The next-to-last word on political correctness


ON THE PBS program "Firing Line" last night, eight panelists debated the proposition "Resolved: Political correctness is a menace and a bore."

Here are excerpts from the two-hour debate, taped at the University of Pennsylvania on Dec. 3.

The debaters are Robert H. Bork, the former federal judge (for the resolution), and Prof. Linda S. Greene of the University of Wisconsin Law School (against).


ROBERT H. BORK: Political correctness, I think, is something that is widespread in this society, and it's part of a mood of radical egalitarianism which has taken hold.

Of course, equality does not occur for all people without coercion. And I'm afraid that's what we're seeing.

We're seeing it in affirmative action and quotas in the universities. And we're seeing it in the speech codes, which are judging speech not by what it objectively means, but by how somebody perceives it, over which the speaker has no control. And I think this kind of leveling in speech and of rejection of the achievement principle for quotas isn't going to work.

This kind of thing, I think, leads to hostility, a loss of civility and a rejection of the achievement principle upon which this society is really based.

LINDA S. GREENE: PC is a menace, but perhaps for different reasons than the other side would say. It's a menace because it obscures the real problems and issues that we face as a society.

It's a clever rhetorical phrase which turns a debate about racism and sexism into a debate about censorship.

If you can force us to discuss censorship instead of discussing racial epithets, censorship instead of discussing sexual harassment, censorship instead of discussing the question how we are going to transform our institutions into more diverse places, then you have set the terms of the debate and prevented a discussion of the real issues.

And it seems to be a great cause of glee on the right, among conservatives, that they have been able to change this debate.

Let's stop attacking young people who come to college, whose parents send them to college with a reasonable expectation that they won't be the victims of racist, derogatory speech.

Let's stop attacking the victims and start attacking the problem of racism. PC labels prevent that. The PC charge prevents that, and that's why PC is a menace.

Let's eliminate the phrase and get on with the unfinished business of transforming our society and transforming our educational institutions.

BORK: Professor Greene, do you think there is more racism in this society today than there was 30 or 40 years ago?

GREENE: I think that racism has changed its character. I think that racism still exists but its character is different.

What we need to do is not to focus on calling each other racist or sexist, but instead to try to understand how historical racism has affected our lives and consciousness and not make charges but try to understand how we all -- white, black, men and women -- have been affected by our past.

BORK: Professor Greene, I think none of us on this side of the table disagrees that people could be punished for making open racial or ethnic insults in a university. That is not the question in which this arises.

This arises when students steal a student newspaper because they regard it as racist, although it's just conservative, or when a professor is put through sensitivity training for a remark that was not really offensive in the classroom, that's political correctness, and that's what we object to and it's happening. It's not just a question of forbidding talk about racism.

GREENE: Well, is it political correctness because the university expresses a concern? It seems to me that if we eliminate the label of political correctness from our debate, we can talk more explicitly about what speech we want to empower people to engage in.

Let's stop talking about political correctness and instead talk frankly about what we want people to be able to say at the university. Are we saying that we want students to be able to say ZTC anything they wish to another person?

Are we saying that we want faculty to be free to make remarks, however offensive or threatening to their students? Are we saying that we want professors to be able to make sexual remarks to their students?

I think that when you mention acts like the stealing of newspapers [at Penn] or other acts of this nature, we all understand that these acts occur in a context.

I don't think we want to continue to focus on these specific incidents. I think what we need to talk about is the way that the characterization of this debate prevents us from really discussing how much freedom a professor should -- we've both been professors.

I'm a professor now. You've been a professor. You know how important it is to be free to speak and to not be misunderstood.

BORK: Nobody on this side of the table is saying we should not discuss racism or sexism and how to deal with it.

GREENE: Judge Bork, don't you think that there is a great deal of hypocrisy in the free speech debate? We don't have an outcry over the regulation of speech in the context of stock offerings; we don't worry about regulating speech in the area of copyright, plagiarism.

Some of the conservatives are perfectly happy to suppress pornography and obscenity or other types of advertising. So how would you make the distinction between that speech which ought to be permitted and that speech which we ought to suppress?

BORK: At the core of the First Amendment -- which I take it is the emblem of free speech in our society -- there is concern for political speech, concern for speech about ideas, about social matters, and so forth. There is no concern about speech -- at least there wasn't originally concern about speech which expresses no idea, but merely expresses hatred or obscenity.

If somebody says, for example, that Asian-American students turn out to be better at mathematics and physics than others, I take it a speech code might land them on that person. That's political correctness, and that's wrong.

We've got to be free to discuss differences, abilities, and so forth. But when you get to a code about a stock offering, you're merely saying don't sell somebody a product that you have lied about.

GREENE: It seems that you're supporting the idea that we can regulate some hate speech . . . .

BORK: In a university. In a university.

GREENE: In the university. And hate speech which might be one person making a personally directed racial epithet at another person. Wouldn't you agree that that ought to be, if not punishable, certainly subject to some type of university discipline and correction?

BORK: There certainly ought to be. I remember there was an episode at Brown University not long ago in which a drunken student went out in the quadrangle and shrieked anti-Semitic remarks, and the dean had him in and I think he was suspended. I don't have much trouble with that.

GREENE: How do you explain that there is so much intellectual and political firepower marshaled in favor of people who want to yell epithets and derogatory, hurtful language?

How do we explain this marshaling of energy and intellect in support of people who want to act this way toward others?

BORK: I think nobody does.

GREENE: Well, then, would you agree with me that what we need to do is talk about the real issues and stop hurling our charges at each other?

BORK: Oh, the charges are much more fun.

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