Shaffer: Responsibly P.C.

The distinguishing feature of a political question is that every side gets it wrong. This is the case with political correctness. There are two mistakes to be made. The first is to reject it completely. The second is to mistreat those who do.

Consider the simplest possible example, gender-neutral language. A lot of evidence indicates that the subtleties of language can have tremendous influence on the way we think about things. This is probably true of gender.

So using gender-neutral language when we speak of the human species in general — like, of philosophy majors ruminating on kantian versus utilitarian morality as they reach for the railroad switch just before a deadly train reaches the fork — is basically a good idea. In theory, this is an easy way to better incorporate both genders into our notions of personhood and is preferable to always using “he” or “man.”

But in practice it can be difficult. “They” will never be a singular pronoun. Often, “he or she” and “men and women” detracts from aesthetics or clarity. And a dissenter might think that all this stuff about the subtleties of language is postmodern nonsense and will speak the way his or her grandpa or grandma taught him or her to speak.

I might prefer that people adopt gender-neutral language, and I would be justified in politely persuading them to do so. But I would not be justified in labeling them misogynists (or misandrists) when they fail. I would not be justified in denying them tenure, getting them called up to ExComm or accusing them of hate speech in public.

There is a difference between a failure to adopt the language we most prefer and truly offensive speech. It’s a distinction of which we should be acutely aware.

Political correctness is inoffensive in theory, but is, in practice, abused as a tool of political aggression. If I don’t like your opposition to rent control, I might use your gender non-neutral economic thought experiment as a pretext for discrediting you and your ideas. This happens a lot. Academics do it to silence dissenting voices. The politically powerful do it to maintain pernicious status quos. And all of us do it to shut up anybody who challenges our moral certainties or cherished illusions.

Consider Larry Summers. On second thought, he’s a Cantab, so it’s good he was shut up.

So, instead, suppose President Levin was asked why women were underrepresented on Yale’s defensive line at The Game. He explains that partly it is due to the chauvinism of Republicans, partly socialization and that there is some small possibility that some small portion of it is innate biological differences in size.

Should we drive him from the face of the earth? I submit we should instead persuade him to avoid questions outside of his purview that are likely to divide the community of which he is a leader–and also tell offended parties that opportunistic posturing is unhelpful.

I liked the way Yale handled the “Harvard men as sissies” T-shirts. I dislike the word, what it implies about masculinity, that it is a kind of aggressive ignorance. (Plus, there are much better Fitzgerald quotes.) I wouldn’t say the word is offensive, but now that I know some feel that way, I’m happy to make the small effort of excluding it from my speech. It’s not much to ask.

Yale simply responded to students’ offense by selecting a new T-shirt. We didn’t (to my knowledge) send anyone to ExComm, or accuse anyone of hate speech. Nobody was offended, nobody felt excluded and (hopefully) nobody’s attempts at academic tenure have been ruined. Best, a friendly debate about moral philosophy and language was generated.

It gives one hope for the future.

Basic decency demands that we make reasonable efforts to be inclusive and not to offend others with our speech (this includes our traditional whipping boys like Catholics and Southerners). But it demands equally as much that we stop using political correctness to terrorize our political opponents, as a stake on which to burn linguistic heretics. In Aristotle’s words, “a master in any art avoids what is too much and what is too little, and seeks for the mean and chooses it.”

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.


  • OD Yalie

    P.C. can be good. It’s when it’s abused and goes overboard. Yale is too P.C. many times, but many places, everyone has to be a little P.C…. Actually, everyone has to be a little respectful. P.C. can sometimes be disrespectful. There’s a fine line.

  • y10

    Matt, I like your stuff. But this piece, like your speech at the big affirmative action debate in the YPU, avoids taking a criticizable stand by making lots of gracious concessions and then just moderately tweaking the argument and slipping it under the door (although I’m not sure there’s even that much in this one). I can’t read your mind, obviously, but I’m willing to bet you feel more strongly about this, as with the affirmative action debate, as you let on in either.

    And the result smells a lot like you trying to, ironically enough, not offend people. It could be a great strategy. Put this one in the bank so later you can write about a new incident of Yale’s ridiculous PCness and cite THIS as proof that you’re not just another radical. Could be. I don’t know. Maybe you’re trying to make the Rumpus hate you less by watering down your conservatism.

    Thing is, I agree what what I think you’re not saying, and I therefore take this as ingenuous and a cop out. So, with utmost respect: Grow a pair.

  • y13

    Agree with #2. You don’t really say anything in this editorial. “Probably” and “might” aren’t good enough. I’m going to vom if one more person analyzes the “sissies t-shirt” incident as an issue of “political correctness.” “I wouldn’t say the word is offensive, but now that I know some feel that way, I’m happy to make the small effort of excluding it from my speech. It’s not much to ask.” GOOD FOR YOU! WOW! AWESOME! Am I supposed to think “What a great guy! Making that effort and all…” The impetus to call this P.C. comes from the fact that you feel like you deserve credit for not being ignorant. You’re certainly not getting any pats on the back from me.

  • grad student

    Well written, but had the same impression as #2,3 when reading it

  • Egalitarian

    I like this piece very much. Thank you for having the courage to write this. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one on campus who isn’t either making ludicrous allegations of prejudice where there is none or actively spouting hate speech. Good work!

    To #2, #3, and #4: We can disagree with the culture of political correctness without needlessly offending people. There’s a difference between politically incorrect speech and hate speech. The former is often appropriate; the latter is never appropriate, even if it is constitutionally protected. A little moderation never hurt anyone.

    As far as the whole gender thing goes, I do have a couple of objections from a linguistic standpoint to some of the claims made in the article. First of all, the original meaning of the word “man,” or “mann” in Old English, was gender neutral. There was a symmetric pair of “carl mann” and “wif mann,” which literally meant “male person” and “female person,” respectively. The latter became “woman” in Modern English, and the former dropped out of the language entirely. This happened as a result of people assuming that a man was male unless stated otherwise. The implication is that the use of “man” to refer to our species does not refer only to the male, nor do words like “freshman” and “chairman.” On the other hand, the now primary use of the word “man” to refer to the male specifically is sexist, because it reserves the one-syllable default form for the male only. The proper way to restore symmetry to the language would be not to do away with words like “chairman” and “mankind” but rather to restore “man” to its original function as the gender-neutral and introduce a derivative of “carl mann” for an equal complement of “woman.” Good luck getting that to ever happen!

    My second linguistic objection is with regard to the singular “they.” While it is true that it is considered to be gramatically incorrect today, languages change when people bend or break the rules. It is likely that the singular “they” will be accepted in a few decades, just as ending a sentence with a preposition is now accepted.

  • I’m sure

    I’m sure Mr. Shaffer appreciates the free psychoanalysis here…

    Is it conceivable he actually believes what you have called “concessions”? Is it possible a person could actually recognize the good intentions of the other side of the debate?

    our society is naturally suspicious of moderation…that’s a bad thing…

  • Y11

    Yay for Aristotlel, and for moderation generally. Moderation isn’t always tsuper fun but it’s often true.

  • schafferlover

    not as funny as your previous pieces, but very reasonable, and, in a word, true. good work matt.

  • @6

    As conceded, I can’t read Mr. Shaffer’s mind… but I do know he used to be chairman of the POR and is now a member of the Tory Party, and have heard speeches given at both. In good company, he’s not quite so moderate.

    Again, I for one AGREE with what he says when he says it… but he’s simply not doing so in this article.

  • okay, but…

    When are we going to realize that restricting our language in no way changes the feelings, motivations, and prejudices behind language?

    The focus on using politically correct language and avoiding controversy at all costs at Yale is truly overdone and doesn’t address the core issue of our education: the need for open mindedness and reversal of negative stereotypes.

  • another columnist

    People, can we stop getting into columnists’ personal lives?

  • @11

    Not when they’re relevant to truthfulness, no.

  • JD pickerfeld

    Objection overruled number 11. Details of the Witness’s personal life could be relevant to his credibility. I’m going to allow it. But watch yourselves. There will be no ad hominems in my courtroom.

  • ydnfan

    good insights as usual, Mr. Shaffer. keep up good work.

  • hey you

    moderates and conservatives, if you don’t like the way things are done here at Yale you can get out

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