Tarleton professors discuss the controversial topic of political correctness
Political correctness has been shown to be a very touchy and complex topic: so complex, that four professors at Tarleton State University don’t even share the exact same ideas on it.
Tarleton professors Dr. Michael Landis, Dr. Mattie Fitch, Dr. Christopher Gearhart and Dr. Matthew Hallgarth explained what political correctness means to them, whether it is necessary or not and how it has impacted the culture of modern America.
Landis, a history professor, said he views political correctness as a derogatory term used by those who are in opposition to a society that is growing in diversity. He explained that the nation began to see the influence of political correctness during the 1970s and 1980s. Sensitivity trainings, along with a push for cultural acceptance became more popular during this time period.
“…It comes out of in the 1970s and 1980s where you have movements for women’s equality, women’s liberation movement, the gay pride movement, and ethnic nationalism and different groups of Americans who want to celebrate their differences in identity rather than trying to be the same as everybody else… politically correct became a term used by people to push back against that,” Landis said.
Fitch, a social sciences professor says that political correctness is used to avoid verbal discrimination against a particular group of people.
She explained that when people are speaking to each other or to an audience, they must keep in mind that different cultural communities have different experiences.
“You don’t want to unintentionally perpetuating inequalities or discrimination based on how you’re speaking, what you’re saying and who you’re speaking to. So, if you’re sort of generalizing about entire groups of people, you’re probably not being politically correct,” Fitch said.
Fitch added that much of the controversy surrounding political correctness is due to the fact that many Americans are not yet comfortable with curtailing their speech in order to be respectful towards others.
“It’s easy to say that ‘Oh people are just looking to be offended, there’s some people who want to be offended and they’re going to find some way to be offended.’ And I think it is especially easy to say that (people look to be offended) if that person belongs to some group that we don’t belong to but I think we have to trust when people talk about their own experiences,” Fitch added. “They are the only people who have access to their experience.”
Fitch also said that she agrees with Landis’s idea that the term ‘political correctness’ should be replaced with the term ‘cultural acceptance.’
“If we’re going to have a society that is accepting of diversity, we have to have political correctness. So, another way of saying that might be ‘cultural acceptance’— right,” said Fitch.
Fitch said that the use of political correctness is incredibly important in the classroom to prevent students from feeling out of place or even discriminated against.
“This is especially important in an academic setting because there is research that shows students who feel out of place or who feel unwelcome because of unintentional comments that other people make. They don’t learn as well as students who do feel that they belong,” Fitch said. “We want to make sure that every student has an equal opportunity to learn in our university and so we need to make sure that were not unintentionally making people feel that they don’t belong because that’s negatively impacting their education.”
Gearhart, a communications professor, said he believes that political correctness is centered around the refusal to use offensive words or phrases in order to avoid hurting others and their self-concepts.
Gearhart said that political correctness is a topic that is discussed in his classes. He said that although political correctness is goal of modern society, it does have some problems.
The first problem Gearhart described was the issue of political correctness placing certain words off limits, causing communication to be more difficult and ultimately halting important discussions.
“…There are issues out there that we need to talk about but when certain words are placed off limits and when it’s not acceptable to say them or we don’t know the right word to use, then it really stifles the conversation and now we’re not able to have those discussions that are really important and meaningful,” Gearhart said.
He added that the second problem with political correctness is that it reduces clarity.
“I think about the … politically correct term for people with disabilities. The correct politically correct term would be differently abled, and so what does that mean? What does it look like? Who are we describing? I mean aren’t we all in essence differently abled?” Gearhart said.
Gearhart said that the third problem with political correctness occurs when words have more focus than actual issues. “We’re focusing on the word but there are other larger issues that we really should be talking about. And so, we’re placing the emphasis on this word rather than the social issues that are causing problems in society,” Gearhart said.
Gearhart even referenced President Obama when discussing the issue.
“Think about the N-word, obviously politically incorrect to use that word, should not be used and what President Obama said last year was that the problem isn’t people not using the N-word in public, the problem is that racism exists,” Gearhart added “The problem is that bias and prejudice exists- that’s the issue that we should be talking about.”
Inequality in the justice system, education and wealth distribution were some of the issues that Gearhart said Americans need to focus on, rather than political correctness itself. “There should be less focus in attention on this particular word and whether somebody uses it in public or not because if they don’t use the word in public and they’re ‘politically correct,’ well that still doesn’t solve any other issues (such as) discriminating against others when they are hiring (and) that they are treating minorities with disrespect in other ways.” Gearhart said.
Hallgarth is a philosophy professor who says his view of political correctness is “When people who expect civility go too far and decide that a lot of people ought to have their free speech rights curtailed so it is not to offend a few people that are overly sensitive.”
Hallgarth expressed that society should have a pushback against political correctness when it is excessive.
“Some people are too sensitive for their own good and they think that all of society should cater to their own feelings rather than sometimes they should just be tougher,” Hallgarth said.
Regarding when political correctness is needed, Hallgarth said, “Civility and political correctness can overlap, that’s when I think political correctness is good.” He also said that political correctness is justified when it prevents unnecessary divisions, but not justified when someone claims to be offended and wants the rest of society to cater to their feelings. “Offense is a terrible standard for moral action, there has to be principles behind it,” Hallgarth said.
In relation to political correctness, Hallgarth brought up the topic of cultural appropriation. According to www.oxfordreference.com, cultural appropriation means “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another.”
“Who decides that you can’t wear a sombrero on Halloween but you may wear a nun’s costume?” Hallgarth asked. “If I dress like a priest -i’m not even catholic- but if I dressed like a priest for Halloween is that offensive? Not really,” he continued.
Hallgarth also brought up a recent situation that occurred at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. The college had made the decision to remove the American flag from its main flag pole after the results of the 2016 presidential election. Hallgarth said that this is an example of political correctness going too far.
“Just because our country’s not perfect doesn’t mean you don’t raise the flag, and so, you let a tiny percent of students hijack that…” Hallgarth said. “That’s where political correctness gets absurd.”
In relation to political correctness, the topic of “safe spaces” in college campuses is also becoming more frequently discussed. The English Oxford Living Dictionaries website defines safe spaces as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.”
Hallgarth said that he disagrees with the idea of safe spaces.
“The first day of class, I usually say there’s no safe spaces in here. If somethings said that you’re uncomfortable with then get used to it because the real world is not like that. And college should at least prepare you for that,” he said.
Hallgarth added “If everybody’s being hijacked by a tiny minority who get their feelings hurt because of some little thing, then it gets to be oppressive and I think that’s wrong. People need to be more disciplined about their emotions.”