Accommodating Diversity In Critical Conversations

Benjamin Shoemake, Columnist

Benjamin Shoemake

When I first conceived of this column, I imagined it as an open and inviting space, trying its hardest not to shut down ideas or opinions and instead focusing on novel and diverse perspectives. I’m taking a break from that for a moment, however, because there is one idea that needs to be addressed before it can entrench itself further; one with a profound impact on our ability to have the varied and interesting conversations that I’m looking to achieve. I speak of political correctness.

What do we mean when we say “political correctness”? The phrase is perhaps misleading: political correctness has less to do with whether an idea is right or wrong, than it does with the way in which it is said. Perhaps a more accurate term would be “politically inoffensive”– ironic, since so many people seem to be offended by the concept.

Increasingly, the term is also used to refer to a couple of other related but distinct practices; those of providing content warnings and creating safe spaces, for example. In total, these ideas have received recent criticism in certain circles as being forms of intellectual “coddling,” making college students overly sensitive and incapable of critically approaching important issues. I don’t want to lend this idea too much credence, so I’m going to be blunt: the opposite is true.

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to stick to the most important point. A frequent criticism of political correctness is that it can act as a form of censorship, reducing the diversity of conversations in and around campus while promoting a single, pre-approved stance. Indeed, in recent times students have made attempts to shut down speakers and exhibits which they feel might be triggering to others. If our goal is to have diverse conversations, though, we must first ensure we have diverse participants.

Safe spaces, content warnings, and political correctness in general exist to make conversations accessible to the largest number of people possible. Speaking personally, if I am forced to chose between having a panic attack or missing a discussion, then I will choose the latter every time. It often is the most vulnerable voices that are the most essential, and claiming political correctness as the result of an overly sensitive student body is stifling to any real analysis of the systemic issues at stake– if I do not feel safe in a situation, it is not me that is the problem.

To be frank, people who voice opposition to “political correctness” make no effort to decry speech that caters to entrenched systems of oppression. They raise no objection to the fact that our society, as a whole, is more comfortable with Donald Trump stating that all immigrants should be deported than it is with the sentence “Black Lives Matter.” This kind of coddling – coddling targeted at wealthy white men – conveniently escapes their critique. Taking the thoughts and feelings of actual victims of oppression into account, however, that would be going too far.

I find it suspect that it is often the most diverse, subversive, and revolutionary voices that find themselves in the crosshairs of the anti-PC movement. I find it frightening that we, as a society, accept and promote warnings about sexually explicit content in film but are opposed to asking professors and public speakers to disclose subject matter in advance. I find it dangerous that students are expected to put themselves at risk to obtain an education they are literally paying for. Whitman has a diversity problem for a reason.

I want to promote open discourse and discussion of ideas, but first Whitman must ensure that everyone is able to come to the table. We must make an effort to create spaces where the most essential voices aren’t prevented from being present. College is an axis of political change not because of the institution, but in spite of it, and most critical discussions today take place outside of any classroom. We must strive to keep these spaces open and inclusive to all, and raise our expectations for ourselves with respect to what we feel okay saying.

If you feel comfortable hurting others in the process of asserting your right to speak, perhaps you had better stay home.