When dissenters challenge the higher education industry to prove the worth of a liberal arts degree, many support the academy by pointing to the “breadth and depth” that students gain at a liberal arts college. The depth, of course, comes from the student’s chosen major or concentration – a student majoring in psychology, for instance, would have a deep, robust knowledge of psychology upon graduation. The breadth, more importantly, develops from distribution requirements and core curricula. The psychology student, then, will not only be well-versed in research methods and behavioral models, but in philosophy, government, and the economics, too. Opponents of the liberal arts typically worry about the latter word in the phrase, “art.” Art, to some, connotes intangible skills that may not be relevant in a tech-driven era. However, liberal arts students are famously good writers who understand that the word “art” does not simply mean what it did in elementary school painting class. Art, with respect to the liberal arts, is a vast field of culture which encapsulates many areas of study. Liberal arts students fully understand this aspect of their degree. How, then, are these same students so dangerously mistaking the meaning of the former word, “liberal”?
Recently, an article for the National Review Online detailed a horrifying restriction of free speech at Vassar College. Vassar, like Tufts, is a liberal arts school renowned for its diversity and progressive environment. At Vassar, the divestment movement has gained momentum and most students across campus seem to be in support of the campaign. The exception to this rule is Vassar Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA) group. To voice its opinion in the divestment debate, the group invited a proponent of conventional energy industries to speak on campus. Soon after the group advertised this event, divestment supporters attempted to stifle this conversation by ripping and defacing posters for the speaking
engagement. Worse still, a pro-divestment group on campus vehemently begged to pay the speaker not to come to campus. Members of the MICA spoke to news outlets and expressed concern over the fact that conservatives at Vassar are often silenced by the louder, progressive students. Unfortunately, this brazen act of disrespect to the First Amendment is becoming commonplace at liberal arts colleges across the country. It may be too simple to declare this conflict one of liberals versus conservatives. Rather, I’d determine this conversation to be one about political correctness, diversity, and freedom of speech, and how these ideas coexist, converge, and conflict at the university level.
Political correctness has really only been a recognizable feature of language since the 1980s or 1990s. When searching the term “political correctness” online, it is difficult to find one, comprehensive definition – the debate over political correctness is heated in certain arenas, and, as a result, some definitions are skewed and biased. One way to approach this lack of definition may be to provide two interpretations which oppose each other. One definition says that political correctness is concerned with avoiding language which excludes, insults, or marginalizes members of a community. This camp of political correctness advocates for a more inclusive lexicon: “spokeswoman” instead of “spokesman,” or, more recently, “owner’s bedroom” instead of “master bedroom.” This expression of political correctness can be blamed only for encouraging circumlocution, but, at its core, it attempts to promote inclusion regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. This is a noble goal. Politically correct diction, as I’ll refer to the goal of this first definition, suggests ways in which we can speak more respectfully and tolerantly.
The second interpretation of PC focuses on the dangerous extremes of the movement. Professor Marilyn Edelstein of Santa Clara University writes that political correctness “has been
defined by those opposed to and fearful of viewpoints they lump together under this loaded term.” This definition more nearly approaches the epidemic of shaming and silencing that is infecting college campus across the country. More than encouraging respectful diction, this brand of political correctness glorifies a certain mindset as the “correct” one and assumes all others inferior. At universities such as Tufts, this mindset is typically liberal, fueled by secularism, social activism, and progressive values. The PC majority will slander students with different priorities as “racist,” “homophobic,” and “sexist.” Ironically, these hyper-PC students that to label a Catholic student a homophobe or a white student privileged is, in itself, oppressive.
Hypocrisy aside, the cornerstone of the PC movement – that language cannot insult or offend – is absurd. Language is a common currency which humans use to express emotion. And, precisely because we are humans, these emotions are not always marked by smiles and hugs. While the movement for politically correct diction merely suggests more sensitive ways in which we could refer to certain groups, the politically correct mindset forces the dissenting minority to remain silent through insults and snarky remarks (and here I use the word minority in the mathematical sense, to refer to the lesser number of students). I’ve never seen this more horrifically employed than in the earlier anecdote from Vassar. Because the PC majority at Vassar views its divestment movement as the “correct” way in which to think, it silenced the “incorrect” side. Of course, everybody has the right to insult and disagree with whomever they like, but to silence an opinion because it is different is not just repugnant and ignorant, but it is massively dangerous – especially on the college campus.
In college, students are, above all else, driven to learn. Because of this, we are vulnerable to new knowledge that may challenge our beliefs. We are smart but elastic, with brains strong
enough to form opinions but young enough to entertain and value myriad new ideas. If we refuse to acknowledge alternative modes of thinking, we do ourselves a disservice. For Vassar students, working for the organization which heads the divestment movement may look impressive on a resume. Further, these students show conviction and motivation in their campaigns. However, what sets us apart as liberal arts students is not how many social activism clubs we join, how loud we scream, or how many posters we can print. Instead, liberal arts students should pride themselves on the ability to think critically. Students at Tufts should feel comfortable with, if not excited by, contrasting viewpoints, no matter how unconventional these ideas are. No, we should not relish in the opportunity to squash them. Rather, we should listen to these beliefs in order to foster tolerance and respectful debate. This debate, in turn, forces us to become stronger thinkers and arguers. At institutions like Tufts and Vassar, it is comfortable for the ideological majority to express their opinions while the dissenting minority remains silent for fear of shame and slander.
Comedian and pundit Bill Maher foresaw this degradation of higher education in 2002 when he told actor Dennis Miller, “there is less free speech at Berkeley than there is in the White House.” Miller, in turn, replied that he does not like performing at college campuses because they are “very close minded.” He then less-than-eloquently added, “kids are such pains in the ass nowadays.” But we are pains in the ass. We claim to promote tolerance and diversity but shut down those with opinions different from our own. To be fair, students at Tufts are not duct-taping each other’s mouths shut or engaging in shouting matches. But to subtly structure our language on campus to be politically correct inherently excludes those who do not have “politically correct” opinions. In the United States, we are protected under the First Amendment to speak our minds freely, in theory. Political correctness, however, sets invisible barriers which constrain this freedom. Those who are politically correct become self-righteous, believing
themselves “learned” or “elite” because they understand what, at the moment, is in vogue to say and to think – and, more importantly, what is not in vogue to say and to think. Political correctness is a man shouting to a crowd, “Hey, look at me! I’m not a racist!” while turning and raising his eyebrows at the man next to him.
Too often, free speech dissolves at the expense of PC-invoked fear. Once-benign words suddenly become offensive. As human beings, some may say that we ought not to offend one another. As citizens with the power of free speech, however, we can offend one another and, at times, we should. For offense spawns disagreement, then debate, and then solution. In the same conversation I reference earlier, Dennis Miller says “the best way to dispense with the unpopular ideas is to let them roam free on the playground so that they can have their asses kicked up and down the playground by the cool ideas.” Ultimately, this may be the argument which persuades the advocates of political correctness to see its disadvantages. How can we reform affirmative action if we cannot talk candidly about race? How can we determine if insurance companies should cover the cost of sex reassignment surgery if we cannot speak freely about gender and sex?
On our campus, though, we may view a shift away from political correctness more positively. Instead of encouraging free speech to separate good ideas from bad ones or to improve conversational logistics, we can encourage free speech because it promotes community and tolerance. In the recent presidential campaigns at Tufts, we heard countless ideas about improving campus culture and community. If this is a goal Tufts hopes to achieve, it is crucial that we encourage and accept free speech. We will not always agree with each other, but that is why we come to college. We come here to question ideas. We come here to pick each other’s brains. We come here to bask in the richness of diversity that is not solely marked by skin color, but by ideas and beliefs.
The word liberal means abundant, generous, and free. We should surround ourselves with abundant ideas from all ends of the spectrum, and enjoy listening to professors and peers whose opinions are not our own. We should be generous in debates, giving everybody an ear and an equal chance to speak. And we should be free to laugh, to argue, to embrace, and even to offend. We should be free to speak.