“Political correctness” conceals issues

“Political correctness” is — judging by the innumerable reports in the mainstream media — a scourge upon college campuses nationwide. We hear that students are incapable of considering political views different from their own and in many cases attempt to suppress them. Protests against “controversial” campus speakers are used as evidence of this phenomenon. Last week, demonstrations against conservative activist Allen West at Saint Louis University received just such an interpretation. However, an emphasis on “political correctness” obscures more than it reveals. Public discourse on college campuses has always been regulated, and protests are themselves instances of speech that bring attention to existing social inequalities. Protesting groups do not appeal to political correctness, but to anti-racism and social justice. Only by considering these issues — and discarding the inadequate concept of political correctness — can we understand student protests and the issues that motivate them.
The controversy that developed around Allen West’s speaking engagement at SLU last Thursday demonstrates many of the characteristics typical of the political correctness narrative. West, a retired lieutenant colonel and FOX News pundit, complained in the days leading up to his speech that SLU administrators removed the phrase “radical Islam” on event flyers. A post on West’s personal website reads, “Folks, I’ve just been CENSORED.” In it, West speculates on “ill-conceived political correctness” and calls the university’s Muslim Student Association “an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
At his speech, many students participated in a peaceful walk-out. West went on to speak about the threat posed by radical Islam in America, according to a September 29 report by Fox2News.com. SLU’s Muslim Students’ Association released a statement condemning West’s remarks, drawing attention to the danger of such rhetoric in a climate of Islamophobia. Though West raised the specter of political correctness to describe his perceived censorship, does it explain what actually occurred?
The idea of political correctness supposes that there is a virtual consensus on college campuses about what is acceptable to say and what is not. This can hardly be true in the case of SLU, however, as both the organizations that invited West to speak — the Young Republicans and the Young America’s Foundation — and those that organized the protest against him — the Muslim Students’ Association — are part of the same student body. What actually appears to exist is a struggle over the university’s values between groups with distinct political interests. And it is precisely the distinctiveness of these political interests that is erased when debate is drawn into the framework of political correctness. The Muslim Students’ Association’s critiques of Islamophobic rhetoric and its potential to cause violence are framed as simple opposition to “free speech.” The thrust behind an anti-racist critique or protest is to reveal conditions in society and on campus which create insecurities for marginalized groups. A discussion of political correctness cannot have this effect.
Aside from the fact that the concept of political correctness distorts the terms of the debate and distracts from social inequalities, it also mistakes the real conditions of “free speech” present at the university. Although they might appear to be relatively open forums, universities have implicit limits to the topics available for discussion. Last November, a speech at SLU by an attorney for Planned Parenthood was moved off-campus under pressure from the university administration, according to a September 29 Riverfront Times article. Did such a speech conflict with the university’s values more than West’s? If so, how could such an appraisal be made? The concept of political correctness informs nothing here. Rather, it is more likely that dominant political interests prevailed. The power of donors and establishment groups within university administrations expose inconvenient and fundamental problems with the notion that universities are open to all forms of free speech. Institutional “values” are never clear, but they play a powerful role in what is said — or not said. And the groups that prove most decisive in struggles over values are rarely students at all.
While Allen West might frame the controversy at SLU as one over “political correctness,” this term fails to illuminate actual events. General debates over political correctness confuse the real conditions under which political debate is conducted. It overlooks the social inequalities, political interests and institutional power imbalances that all contribute to constraining acceptable discourse. In this way, student protests do not attack “free speech” but expose the existing limitations to public speech and the groups that benefit from them. Only by engaging the substantial problems raised by protests — openly and honestly, without evasion or easy answers — can any solutions be arrived at. Talk of political correctness is only a barrier.