A Problem of Political Correctness at Educational Establishments

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The academic year ends as it began. Campus enforcers, the deans and administrators of universities, are still busy denying that any effort to restrict free speech exists. The concern over ‘political correctness,’ they say, is overstated. Such denials don’t alter the clear evidence that freedom of speech is no longer assured at many colleges and universities.

We have only to look at schools where nervously compliant administrations have established ‘harassment’ policies. These policies, or codes, are written laws that the university feels they must have to equal the balance of its racially mixed students. These behavioral codes, which more often than not bear a close resemblance to a political sermon, would clearly restrict freedom of speech as well as a few other freedoms. Laughing at a racially derogatory joke, for instance, is sometimes listed among the punishable forms of harassment.

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At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, protesters demanding more minority control of the Collegian which is a student newspaper. The paper has a minority balance, but the people that run it, the people with control were mainly white and male. The protesters invaded the paper’s offices twice, destroyed property, and threatened and attacked staff members. One protester chased an editor and threatened him with a baseball bat.

In the face of this violence, the administration took a loftily evenhanded view. The whole thing was, U. Mass. Chancellor Richard O’Brien said, a struggle ‘between the ins and the outs,’ and that he did not think the university should take sides. The chancellor did not say what degree of mob rule and violence it would take for the administration to decide it could venture an opinion on the matter. He might, of course, have consulted his own university’s harassment policy, which includes in it a definition which includes harassment and physical attack, unless of course, editors of the school paper representing what the chancellor calls ‘the status quo’ aren’t the sort of people eligible for protection under the code (‘Disappearing rights of our Universities’ A5).

Then there is the case of Camille Paglia and the Connecticut College summer reading list. Ms. Paglia, who ‘specializes in making hash of the wilder reaches of feminist scholarship,’ is the author of a book titled Sexual Personae. When the book was included on the reading list, members of the Women’s Studies Committee and other centers of feminist movements, and their campus allies, started to attempt to remove it. I believe they shouldn’t have (Bishop B1). Even though the book might have been offensive, I think that people should see things from every point of view and maybe not just there own. People also need to stop being offended every other second and realize that our society is not one that caters to our ever need and emotions. People have to realize that they will be hurt once in a while, to think that you can live your life escaping emotional and physical pain is ridiculous.

Assistant professor of art history Robert Baldwin told the school’s student newspaper the book was ‘offensive to human beings, especially women.’ Others complained that Ms. Paglia’s book was hate literature, literature that has a demeaning or derogatory to a specific group of people, like ‘Mein Kampf’ a book written by Adolph Hitler. The campaign to remove Ms. Paglia’s book from the list succeeded.

One undergraduate member of the committee described herself as shocked at this act of censorship which is an aspect of speech codes. This student, like a lot of others, is getting the sort of political education the school catalogs don’t list. In the end, the powers that be decided that the Paglia book could be read and discussed by students later in the term but only if done in conjunction with Susan Faludi’s feminist book ‘Backlash’ for balance.

Anyone doubting that an unhealthy and repressive climate exists on campuses today has only to look at the policies on harassment put in place at Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Florida, and Brown, to name a few.

At Brown, as at other institutions, the code says that harassment can be defined as any behavior that produces ‘feelings of impotence’ or ‘anger’ or ‘disenfranchisement.’ And the harassing speech or behavior doesn’t have to be deliberate. ‘It can be intentional or unintentional’ (Burge).

Colby College’s policy decrees that any behavior or speech that causes someone to feel ‘loss of self-esteem,’ a ‘vague sense of danger,’ is harassment. The speech code at Emory College says that harassment is any behavior or language directed at others on account of race, gender, sexual orientation, handicap, etc., that has the ‘reasonably foreseeable effect’ of creating a hostile environment for those in the above identified categories (Crenshaw C6).

We live in a society where anything from a look to a laugh can be defined as harassment and has been. My dictionary defines harassment as being, ‘1. To irritate or torment persistently. 2.To wear out; to exhaust. 3. To exhaust an enemy by repeated attacks’ (The American Heritage 382). Harassment is punishable by all sorts of measures including ‘separation from the university.’ Which basically means expulsion. I believe that these cases where laughing at someone or looking at someone does not involve any of these definitions. If someone were to repeatedly laugh at one person daily and ‘exhaust’ them by these laughs then maybe, but not on a single basis. The single basis harassment complaint is what these speech codes are defined by, not by multiple exhausting episodes.

The University of Minnesota includes in its faculty guidelines the suggestion that the faculty ‘monitor’ the classroom climate by having students ‘comment anonymously, in writing, about things they have seen or heard that they want to acknowledge.’ All that is missing is the suggestion that students be convened for mass confessions, or trials where they can all come forward and repent of having laughed inappropriately. (‘Suit Against University of Minnesota:’ A6).

There are some exceptions to this dreary lineup, notably the policy of the Yale College faculty, which specifically rejects any infringement or monitoring of speech, for whatever reason. Perhaps more universities will follow there lead one day, but that day can come only when college presidents and chancellors, deans, and the other scared and discreet souls running the universities today stop accommodating the political whining and start to behave like administrators who are there to help students with an education not to expel them for a laugh and a look.

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