The 'Politically Correct' Wars


Academics should be pleased when their discussions reach the public realm. They may think that what they think matters terribly, but how often do they get evidence that others agree?

Now that the question of "political correctness" on campus has burst the confines of little magazines into the arena of truly public media, that ought to be the reaction of the professoriate: "Good news! Somebody out there cares."

For the uninitiated, the charge is that academic life is stifled by an insidious and anti-intellectual orthodoxy requiring homage to a set of beliefs that:

1. Male whites have dominated everything and skewed values which must be adjusted accordingly; 2. Much heterosexual sex is coercive by males and therefore rape, which should be prosecuted; 3. Only affirmative quotas (the word is not used) can bring enough blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans into administration, faculty and student bodies to correct slavery and reflect society; 4. The old standards of culture are male white imperialism that should be replaced by works of authors who are female, nonwhite and right-thinking; 5. All non-whites worldwide and campus-wide are "persons of color" with more in common than any have with whites; 6. U.S. policy on just about anything is capitalist, militarist, male white imperialism; 7. Victims of imperialism are primarily female, nonwhite, differently abled and gay segments of the population, who are no longer meek and will inherit the earth; 8. etc.

Having in the past year audited the debate on disparate campuses and heard from others and read much of the literature, I venture a few tentative observations:

* Something of the sort is going on. It is not all made up.

* What outsiders know about its extent comes from those who point with alarm, who look for the most extreme examples to portray as typical, and who in large measure come from the Reaganite right.

So "political correctness" is defined by its opponents and is largely denied by its practitioners to exist. Our picture is not clear. There is no disinterested authority on whom to rely.

* The most-prized evidence of the accusers is individuals who claim to have lost jobs for political incorrectness. This is hard to handle by the accused, who always claimed the franchise on victimhood themselves.

* One is required to espouse all of the tenets, not just some. Conversely, to attain proud status as politically incorrect, one is required to renounce all the tenets, not just some.

Someone who believes that date rape is pervasive and racial quotas are wrong, or espouses Shakespeare and socialism, or either approves or disapproves both homosexual unions and the gulf war -- such a person is consigned to perdition by both sides in this debate.

* A good deal of the post-Marxist left rests on emotionally held beliefs of power and simplicity. This is faith rather than intellect, religion more than philosophy -- in contrast to Marxist ideologues, who built elaborate theoretical constructions of words, words and yet more words.

If the texts are the unabridged "Das Capital" on the one hand and a Madonna video on the other, the sermons that follow differ markedly.

* The leftward drift in universities coincides with a conservative tide outside. Political correctness reflects a growing mismatch between academia and the society it serves. (I know: This has happened before.)

To the extent that indoctrination takes place, students are turned out into a society for which they have not been prepared. An enormous generation gap should be opening up in American society.

As evidence: There were symposiums on the gulf war on campuses where no apologist -- and in communities where no opponent -- could be found for the panel.

But to the extent that indoctrination fails, career-minded or purposeful students are finding leftist professors as irrelevant as those former campus radicals found their professors 20 years ago.

* The best part of the debate is on the "canon" of literature vs. cultural diversity. This is whether the masterpieces of Western civilization should be replaced in the curriculum by works more representative of the whole world, which is predominantly non-European and more than half female.

Both sides are right. Western culture is where America came from; world culture is where it is going. A well-educated American of the next generation is going to be well-educated in both.

There ought to be courses in this dispute. You should be able to major in it. Rather than decide it by a vote of the general faculty in which the scientists don't show up and those who do holler at each other, let students answer it for honors.

Assign, at freshman orientation, a senior thesis of 200 pages due in four years, to be judged on bibliography, footnotes and arguments, giving the student's answer to the cultural question. To do it, he or she must digest the canon of Great Books and the politically correct reading list of women's, black and Third World studies, and then defend his own conclusions about their relative importance.

Now, that would be education. Of course, it would require faculty willing to read the theses closely and without prejudgments on the correct conclusion.

* The worst part of the debate is the intolerance with which so much of it is conducted.

It is enough to label one's opponent (as racist, homophobe, sexist, rabid feminist, under-qualified, kooky leftist) to dismiss with contempt anything the other says. That relieves the tedious necessity to refute hard argument.

This intolerance is understandable among students who have just been insulted. It is unforgivable among mature adults of certified intellect who are paid to instruct them.

____________ Well, these are just a few tentative reactions to the debate. If I got anything wrong, consider it withdrawn. I will learn more and may get back to you later.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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