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Politically Correct Speech on College Campuses goes too far

February 4, 2015

CUNY Ban of “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Ms.” Is Academically Insulting

 

Mr,” “Mrs.,” and “Ms” are being shown the door at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “Allowing students to use their preferred name and eliminating the use of pronouns and official correspondence is a necessary step toward protecting the rights, privacy, and safety of students,” said Dominique Nisperos, co-chair of the Doctoral Students’ Council at CUNY, adding that the DCS has been battling marginalization and working specifically to support gender nonconforming students for several years.

 

At CUNY, school staffers have been advised to refrain from using gendered salutations in correspondence with students—and instead use a student’s full name, according to an internal memo sent out last month. The directive pertains specifically to administrators’ written interactions with students and prospective students, said Tanya Domi, a school spokeswoman.

 

But the memo says the policy should be “interpreted as broadly as possible” and was sent to all faculty at the Graduate Center. “My interpretation was that I was being asked to adhere to this policy, as were the other professors who received the letter,” said Juliette Blevins, a linguistics professor at the school. The policy went into effect during the spring 2015.

 

The memo calls the policy part of the Graduate Center’s “ongoing effort to ensure a respectful, welcoming and gender-inclusive learning environment…and to accommodate properly the diverse population of current and prospective students.” CUNY’s interpretation of Title IX legal principles is ridiculous. To assume the University must bar gendered salutations because of the law is another step down the proverbial ethical slippery slope of what words can and cannot be used in an academic setting.  

 

This brings me to the main topic of this blog – the use of politically-correct words on college campuses. Political correctness is an attitude or policy of being careful not to offend or upset any group of people in society who are believed to have a disadvantage. Mainstream usage of the term began in the 1990s by right-wing politicians who used the term as a shorthand way of conveying their concerns about the left in academia and in culture. A 1991 article used the term to refer to U.S. academic policies that sought to increase  multiculturalism through affirmative action, prevent “hate speech,” and change the content of the university curriculum. The term was also used by conservatives to criticize progressive teaching methods and curriculum changes in U.S. secondary schools. These debates about curriculum changes have been referred to as a Culture War.

 

Increasingly, college campuses are restricting the use of certain terms or expressions under the guise of “Speech Codes.” The classic speech codes directly restrict speech because of it expresses views that are prejudiced against a particular group of students.   For example, Northern Arizona University prohibited harassment defined as “stereotyping, negative comments or jokes, explicit threats, segregation, and verbal or physical assault when any of these are based upon a person’s race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, veteran status or sexual orientation.”  

 

Now, some will argue that any restriction of speech is unconstitutional. Accordingly, while what is considered 'hate' speech is often reprehensible and unfair, it is still speech and thus is protected by the First Amendment. Some believe that colleges have crossed the line on restricting free speech on campuses in the name of political correctness.

 

I do not believe in any restrictions on speech on college campuses. While I abhor words like the “N” word, I believe it’s best to discuss and debate the issue in the broader context of using any racially charged word or expression in society. This is particularly problematic on a university campus where students should be encouraged to learn through debate, investigation and through exposure to a wide variety of opinions and ideas.  Rather than restricting offensive speech, universities should be encouraging students to learn through open debate and study.  Moreover, when prejudice and hate are out in the open on campus, students get an opportunity to expose, discuss, and dissect offensive language in a way that encourages communication rather than stifling it. Maybe students will learn to understand and respect each other in a way not normally explored in society because of political correctness.

 

The purpose of a university is the development of thinking and the exploration of ideas. There may be times in which those ideas are unpopular or controversial, and times in which they are even counter-productive. The prevailing idea behind bans on speech seems to be that it ostracizes certain groups or individuals when ideas are expressed. However, the better approach would seem to be to allow all ideas to be expressed, regardless of the content. Banning so called "hate" speech requires an interpretation of which ideas are harmful, which always bears the risk of an overly expansive censorship that degrades the free exchange of ideas. Hate speech is abhorrent and often leads to nothing good. Despite that, the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the citizens of the United States the right to free speech.

 

I remember a scene from the 1955 movie The Blackboard Jungle where the teacher is trying to explain the harmfulness of hate words and equating it to how a fight begins in the schoolyard. Here’s what the teacher said:

“Yeah, I know you're just kidding. That's how things start. Like a street fight. Somebody pushes somebody in fun. Somebody pushes back, and soon you got a street fight with no kidding. That's the same way with name-calling. All right, West, look. You're of Irish decent. So is Murphy over there. You call him a Mick. He calls you a Mick. Suppose Miller called you a Mick. Is that all right? Then you call him a Nigger.”

 

To expect today’s students in college to adhere to a politically correct code of behavior or speech is wrong. When we control speech we control the discussion and the dialogue. This is not what a democracy is about and amounts to nothing more than political indoctrination to a particular point of view. For me it’s not a liberal vs. conservative point of view, although that is often the context for the discussion of free speech on college campuses. For me it’s a question of academic freedom. For me it’s whether we want a truly open society and to educate students in the academic fact that words matter.Words express our thoughts and beliefs. Words reveal the kind of person we are. Word reveal our character.

 

The French philosopher Voltaire famously stated, to paraphrase: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

 

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 4, 2015. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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