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.