Politically Correct Solutions Won’t Solve the Political Correctness Problem

Ashley Thorne

A journalism professor at Emerson College, Ted Gup, published a thoughtful article in the Chronicle last month, “True Diversity Includes Both Left and Right.” The author acknowledged with compunction what is widely asserted but usually dismissed out-of-hand by academics – that conservative students often feel uncomfortable expressing their views “on a campus that is decidedly liberal.” Concerned for the “academic freedom of the conservative minority,” he urges colleges and universities to change. 

To his credit, Gup recognizes the problem: that academia is supposed to be a place where diverse ideas flourish and interact with one another, but that in fact it stifles debate by demeaning conservatives. That it does so is a symptom of political correctness’ grip on higher education, unfairly favoring certain ideas over others.

Gup observes, “One of my sons is a college student and a conservative. Our sparring over politics has only cemented our respect for each other, leaving me to wonder why it cannot be so at the university. After all, isn't listening to others a core tenet of liberalism?”

What can be done to revive truly liberal education, education that frees rather than binds? Gup proposes a multi-pronged strategy, but he slips into the same politically correct mindset that caused the problem in the first place. Dissenters in higher education have often pointed out the hypocrisy of the campus left in straying from its own policy of tolerance and appreciation of diversity in its treatment of conservatives, and that’s essentially what Gup does here.

He exhorts colleges to apply the same “armamentarium used to promote diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender” to political conservatism. His strategy consists of:

  1. Tolerance: “We would not tolerate such insidious prejudice aimed at religion, race, or gender, yet we are largely silent when the target is a political creed. Intolerance is intolerance.” Tolerance is a tricky term. It sounds like a synonym for open-mindedness, yet it is most often used as a means of silencing dissent, as in, “you can’t criticize this because that would be intolerant.” Conservatism, like most points of view, is not above critique. We should approach different ideas with civility and respect, which allow for reasoned disagreement. Tolerance, on the other hand, commands tacit approval. Tolerate also bears a connotation of enduring something unpleasant; it seems a poor word choice for a bright, honest, invigorating exchange of ideas.
  2. Inclusion: We need to “reaffirm the underlying values of diversity—inclusion, the creation of diverse communities, the celebration of individual differences.” Here is another misleading term. It sounds like a synonym for welcome but is a substitute for a merit-based approach to education. Instead of allowing ideas to be sorted on their merits, we include certain ones automatically and give them status they haven’t earned. Instead of selecting the best-qualified faculty members and students, we include certain ones if they represent favored identity groups. Why should conservatives and conservative ideas receive similar favoritism? When inclusion is practiced in place of open inquiry, it only cheapens the idea being included. The best way to honor an idea is to let it compete in its own right.
  3. Affirmative action: “When choosing between candidates of equal standing, why not embrace the candidate of conservative persuasion? Besides, who could resist bringing in conservatives under the umbrella of affirmative action?” Ah, affirmative action for conservatives. Critics of the Left’s near-monopoly on higher education are often accused of hypocrisy to the effect of, You oppose affirmative action for minorities but seek it for conservatives. The first problem with this accusation is the underlying assumption that conservatives cannot meet the usual academic standards without some unfair advantage. Such an assumption evinces blatant bigotry. The second problem with that accusation is that conservatives don’t actually want affirmative action. NAS president Peter Wood puts it best:

    What I seek is not an artificial balancing of the faculty by adding a prescribed number or percentage of conservatives, libertarians, or what-have-you to predominantly liberal faculties, but rather a robust commitment to appointing faculty members on the basis of the quality of their work as scholars and teachers.  I want—we want—the university de-politicized. And we definitely don’t want to accede to an even more thorough politicization that would take the form of designating a special corner of the room for conservatives.

  4. Shelter: “The mere presence of a cadre of esteemed conservatives would provide academic shelter and validation to political refugees—the conservative students and faculty.” Shelter? Refugees? Gup is suggesting that conservatives are not now “safe” on college campuses and need a place to hide with people like them. This language echoes that of the LGBT “Safe Space” campaign, which recruits university employees to undergo “ally” training and earn a sticker they can place on their door to signify that LGBT persons can come there to be “safe.” I wrote in an article about this program, “There is a false bravado in ‘safe spaces’ and an insistence on playing the victim in an age and a place where actual victimization has never been less likely.”

    Victimhood is a sustaining theme of the diversity movement – it tells us that special advantages are needed to compensate for “historical injustice.” But continuing that theme perpetuates the “us against them” mindset—and it won’t ameliorate relations between conservatives and liberals.
  5. Diversity training:

But we should also train existing faculty to promote a climate in which conservatives feel secure and welcome. Diversity training often focuses on the small verbal and physical cues that evince bias, the repeated glance in the direction of the lone black student each time civil rights are discussed, for example. A mere rolling of the eyes at the mention of Gov. Rick Perry or an offhand crack about the Tea Party signals who is and who is not a political outcast. It is how orthodoxies are enforced—and reactionaries born.

Subtle expressions of bias do enforce orthodoxy, but so does sensitivity training. It instills taboos and assumes an attitude of condescending paternalism toward faculty members. These consequences trickle down to students as well.

Ted Gup displays admirable goodwill in identifying the problem and wanting to do something about it. But all he knows is the politically correct approach to change.

You can’t fight political correctness with more political correctness. Tolerance, inclusion, affirmative action, shelter, and diversity training are not only insufficient to bring about political diversity on campus, but also antagonistic to the free exchange of ideas. Frogmarching conservatism into higher education would only increase political tensions, establish preferences for yet another identity group, and fuel the pernicious notion that conservatives lack intellectual ability.

Several years ago the University of Colorado at Boulder announced a widely publicized proposal to hire a chair in “Conservative Thought and Policy.” The chair appears never to have been filled, but the proposal was perhaps the first attempt to do the sort of thing Gup is recommending. NAS chairman Steve Balch wrote at the time that the university had misfired:

Far better would be an approach that comprehends the full institutional magnitude of the problem. It is not, after all, that CU, or almost any other American university of stature, lacks a scattering of conservatives. It is rather the parochialism that renders their ideas nearly invisible, which sees the current left-liberal consensus as embodying the entire universe of respectable thought, and which leads so much of academic discourse into the self-referential cul de sac that has become its trademark.  Pinning a chair with the preformulated phrase “Conservative Thought and Policy” only fastens this mindset more securely.

What then is to be done? For starters we can paraphrase Chief Justice Roberts and say “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of politics is to stop discriminating on the basis of politics.” As Peter Wood wrote, we want the university de-politicized. Every theory, every student, every faculty member should be weighed according to merit alone.

On a practical level, doing this means a fundamental change in the way colleges are run. Colleges seeking to overcome the problem of political correctness would have to reevaluate how they:

  • Bring speakers to campus – do members of the campus community seek to learn from and engage perspectives that differ from their own?
  • Assess prospective students – do the essay questions favor left-leaning (or right-leaning) responses?
  • Hire new faculty members – do interview questions (such as, “How does your teaching philosophy reflect your commitment to diversity?”) comprise an ideological litmus test?
  • Evaluate faculty members’ effectiveness – do professors advocate their own opinions or teach evenhandedly and equip students to judge for themselves?
  • Design curricula – do courses and textbooks exclude or denigrate important points of view? 

Free inquiry would also require changes in accreditation standards and leadership from top administrators and trustees. But before any of this there must be a desire to establish a real marketplace of ideas. Professor Gup, inspired by “listening to others,” has the desire, and perhaps his attitude could be contagious, but as of now, it remains rare in academia.

The National Association of Scholars is one of the few voices urging higher education to shed politicization. We stand with Gup and others who seek to foster pluralism on campus, and we hope they recognize that the only way to end a political monopoly in academe is not to rig the market another direction but just to allow some healthy competition.



Image: WIkimedia Commons, Public Domain

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