Phi Beta Cons

The Language of Political Correctness

Among the criticisms leveled against FIRE by Jon Gould in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education is that of selective quotation. Gould claims that FIRE exaggerates political suppression on college campuses by pulling out a quotation from speech codes that sounds absolute and restrictive, but ignoring surrounding sentences containing “modifying words” that, in fact, preserve freedom of expression. Gould writes:

Consider FIRE’s objection at the time to Michigan’s “Policy and Guidelines Regarding Electronic Access to Potentially Offensive Material,” in which FIRE criticized the sentence that said, “Individuals should not be unwittingly exposed to offensive material by the deliberate and knowing acts of others.” However, the policy also states: “Freedom of expression and an open environment for sharing information are valued, encouraged, supported, and protected at the University of Michigan. Censorship is incompatible with the goals of an institution of higher education.” Indeed, the material in Michigan’s policy that immediately follows the language noted by FIRE says: “The University is a community of individuals with diverse values, beliefs, and sensitivities. Individuals must be allowed to choose what they wish to access for their own purposes.” FIRE, however, did not provide the modifying words.

FIRE has commented on this point already, but it deserves more discussion.  This is because one of the central tools of political correctness is precisely to make language vague and variable.  When words start depending too heavily on context for their meaning, when subtextual meanings develop that are never quite explicit but are still operative, when terms get loaded, when statements imply one thing in one sentence, then imply the opposite in the next, several social effects set in.
One, people are never sure that their intention in saying particular things will count more than how others construe them.
Two, authorities in charge of local discourses enjoy over-wide latitude to apply their judgment.
Three, aggrieved figures incline toward the most cynical interpretation of what they hear.
Four, the line between speech that genuinely “threatens the rights of others,” as Gould puts it, and speech that does not shifts upredictably.
And five, to make their point, polemicists select the most unambiguous and easy illustrations, such as Gould talking about a teacher opening every class by ”excoriating the female students for ‘taking the place of a man who would use the education to support his family’ or chastising African-American students to ‘work harder because they were all affirmative-action acceptances,’” not acknowledging that the actual harassment cases usually come about in that large and hazy middle ground that the variability of language opens up.
This is to say that Gould’s way of refuting FIRE’s selective quotation is itself a nice example of political correctness. Just because a speech code says it opposes censorship doesn’t undo its statement against “offensive” speech. Instead, it makes the anti-offensiveness assertion all the more murky.
That’s what political correctness relies upon. And the more we shift the meaning of words from the words themselves to the opinion of administrators and ideologues (of any kind), the longer it will continue.

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