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Political Correctness is put in place in the attempt to reduce or even eliminate the potential offense or ‘insensitivity’ caused by certain terms or ideas, but at what point do we cross the line from protecting someone’s feelings to making unnecessary or even blatantly wrong statements?
At a common everyday level. we have words and terms we use today that replace the words and terms that used to be spoken normally. Terms like ‘mental retardation’ and ‘coloured’ are a couple of different examples of terms that are not considered politically correct to use in the modern day.
On a more extreme level, we now have Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces in some organisations as a way of avoiding words, ideas, arguments, and even people that we find offensive, insensitive, or upsetting. These ridiculous ideas involve word-policing speeches, essays, arguments, and more for words and terms that – apparently – cause offence or distress, as well as wasting organisations’ space and resources on comforting grown adults who think and act like obnoxious but sensitive children. A big problem is that these practices are often used to political ends as a way of silencing anyone that these people disagree with, but that’s a whole topic which warrants its own article.
At what point do we accept that this kind of political correctness is dangerous to people’s learning, development, and even wellbeing? On a grand scale, if this kind of thinking continues to grow, should we be worried about our free speech?
Universities Should Stand Against Political Correctness
Like with most behaviour, how you do or say things are context-dependent, certain words and terms are appropriate for different situations. Generally speaking, if you can get a point across the way it should be delivered without offending people then that’s great. The problem comes when one has to sacrifice specificity and accuracy to appease the feelings or expectations of others, or even worse, to avoid criticising their closely-guarded opinions.
University is where a lot of this type of political correctness is observed for the first time, although it’s likely also becoming more and more common in secondary schooling. Some lecturers and course leaders make it a point to change what they say and how they say it despite the language and terms used in the actual academic literature. Even common sense and logic sometimes leave the room when there is even the slightest chance of someone somewhere taking offense to a simple word or term.
One example I can recall personally is an individual giving a course on mental health first aid in which they actively refused to call panic attacks a ‘weakness’. By all means don’t use the word weakness in your description of panic attacks if you like, but don’t defy all reason by trying to actively convince people that it is something which it is not. Panics attacks only serve to make someone’s life harder, they don’t serve any positive benefit, therefore, it can only be a weakness to have them.
Another real-life example is being told not to say or write that someone is ‘suffering’ from a mental health issue, and instead to say that they are ‘experiencing’ a mental health issue. These disorders decrease people’s quality of life, they tend to be suffering in one or more ways and that’s why they are encouraged to seek help. Using the term ‘experiencing’ instead of ‘suffering’ is fine if that is what you prefer, but don’t expect me to use a different term just because you think an accurate term is somehow damaging. Using one term over the other may be beneficial in some circumstances, but in an academic setting where learning is the top priority, I don’t believe word-policing should be anyone’s priority.
I believe myself to be giving the unspoken majority opinion when I say that I attended university to learn and experience ideas, opinions, arguments, and facts from all different kinds of perspectives. I want to be given information in its rawest and purest form, free from the tainted and backwards intentions of appealing to the feelings of people who would rather say the popular and politically correct thing rather than the sometimes hard truth.
Actually, I would take this even one step further. I would encourage offensive and controversial speech and ideas to be cordially welcomed and discussed, especially in universities where you should be exposed to all these differing arguments and perspectives. If someone wants to put forward an offensive argument, as long as it doesn’t incite ignorant violence and hatred, they should be given a platform. In doing this, we can criticise and humiliate bad argument through discourse instead of censorship and ‘trigger-warnings’. We only take steps back in our learning while undermining the value of free speech by avoiding anything that might offend.
A great example of this in action is when British National Party’s then leader, Nick Griffin, was given a platform on Question Time. He spoke the usual views of the BNP and was subsequently destroyed by both the audience and the rest of the panel. Everyone watching had to hear this man out, they came to a more informed conclusion on their view of his argument, then he was promptly made a laughing-stock and the BNP has been doing terribly since. This is how offensive and controversial speech and ideas should be handled, not through silencing people and censoring language.
If you want to be coddled by never having to face or experience ideas and arguments that hurt your feelings or that you don’t agree with, please do the taxpayer a favour and don’t bother attending university. If you never hear ideas and arguments that challenge your morals, values, and beliefs, you are living in a damaging echo-chamber, something that should be completely denounced in every institute of learning.
Learning, developing, and personal growth are, what I believe to be, the core values of higher education, and this is stifled by the rise of a culture where offending someone has become such a moral outrage. Get offended, get uncomfortable, then become better informed.