To what extent has political correctness stifled honest and open debate within universities?

In a political climate wrought with tensions between the ideological right and left, political correctness (pc) and its use to silence or discredit opposing standpoints, has become a topic of much discussion. In no place is this more prevalent than in the institutions where such discussion takes place continuously between academics and students — universities. Freedom to express oneself and share differing views could be said to be the underpinning of universities (Gilbert, 2016). It seems however, that the effects of not allowing such expression to happen have rarely been fully discussed. Rather, upon investigation, a large proportion of research regarding the matter focuses on the notion that students and academics alike are becoming too fragile and merely need to ‘toughen up’ (Bloom 1987; Haidt, 2018). It is the opinion of this dissertation that such an assessment does not truly realise the ramifications of politically correct perspectives and the effects that they have on free speech.

It must be mentioned that it is not the position of this paper that pc is, “the hostage-taker and campus free speech its hostage” (Kitrosser, 2016 p. 1988), as Heidi Kitrosser suggests substantial literature in recent years has been. To this research, such an analysis is extreme and in actuality we are not at a point where this is the case. Rather, this dissertation’s purpose is to demonstrate where in fact pc may have gone too far and further, to shed light on the dark road we may find ourselves on if such environments are fostered across university campuses. It must also be stated that analysis of the ‘university’ will be done by viewing it from a western perspective. By this, this dissertation refers to those places of higher education which hold western values and are built upon the freedoms we enjoy, as it is evident that some universities around the world do no follow these principles and may be far more restrictive.

The importance of such research cannot be understated, particularly in regard to how it will affect university campuses. The distribution of differing perspectives is one that is integral in order for students to develop both intellectually and personally (Haidt, 2018). Without such, the creation of new schools of thought and challenging of ideas would be impossible. In today’s political climate, such research is also extremely relevant. The political landscape has for decades been a war of identity politics (Alcoff, 2006) however, for many whose identity aligns with ‘movements’ or ideological positions, this war has become far more personal. It is no longer a war of ideas but a war of defending each individual’s way of thinking and life. Pc has been used as a tool to not only silence the opposition, but also discredit the ideas they harbour (Berman, 2011) and the detrimental effects of this must be explored. It should not be assumed that pc within university is a new phenomenon however, with its existence (although in differing forms), being prevalent through the decades. A brief history will provide context within this research and also further demonstrate the necessity of it.

Free speech and academic authority have been a pivotal topic for many years, with one book in particular concerning itself with the topic of pc, this being American academic Allan Bloom’s book, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1987). Bloom’s overarching assessment was that 1980’s students had replaced critical thinking of complex societal issues with baseless instinct, therefore ‘closing their mind’ to other forms of thinking (Bloom, 1987), an insight that this research believes still exists in the twenty-first century; with the current modern-day necessity to dismiss any dialogue on topics which are deemed absolute.

Progressing to the twenty-first century, pc within universities has become the ‘hot topic’ throughout various social forms. In an attempt to not only focus on core academia, but also improve the social climate of university life, politically correct forms of varying types have been introduced into higher education environments. These include (but are not limited to), “creating safe spaces, helping students to recognize micro-aggressions, training them in sexual assault prevention and conducting sensitivity training for faculty and the like” (Gilbert, 2016, p. 391). It is by no means the intention of this research to devalue the practical utility of such tools and they are by no means unwarranted. For many they are key in allowing learning environments to prosper, whilst remaining sensitive and respectful for those around you (Arao, 2013). Coupled with this, is the ability for such tools to provide environments where individuals are not confronted with unresolved traumas without their consent, “granting agency to… individuals by allowing them to know what they might encounter and attend to their trauma as they see it” (Byron, 2017, p.117). And “while demands to prohibit all speech acts that bother listeners must be rejected, some speech causes real psychological harm” (Cohen, 2017, p. 320). Evidently, pc is not only related to the issue to be discussed within this dissertation, but also has a number of other interpretations within education culture. Contention arises however, when the tools used above which are supposed to aid students, are used for another reason entirely.

Although the necessity of them are beyond the scope of this research i.e. whether there is validity in their use for those who need them most, one fundamental issue is when they are used for manipulative purposes. It is indeed an unfortunate possibility that some students use these methods to detect disagreeable views and phrases that they find personally oppressive (Gilbert, 2016). Such tactics intern worsens the situation, as Neil Gilbert remarks, “Striving to ease the psychological strain of coming to grips with provocative ideas and discomforting topics…may very well exacerbate the tensions they [Universities] seek to alleviate — or impel faculty to avoid challenging topics” (Gilbert, 2016, p. 396). Such a perception is what has now led to the environment this dissertation is focused on understanding. This being the issue of silencing those of opposing viewpoints, not through politically correct tools such as those mentioned, but outright dismissal and prevention of other viewpoints, an aspect that this dissertation believes deserves critical attention.

From the exploration of pc on debate in universities, this research hopes to do a number of things. Firstly, it wishes to identify why pc has become so prevalent within the university setting specifically; as mentioned these institutions are built on education and learning therefore, its prevalence can often be described as confusing. Secondly, upon this exploration, investigation in to its consequences must be done. It is to be expected that silencing of other people’s views will undoubtedly encroach on their freedom of speech, the extent of which will only be realised once the benefits of free speech are examined. A final aim is to discuss where we- in the university- might find ourselves if pc does indeed stifle the honest distribution of ideas.

In order to fulfil these aims, particularly the second and third, case studies will be analysed via two methods of analyses. Firstly, a theoretical framework will be constructed through the exploration of the differing concepts concerned. There are three of these concepts, these being pc, free speech and identity politics. By creating a framework put together from the relevant literature, this research will be able to compare the differing dimensions of each case study to the definitions of each concept, helping to determine the validity of the research question. Secondly, in order to directly analyse both case studies outside the sphere of academia, relevant contextual documents will be assessed and interpreted in order to gather a meaning. Such documents include, statements released by the main actors involved, statements released from the university and documents regarding the universities free speech policies. This process is known as document analysis and will be clarified in the ‘methodology section’ of this dissertation.

The first cast study regards an event that took many by surprise and made headline news in varying countries. It involves Canadian university teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, who was chastised by her superiors for showing a clip of controversial academic, Jordan Peterson (Burston, 2018). A second case study regards British-Iranian secularist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie, who was temporarily barred from speaking at the University of Warwick due to members of the university believing her views would incite hatred of Muslim students (Adams, 2015). Through the analysis of these case studies followed by a conclusion, this dissertation will demonstrate clearly that the threat of pc on free speech is very real, rather than just rhetoric as many believe. Due to the contemporary nature of both case studies differing sources will be consulted due to the lack of scholarly work. These may include newspapers, videos and other forms of literature, although all forms validity will be assessed prior to inclusion.

In order to address the question in its entirety, a structure will be followed to provide a succinct overview of the necessary concepts, literature and conclusions. Firstly, a theoretical framework will be constructed for all relevant concepts. This will involve a thorough analysis of the relevant literature, determining how and why differing interpretations of pc, free speech and identity politics are relevant to this research. Secondly, the methodology section and an explanation, rationalisation, and assessment of document analysis will be done, in order to demonstrate what it is, why it is useful and any aspects that must be taken in to consideration before its use as research methods. Following on from this, the penultimate chapter, this being the analysis of the two case studies previously mentioned in which it could be said pc had stifled debate. Scrutiny of both via the framework established as well as document analysis will allow this research to conclude whether indeed, they are examples of pc gone too far. Finally, a conclusion which summarises the results put forward by this research, observations made after completing the research and recommendations for further study.

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