Fear of saying the wrong thing shouldn’t stop us from saying anything at all.
The Toronto Harris Institute recently took a stand against political correctness by threatening probation or dismissal of any student, staff or faculty member found to have “shouted down an opposing view”.
Meanwhile, an editorial in the National Post sporting the headline “I’m too privileged to be a liberal” argued that the author’s fellow university students too often “seek to silence oppositional voices rather than come to a resolution with them.”
The debate over political correctness arises from a recognition that there are some things you simply can’t say. As a society, we acknowledge that there are harmful attitudes that have no place in discourse and shouldn’t be expressed.
And sometimes people cite political correctness as oppressing them, when in reality they just want to say distasteful things.
But silence can aid oppression. And when political correctness evolves into vindictive protectionism it can become itself a form of undue censorship.
Political correctness stems from a realization that we, as a society, condemn certain points of view as bigoted, prejudiced or racist.
But it’s a highly nebulous term and in some cases, is used to censure not only attitudes that are discriminatory, but any opinions that someone might find disagreeable.
This is especially problematic for students, since classroom discussions often revolve around highly sensitive topics.
Conversations in classrooms thrive on argument and critical opinions. In an academic world that’s widening its concept of diversity, our viewpoints become increasingly diverse as well.
If we’re really going to have an open discussion about difficult topics, people will inevitably disagree, because we don’t all come from the same backgrounds, have the same worldviews or experience the same amount of privilege.
The parameters we set on a conversation should be in an effort to understand each other, not end the argument before its even begun.
For example, trigger warnings in classrooms are an effort to prepare students and professors to bring up difficult topics — not to stop discussions from happening at all.
In personal conversations, those parameters depend on you and what you’re willing to discuss. But in an educational setting, limitations are established with the intent to create a space where someone is free to say what they think without fear of personal attack.
This doesn’t mean a free-for-all where you can be racist, sexist, homophobic or any other discriminatory attitude. But it does mean a space where you might be disagreed with or corrected.
Along with the ability to speak your mind comes the responsibility to listen when others do the same.
What is or isn’t politically correct is changing all the time, so it’s not enough to say “you can’t say that,” or the equally unreceptive, “you can’t say that I can’t say that.”
Instead of quibbling over the abstract concept of political correctness, we should be concerned with our seeming inability to agree on what is and isn’t okay to say.
And maybe to find that line, it’s necessary to cross it sometimes.
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