The Trouble With Political Correctness

The trouble with “political correctness”

From campus protests to Toronto's Harris Institute, "political correctness" has come under fire, but we must remember: language matters.

- Nov 27, 2015
Photo credit: Philipp Arndt Photography

People who draw attention to others’ “political correctness” these days seem to hurl the term as an insult. It’s become a shadowy stand-in for lack of backbone, a lack of conviction. “A fetterer of free speech,” is the favoured accusation thrown at “PC” people.

Usually, though, it’s men of a certain demographic who offer this feedback, and if you have even basic listening skills, you’ll hear their trepidation.

Last week in Toronto, the Harris Institute, an audio production school, passed what’s been referred to in the media as an “anti-PC policy.” The policy purports to be designed to protect students and faculty from racially, sexually or religiously motivated harassment, as well as “the incitement to commit violence and the shouting down of opposing views.”

It’s the survival rate of opposing views that the school’s president, John Harris, seems to be most concerned about, though. He acknowledges that words can be harmful, but doesn’t seem to see the direct link between harmful or violent language and physical violence. I spoke to him over the phone this week and, perhaps predictably, he said a whole bunch of un-PC things.

“New students will know before they attend Harris Institute that they’re going to hear certain words that might be offensive,” he told me over the phone. “People seem to be much more sensitive about a lot of things today, so that needed to be addressed in the policy.”

Harris is right that people have little tolerance left for bigotry and insensitive behaviour. Just this past week, western yoga made headlines due to concerns over cultural appropriation at the University of Ottawa. The level of “PC” rhetoric that is helpful on campus is an issue of constant debate.

What people often fail to note, though, is that the reason certain words just shouldn’t be used is because they have a long history of harming others. Why, exactly, they should care about that seems too much for some to wrap their heads around, and instead, the right to use certain language becomes a power struggle conducted by those already in power.

Bigoted physical attacks on people having to do with race, gender, orientation, etc. begin with hateful language. That’s part of why language matters here.

At Harris, if teachers use the N word, or the word “fag,” for example, Harris will effectively count to ten: Faculty and students have one chance to screw up without being dismissed or expelled.

But if the behaviour goes on and becomes pathological, he says, there will be grounds for dismissal. He says he spent time looking at the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Criminal Code to determine what exactly constitutes hate speech and harassment in Canada.

The policy states that “where evidence exists of any incitement to commit violence,” the person in question will be immediately expelled or dismissed.

Often, being called names or hearing racist ideology go unchecked can cause psychological harm, and that isn’t acknowledged in the new policy. And bigoted physical attacks on people having to do with race, gender, orientation, etc. begin with hateful language. That’s part of why language matters here. I asked whether Harris acknowledges that language can be harmful in and of itself, and he said he “absolutely” does.

The goal, he says, is not to have students call one another names and get a free pass for it, but to protect free speech and “create an environment where there’s an open discussion of ideas.”

While Harris focused a lot on ideas throughout our conversation, most of the school’s programming seems to be on the applied side, focusing on the art, technology and business of audio production. It’s not clear that they have much resembling, say, a first-year soc course on the roster.

Also, white men, I explained, are still the ones with the power in the industry. I asked what he thought about the adversity other groups will face once they graduate.

“We don’t want to eliminate any of the information about how challenging the music industry actually is on those particular issues.”

I asked why he doesn’t challenge the status quo instead of grooming people to behave within it, and he said that’s what he’s trying to do with this new policy.

In other words, people are going to have to get over it if they feel offended. Harris says that if someone feels upset by something someone else has said, the best thing to do is to call that person out, in real time.

But as former students explained to Metro, it can be prohibitive for students to voice their concerns about the school because the instructors, especially Harris, have a lot of influence in the industry. Lack of recommendations from those instructors doesn’t bode well for students’ future careers.

When they finally did speak up, it was to ask for a policy on harassment — and this new policy was Harris’s response. It seems, then, as though this new policy is simply a post hoc response to past transgressions — like one teacher who'd been charged with seven counts of committing an indecent act or a math teacher who'd routinely lectures students about the immorality of abortion and homosexuality, as the Metro article details. It's as if, by instituting a new policy, the damage done by homophobic and misogynistic language can be deleted from the record. While Harris says enhanced possibility for free speech will create a forum for difficult and necessary conversations to be had, it also provides a fuss-free response that can be used to sidestep the real issues.

If marginalized people cannot expect to be spoken to respectfully, why would they want to pursue a career in the music industry?

Meanwhile, at her talk last week with Toronto journalist Anupa Mistry, Chicago rock critic and author Jessica Hopper brought a room full of (mostly) women to sadness and rage over the current state of inequality in the industry. She said that if we want to drum up awareness about equality, women obviously won’t be listened to. As a result, we’ll have to get a bunch of straight white dudes to be our ambassadors, and they can then inform other straight white dudes about how to behave. Great! This, apparently, is the reality we will just have to accept.

What Harris and others who think in a similar way don’t seem to understand is the basic concept of intersectionality. If a group of white men says something racist to a queer brown woman, for example, it could be either terrifying or pointless or triggering or otherwise horrible for her to have to respond because of the triple marginalization she’s faced in her life. If everyone already knows certain words are offensive, why should people who have made this point clear continually have to fight for their basic dignity?

The other major issue with siloing language is that violence begins with hateful words. The group of people on the street yelling “fag” or “n*****” or “slut” could morph their words into physical violence very quickly, especially if their language is allowed to go unchecked.

Regardless of the progress that’s been made when it comes to awareness of privilege and oppression — and forgive me for the utterly inane obviousness of this in advance — there are still very few black executives in the industry, very few women receiving due payment or respect. This means there’s some correcting to be done, and policies developed that are directly opposite to the one at Harris Institute.

If marginalized people cannot expect to be spoken to respectfully, why would they want to pursue a career in the music industry? Policies like these are little more than a shoddily-masked strategy for keeping these groups out of the industry altogether.

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