Wesleyan: Just Say No to Political Correctness
President Michael Roth recently wrote an all-campus email regarding the controversy surrounding the flyers posted in the Usdan University Center on Friday, April 27. He rightfully called the posters “insulting” and “offensive” and called attention to the underlying “patterns of injustice and violence that our society has not yet left behind.” However, he failed to identify many (though not all) student reactions for what they were: disappointingly cruel, hypocritical, and counterproductive to our community’s stated goal of fighting oppression and working toward greater social justice. He also failed to express that these student reactions are reflective of an underlying problem of political correctness that is anti-progressive at Wesleyan.
In my four years at Wesleyan, I have frequently longed for the opportunity for discourse and action, but have refrained due to fear of our politically correct culture. Many times, I have bought into the mob mentality as well, joining the masses to publicly eviscerate the politically incorrect villains who offend us. When we take on this mentality, we do not care that we bypass more complex efforts to initiate discourse, reconciliation, or reform. We do not care if said villain apologizes immediately and sincerely. We do not care about the flagrant hypocrisy of rendering a person a bigot for displaying the same attitudes to which many of us often subtly and less visibly subscribe. We do not care about the deeper insight and understanding we could gain by considering the context of the relevant social patterns in the Wesleyan community or the greater world. We simply bask in the superiority we feel when we catch someone in the act of making a bad, but very human, mistake.
That villain obviously deserves to suffer, and we deserve to feel awesome about it. Doesn’t that sound cruel, hypocritical, and counterproductive to you? That’s because it is. I reiterate: political correctness is not only holding the Wesleyan community back from progress, but also causing it a great deal of harm.
I define Wesleyan’s form of political correctness as a zero-tolerance attitude towards any individual who offends a historically oppressed or marginalized group. The intentions behind political correctness are usually benevolent, as they seek to end harm to members of those groups by minimizing offense caused to them. However, the logic here is completely backwards. In scapegoating individuals, we ignore the underlying context that produces such unacceptable incidents, instead of fighting effectively for greater social justice. In this sense, political correctness works to the detriment of the very people it seeks to help.
Many Wesleyan students strive to promote social justice by helping those that have suffered at the hands of oppression. These students claim this goal is imperative because the unjust forces mobilized against these groups are immense, so immense that they have transcended any specific individual or group and have taken root in society as highly complex, omnipresent, and pervasive systems. It logically follows that, if discrimination is systematic, we have all internalized messages of that oppression. We are all guilty of condoning oppression sometimes; other times, we may even reap the benefits from it or enact it ourselves. The moments in which discriminatory attitudes mistakenly slip out are not the scandals. Our complete failure to combat systematic discrimination effectively is the scandal.
Wesleyan, if we really cared, we would get preventive and not merely reactive. Racist attitudes exist here. Let’s articulate how racially loaded phrases are threatening or offensive and open up a dialogue about white privilege and racial minorities at Wesleyan. Sexist attitudes exist here. Let’s explain the pernicious messages they communicate and identify how they enable sexual assault. Anti-LGBT discrimination happens here. Let’s work together to re-conceptualize our thoughts about sexuality and gender in order to allow us all the full and dynamic range of personhood that we deserve. Many other forms of discrimination happen. We can’t sweep all the discriminatory dust under the rug and then feign disbelief when a massive dust bunny appears. We must bring discriminatory attitudes, the way they manifest, and the systems they reflect out into the open. We must think about them, talk about them, and organize to combat them.
Of course, we cannot always prevent mistakes before they happen. When they do occur, we must react. Those hurt or offended rightfully seek to articulate the discriminatory nature of the transgression. But there is one general rule I feel we can make: let’s not jump on the politically correct bandwagon so hastily. Let’s harness the impulse to be vigilant and progressive, and combine it with critical empathy and thought. Then, and only then, let us act to make this community—and maybe even this world—a better place.