined with moral and political ones.
Third, and most harshly, people are labeled politically correct
for advocating university policies designed to minimize sexual
and racial harassment on campuses. Fuller understanding of these
three issues is critical if the widening public debate over
political correctness is to become fruitful and illuminating
rather than bitter and confused.
First, critics of traditional curricula do not want to throw
out Western culture. Rather, we suggest reexamining its history
and acknowledging that some important texts and experiences
have been relegated to the margins. No one claims that new contenders
for inclusion in the curriculum should be admitted solely to
make it culturally or politically representative. Instead educators
and scholars should consider whether some seemingly universal
criteria might have excluded differently worthy, differently
Anyone familiar with the history of literary criticism should
realize that lists of the books "everyone" considers excellent
change over time, as do styles, subject matter, and criteria.
Are the experiences and texts of Rousseau timeless, universal,
and central to Western culture while those of Frederick Douglass
or Maxine Hong Kingston are not? Must the latter be consigned
to specialized courses on the curriculum's fringe? Western culture,
like Western literature, has, at its core, been shaped by other
cultures and by many voices outside it as well as within.
Questions about quality and comprehensiveness in the curriculum
are increasingly urgent in the face of indisputably changing
demographics in the United States and in U.S. higher education.
When we talk about transmitting "our" culture who is
"we"? Does Western culture include the experiences of Native
Americans or even women of European heritage? Shouldn't Asian-American
or African-American students also learn from texts that reflect
those cultures' distinct historical experiences and that reveal
those cultures' roles in shaping Western culture?
To answer "yes" to these questions is not to reject Western
culture nor to claim that it is only a record of oppression
and privilege. Rather, it is to embrace a richer, more dynamic
and complex vision of Western culture and its relations to other
societies. To answer "yes" and ask others to consider these
questions is not to ask for a ghettoization of academic inquiry
nor for conformity of answers to the questions. Rather than
being questions about political correctness, these are questions
that must be asked about what should be taught and learned in
higher education and about how and why.
The asking of questions and the questioning of assumptions
are central also to the second issue introduced above. Some
contemporary thinkers suggest that foundational assumptions,
like truth or reason, have a history and should be scrutinized.
Yet, even Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher often scapegoated
in criticisms of political correctness, said, "I didn't say
that there was no center [read "truth"], that we could get along
without the center. I believe that the center is a function,
not a being - a reality, but a function. And this function is
Some thinkers today question the centrality of Western culture
itself as the culture of reference, just as feminists have questioned
the traditional view of male experience as normative and universal.
But theorists who critique hierarchy and domination certainly
do not seek merely to invert hierarchies or to establish their
own hegemony in reality or in academic debate. Even within the
theoretical perspectives that opponents of political correctness
indiscriminately lump together there are wide-ranging debates
about the relations between theory and the quest for a more
The third, and perhaps most pressing, concern in campus debates
is the charge that those advocating university policies against
sexual and discriminatory harassment are "tyrants" of political
correctness. That here as elsewhere the act of naming itself
exerts a kind of power is clear when one considers that we would
more accurately be called advocates of human decency and respect.
Nonetheless, it is understandable why those afraid of losing
power and legitimacy might overwhelm the media with cries of
"political correctness" or "the tyranny of the left." But no
one I know wants to inhibit genuine free speech or an open exchange
of ideas. We want anti-harassment policies to be carefully and
narrowly drawn to avoid infringing on free speech or academic
Still, when offense becomes harm, when gender-based or racial
epithets intimidate and silence and drive their victims from
the arena of academic freedom, then this discourse cannot be
defended as free speech. Name-calling does not resemble or produce
an open marketplace of ideas. Free play of ideas is not the
same as a free-for-all of insults.
Many of us encourage greater sensitivity to the needs and
fears of all members of a changing university community and
hope this will be accomplished by means other than codes, largely
by education itself. Is having to think, before speaking, about
the effects of one's speech on others an unreasonable price
to pay for a more hospitable and educational campus environment?
To encourage more conscious, self-reflective, sensitive language
and behavior is not to tyrannize. To advocate conscientiously
constructed codes that address rare and egregious infractions
of common decency and civility is not to call for a thought
police. Universities already regulate behavior and speech (e.g.,
plagiarism, residency, alcohol use). In the wider community,
zoning laws acknowledge that some locales are inappropriate
for some forms of speech and conduct. Defamation and obscenity
among other forms of speech are already regulated. Societies
perennially weigh the rights of individuals against the needs
of the community.
If we are entering a period when conservatives fear the tyranny
of the left, does that mean that the left is taking power or
that the right is afraid of losing power? I am more certain
of the latter. The debate over political correctness is obviously
political as well as academic. But it is important for self-professed
advocates of free speech who decry political correctness not
to inhibit that right by calling speech they detest "tyrannical."
Labeling speech "politically correct" may be an attempt to silence
that speech through ridicule. It is important to recast these
important educational and cultural debates in less-loaded terms.
We can begin by agreeing that concern for diversity, justice,
and open inquiry is not merely politically correct but humanly
This article is based on a presentation Professor Edelstein
delivered at the Center in 1992.