The surprisingly delightful musings of a humble Virginian whose satiric paeons to a plausible utopia implicitly shame the cynical zeitgeist of our times, causing it to cry, as 'twere, 'Damn, what was I thinking?' or words to that effect.

July 2018

Three Arguments Against Political Correctness in Academia

The following is a response to lecture one of Professor Edwin Barnhart's Great Courses courses entitled Ancient Civilizations of North America.

Dear Dr. Barnhart:

Regarding your clarification of terms in the first lecture of that course, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

1) While I agree that we should not use pejorative or biased language in speaking of cultures, I think the climate these days puts far too much emphasis on what people say and far too little on what they mean. In this way, we run the risk of being "taken in" by the hypocrites of the world, who learn to say all the right things but have bad intentions nonetheless, such as Moliere's Tartuffe or the hypocritical brother Joseph in Sheridan's "The School for Scandal" (not to mention the manipulative daughters of King Lear). Meanwhile, the goodhearted speaker who commits a politically incorrect faux pas risks being run out of town despite his good intentions (thanks to our zero-tolerance attitude toward words) by those who have learned from society that they should count it as the worst possible offense to be spoken of in a manner that they themselves consider to be "insensitive." (I place the word in quotes because, as you yourself point out, the words to which that definition apply are subject to change over time.) Instead, they should learn that the worst possible offense occurs only when someone actually intends to offend them, not merely when that person unintentionally uses a word that is considered to be somehow "offensive in the abstract."

2) Also, I don't entirely agree with your assertion that those who use "AD" are tacitly invoking Christianity. The English language is full of terms whose original meanings are sharply at odds with current usage. Correct or accepted usage is based on what people actually mean, not on what they meant long ago. When I use "AD," I don't think of Christianity (just as I don't think of Julius Caesar when I mention the month of July), but I use it to make myself understood, chronologically speaking. I have no problem using "CE" instead should I learn that it bothers my audience to hear "AD," but even if I were a Native American, I hope that I would have patience with a person who uses that latter term, unless I was sure that they indeed intended to offend me in so doing. Otherwise, my anger would be nothing but political correctness in the worst sense of that term. Besides, one could scarcely write a full sentence these days without giving offense, were every word in it to be subjected to an etymology on behalf of an easily offended audience.

3) Finally, I can completely understand your call for neutral language on such a subject at such a time in the cultural development of America. I do have one concern, however. When a professor makes a conscious pitch for respectful language at the beginning of a course, I can't help but wonder if I'm not going to get a whitewashed rendition of any facts that might tend to a jaundiced view of the civilizations that are about to be lectured upon - or that the lecturer might even omit any incidents in the history that might lead to a less than flattering view of said people. If respect for the discussed civilization is paramount, how forthcoming will the professor be about any shortcomings that the civilization might possess or about any incidents that do not redound to their credit? I understand the need to eschew the many prejudices that have limited unbiased study in the past, but I am concerned that we may now be overcompensating for the negative bias of the past with a new positive bias, which itself is still far wide of the ideal of impartial analysis.

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Copyright 2017, Brian Quass (follow on Twitter)