The views expressed in this editorial are those of its author and not of The Mac Weekly as a whole.
In last week’s issue, Roger S. Peterson ’67 expressed concern that Macalester was “a black hole of political correctness and leftist nonsense; everyone who enters gets sucked in and no light comes out.” Many of the posts on the Mac Confessions Facebook page lament the purported stifling effect of political correctness on Macalester culture and humor. Outside the Macalester bubble, pundits and columnists, who bemoan it as capitulation to “hurt feelings,” trot out political correctness as a cultural bogeyman. It’s safe to say it’s one of the most disliked concepts across the ideological spectrum, and I am here to defend it.
One of the things frequently lost in discussions of broad assessments of cultural ideas like political correctness is any sort of specificity or definition. In the case of Mac Confessions, this is due to the constraints of the “genre” of anonymous Facebook statuses, but political correctness in general leads to vague statements by its nature as a vague and usually undefined concept. In a way, it’s like the concept of a hipster. The word is almost exclusively used as a pejorative by people claiming to not be hipsters, or as a tongue-in-cheek self-reference by people who pursue “hip” pastimes like, I don’t know, looking at art and drinking coffee. Very seldom does anyone take the time to define exactly what a hipster is because the concept’s very elusiveness is part of what makes the description so useful. So it is with political correctness.
I’ve contributed to this myself, and in the interest of transparency I will (horror of horrors) reveal an anonymous post that I made on Mac Confessions. In it, I described complaints about political correctness as complaints about “having to consider other people around them before saying whatever dumbf-–| thought pops into their heads.” It’s probably not the best idea to have indelicate cursing connected to my real name online. At the same time, I stand by this confession’s general principle, restated: political correctness is about being aware of other people and their identities. More broadly, political correctness is about considering how the language and behavior you use matters and what role they play in our culture as a whole, especially whether they contribute to longstanding harmful stereotypes or ignorance about a group of people. But I said I would be specific, so I will try to outline a political correctness that is more a process than a set of rules, a process that Macalester largely benefits from, especially when compared to the world at large.
In his piece last week, Mr. Peterson seems to conflate political correctness with both intellectual diversity and the state of the academic program at Macalester. He refers to some of our courses as “indoctrination” and some of our professors as “the flip side of folks at Oral Roberts University.” In this piece, he did not name names. He did, however, mention an editorial he wrote in 2009 for The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. In the piece, “Turning Left and Driving Blind,” he gives specific examples of the problems he sees with Macalester academics. Mr. Peterson’s statements illustrate that a push for moderation (against political correctness) is an ideology that deserves critique like any other.
The one course he points out by name as an example of Macalester’s academic direction is in the history department.
“You’ll find no survey course on American history,” he writes. “But students can take ‘Captivity and slavery in the making of early American society’ for a more balanced view of our heritage.” He also calls out a faculty member, though not by name.
“Nothing reveals more about the political climate at Macalester than the fact that it has a Dean of Race and Ethnicity. . . . Why does a liberal arts college of 1,900 students need such a dean? Do alumni write checks for such functions … or for core needs?”
Despite the fact that I have had an excellent class with the mis-titled and unnamed Dean, I do not feel it is my place to defend Macalester academics against four-year-old critiques. But I will answer Mr. Peterson’s rhetorical question with a few of my own. How does removing a course studying a subject that any historian would agree was a huge part of our early history in favor of a non-specified survey course improve Macalester’s education, exactly? How is an understanding of the role of race in society not a core need? These examples show a common problem of those who strive for academic objectivity. Ironically, they downplay any academic perspective that steps outside of all but the most basic means of inquiry, and critical perspectives on issues of identity or painful history are almost always the first thing to go.
Besides college academics, humor is an area when political correctness often ends up in discussion, specifically offensive humor, especially those rare cases when such humor is publicly challenged and/or apologized for. In a few Mac Confessions, anonymous students express disappointment at BLAC for responding to the “Diversity in Bed” article and at the Hegemonocle for apologizing. It’s brought up as an example of how PC the school has become and the Hegemonocle was accused of selling out.
Controversies around jokes are often framed around the offended party “not getting it” or “not being able to take a joke.” Both of these miss the point. BLAC was not simply offended by the article; they explained why elements of the joke objectivized and exoticized students of color in ways that align with and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Many students agree with this, and I’m sure most of them “got the joke”—the article was attempting to satirize a lack of diversity on campus (a perfectly valid subject for satire). But, as the Hegemonocle pointed out in their well-stated apology, it didn’t work.
I’m a huge fan of comedy and understand that to stay fresh it must push the limits. Mistakes like “Diversity in Bed” are going to happen, and I don’t think the Hegemonocle should be demonized as an organization for it. But an apology was the appropriate and necessary response. I’m offended by a lot of things—I was offended by their shots at The Mac Weekly, for example (that’s my baby they’re talking about). This isn’t about that. You can make jokes about anything, but these jokes don’t exist in a vacuum beyond critical analysis, and the more real world hurt and history is attached to a subject, the more difficult it is to joke about it successfully.
Finding out what does and doesn’t work in jokes is a shaky dialogue, but one that we could all benefit from. Humor about potentially painful subjects that works illuminates the situation at hand and works to subvert it—and it’s usually funnier than simply being contrarian or offensive for the sake of being edgy.
Political correctness is not a rulebook or a set of buzzwords. And just as humor outlets make mistakes, people who critique everyday behavior through the lens of political correctness make mistakes too. This doesn’t undermine the goal of political correctness any more than “Diversity in Bed” undermined the goal of the Hegemonocle.
The type of politically correct culture that leads to blatantly misused buzzwords is extremely rare. The victim-blaming media coverage of the Steubenville case shows how non-critical mainstream discourse is. We often forget this in a place like Macalester, but that is absolutely the norm in almost all of society. The vast majority of people who saw the coverage that upset so many Macalester students will hear nothing about the backlash. Mainstream network sitcoms make jokes about rape and feature racial caricatures all the time. It’s hard to make the argument that our problem is that we’re too conscious of how we talk about things as a whole.
So that leads us to Macalester. I understand that many people against the political correctness culture at Macalester would agree that we should be more conscious than the norm in America, but say that we “go too far.” I disagree, at the very least with all the specific examples I’ve seen presented about how we step over the line. I also think the political correctness at Macalester is hugely overstated—Macalester kids, being human beings, make careless remarks all the time and in my experience aren’t “called out on it” anywhere near all the time, especially when these remarks take place outside of Facebook and other written and impersonal forums.
A community where people are generally making an attempt to choose their words and actions carefully and intentionally, in a way that respects everyone’s identity, is going to be more good than bad. In trying to create such an environment, however, we should be careful to avoid alienating people new to these discussions. One way to do that is to assume that people have best intentions, and going after what they say rather than who they are. While doing so, avoiding buzzwords is generally a good idea, because they cause a lot of people to tune out of the discussion.
If you are the one getting called out, and at some point you probably will be (I have been), appreciate if the person you’ve hurt takes the time to be civil and express why what you said hurt in step-by-step way. But even if they don’t, and call you one of those dreaded –ist words, don’t automatically get defensive. When something is offensive to a part of a person’s identity, it’s understandable for that person to be upset or emotional. Take a moment and think about why they may have reacted the way they did. You might learn something, or you might not, but either way you’ll be critically examining how you interact with other people. If that isn’t part of a good education, I don’t know what is.
As I’ve said throughout this essay, critical discourse about language and actions (aka political correctness) is a process, and there’s no rulebook. I don’t know, as Mr. Peterson puts it, “the Truth,” about any of this. That’s all the more reason to keep trying. Macalester tries harder than most places in the world, and that’s a good thing.