July 27, 2003

political correctness

This is an interesting review of a book on political correctness in academia. If we accept that political correctness refers to incidents of coercive and intimidatory policies and practices that, undermine and constitute, a threat to academic freedom, then it exists in academia. This is Camile Pagalia's take on political correctness. Here is a psychoanalytic account of political correctness and a weblog calledp.c.watch

The US historian C. Vann Woodward offers an incisive definition of "political correctness":

"In the present crisis the attack on freedom comes from outside as well as inside and is led by minorities, that is, people who speak or claim to speak for groups of students and faculty.... In behalf of their cause and to protect feelings from offensive speech they have, as we shall see, proved themselves willing to silence speakers and professors, abuse standards of scholarship, curriculum, and admissions, and impose conformity or silent submission on the campus." (in Beyond P.C. p.31).

As the word has come to be used it is both the policies and an intolerance, a closing of debate, a pressure to conform to a particular program of change. Political correctness usually means the practices associated with the "progressive agenda" of the academic left in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is a charge levelled by conservatives to the pressure to conform to a radical left-liberal program, or risk being accused of a commonly reiterated trio of thought crimes: sexism, racism and homophobia. As part of the culture war the use of "Political correctness" can become a slogan used to stifle debate.

As things stand at the moment we have the hegemony of leftish opinion in the academy and the hegemony of conservative opinions in the public sphere. Many conservatives see the public universities as lost causes with some tossing around ideas to set up a counter cyber university.

The charge of political correctness has been used successfully to discredit a wide assortment of values, ideas, programs and attitudes embraced by the academic left. Hence conservatives speak on behalf of academic freedom and their practices and policies in suppressing the academic freedom of leftists and communists during the dark years of the cold war is conventiently forgotten. And we can go back further.

If we adopt this historical perspective, then we find that what is being demanded in the name of academic freedom to express conservative ideas is a classic liberalism: the freedom of free speech, open debate involving vigorous, even offensive discussion. Classical liberalism often means J.S. Mill.

Is it free speech or free expression.

A more interesting claim is that coercive and intimidatory policies and practices are standard operating procedure in university professing to embody the ethos of the Enlightenment. Whilst they proudly carry the unfurled banner of the Enlightenment, they are also totalitarian. What is clamped down time after time is the challenge to inherited or established ideas and thinking for oneself. So what is at issue the whole idea of liberal education that actively fosters and encourages students thinking for themselves.

The philosophical source of political correctness of the academic left is German philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School----Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno. Or so argued Allan Bloom. Yet this German philosophy is very western as it upholds one of the key tenets of the western philosophical heritage:----the self-criticism of reason. What it signifies is modern Western civilization in criticism of itself.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at July 27, 2003 03:37 PM | TrackBack
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