Some Factual Correctness About Political Correctness
Some Factual Correctness About Political Correctness
By Katharine T. Bartlett
Reprinted without permission from the Wall Street Journal,
June 6, 1991.
Typos are mine (DRT) [***** stars are mine: RS *****]
Criticizing campus "radicals" for browbeating the
majority into some "politically correct" ideological conformity
has become more fashionable than the practice it condemns.
But the PC rap is a bum one. PC critics mischaracterize the
enemy, exagerrate its presence, and fail to debate or even ********
acknowledge the important substantive issues underlying the
controversy. In doing so, they not only obscure, but also help
to prove, the insights they themselves do not appear to
The pejorative label "political correctness" represents
an effort by PC critics to seize the moral high ground of the
First Amendment. They claim that those protesting the
continuation of racism and sexism on college campuses are
moral ideologues, intolerant censors, Vietnam-protesters-
turned-fascists. They also claim that these ideologues have
taken over the universities, and that from this place of power
they are threatening the quality of academic standards and the
integrity of free intellectual inquiry.
** Where is this ideological coercion? Where is this ********
** threat to open dialogue? I see little evidence of it, even at *******
** Duke University, which has been cited in these pages as a *********
** hotbed of PC. At Duke, courses on Shakespeare, Milton, and
other "traditional" liberal arts subjects are not under siege;
courses on such subjects as Marxism, women's studies, and
Afro-American literature are. The average female Duke
student shuns the label "feminist". In contrast, no shame
appears to attach to association with conservative causes.
Outspoken conservative students have their own newspaper,
the Duke Review, and an active chapter of the National
Association of Scholars speaks freely. At Duke, academic
traditionalists head almost all departments and hold almost
all chaired professorships. Duke has only one female dean; all
other top leadership positions are held by white men.
If Duke is typical, what accounts for the perception
that university radicals have taken over? "Surplus visibility,"
answers Daphne Patai of the University of Massachusetts at
Amherst. Certain voices are being heard in the university
more often, more loudly, and more insistently than in the
past. Given what we are accustomed to hearing from these
voices--silence--the noise is deafening. As Ms. Patai observes,
when members of groups we do not expect to hear from begin
to speak, their voices appear too loud, out of place,
Surplus visibility exemplifies a larger phenomenon
PC critics have been unwilling to understand: the privilege of
those who have power to say what needs defending and what
does not. In any social organization, the views of the
dominant tend to be taken for granted as objective and
neutral. Challenges to these views--like those we are now
hearing in the universities--appear to seek special favors for
the "less qualified," or some compromising of academic
This phenomenon helps to explain why some
demands pressed at universities are viewed as "political" or
"special pleadings," while others are not. Some PC critics
dismiss as interest-group politics requests that authors such as
Toni Morrison or Mary Wollestonecraft be included in the
curriculum; others malign courses in feminist theory or black
studies as a "Balkanization" of the curriculum.
In contrast, assignments of writings by Nathaniel
Hawthorne or T.S. Eliot draw no notice and require no
defense; neither does the "basic" political philosophy course
that begins with Aristotle and ends with John Rawls. The
difference is _not_ that the standard "Western civilization"
courses are apolitical. In fact, it is precisely the alignment of
these courses with particular points of view--the dominant
ones in our society--that makes them appear neutral. This is
not to argue that such courses should be abolished, but
nobody should pretend that only feminist and minority-studies
courses have political content.
PC critics attack as ideologically coercive,
condescending and petty the insistence by some "blacks" and
"Indians" that they be called "African Americans" or "Native
Americans." Yet they take for granted their own titles of
"Professor," "Doctor" or "Judge" as a matter of simple civility.
Most, perhaps all, titles and labels convey
substantive political messages about power and self-
definition. But those that conform to existing lines of
authority are taken as neutral signs of respect, while those
that encroach upon that authority stand out as shamelessly
political and arrogant.
It is clear that some PC critics are using a double
standard to judge those who do not respect their authority.
These critics invoke important principles of academic
freedom to shield themselves from criticism of classroom
remarks that some students find racist or sexist. Yet they
appear to acknowledge no reciprocal freedom on the part of
students to resist classroom humiliation; and it is that
resistance that is now labeled a "politically correct" effort at
Most of us who have been labeled "PC" are not
seeking special favors. We are not trying to stifle debate. We
are trying to begin one--a difficult one that challenges
perspectives that are taken for granted in the university and in
society. If our critics were true to the free-speech principles
they profess, they would be engaging in that debate. All too
often, they hgave chosen personal denunciation and caricature
There is room, and a great need, for a genuine
debate in our universities about academic quality and
diversity. PC critics have diverted the debate by the
distracting assertion, backed by only a few isolated anecdotes,
that traditional voices are being silenced.
The one-sidedness of the PC critique mocks this
assertion. It also demonstrates a central paradox of the whole
PC problem: The more established the status quo, the less
defense it requires, and the more easily challenges to it can be
made to appear self-serving and tryannical. The PC charge is
a smoke screen. The fact that it packs rhetorical punch
demonstrates that there has been far less change in who
controls the university, and in what we take for granted there,
than many would have us believe.
Ms. Bartlett is a professor of law at Duke University.
So, you heard it right here, folks: the "Politically Correct"
view is that to be "Politically Correct" is 'much ado about
nothing.' It is either a hallucination among conservatives,
or else it was a joke all along.