Written by Sandy Tat and Ruchika Gothoskar
As of late, “political correctness” on university campuses has become something of a controversial issue. Articles have appeared in American news outlets, like the Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and on Canadian campuses like in Western University’s student newspaper with “I don’t say boom because I don’t want to diminish fireworks.” Those who criticize political correctness, trigger warnings, and the push for safe spaces see these conventions as a threat to freedom of speech on campus. Furthermore, it’s been argued that the “oversensitivity” among undergraduate students acts as a hindrance to discourse and education in the classroom. In actuality, these beliefs stem from a mischaracterization of what political correctness means and what it hopes to achieve.
Political correctness is the act of “avoiding words or behaviours that exclude, insult, or marginalize groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against”, as defined by activist Franchesca Ramsey. Political correctness is not censorship, but rather it’s the recognition that our language and actions have consequences. Beyond hurting someone’s feelings, what we say and how we act can perpetuate ideologies that promote oppressive views. This can happen through casual degradations known as micro-aggressions. While innocuous comments may not have malicious intent, they can repeat and reaffirm a stereotype that contributes to someone’s marginalization. Telling someone that they’re “attractive for an Indian girl” comes off as a compliment, but implies that people of this ethnicity usually aren’t attractive.
This is especially relevant in the classroom. For example, Asian students tend to be characterized as quiet and may be penalized for a perceived lack of participation or engagement in a course. Students of colour report feeling that their contributions are minimized, made to feel inferior, and not taken seriously in their academics because of their race. Of course, this extends beyond ethnicity to sexuality, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and more. Freedom of speech is typically defined as our right to voice our opinion without the fear of punishment. Political correctness doesn’t counter that, but helps to protect individuals whose voice and story typically are spoken over. Therefore, political correctness actually facilitates a campus environment that is conducive to learning.
Micro-aggressions and trigger warnings often get confused in discussions about political correctness. A trigger warning is a statement that is made ahead of an event or conversation, such as a lecture or assignment, that alerts the audience of potentially distressing material. These content disclaimers allow for individuals to decide how or if they want to engage. For people who experience trauma, such as sexual assault or attempted suicide, unexpected re-exposure to traumatic events can provoke a strong negative emotional response. Trigger warnings are a matter of advocating for personal safety and for the accessibility of the classroom. Whether this hinders the development of “proper coping mechanisms” is not for the university to decide, but for individuals and their healthcare practitioners.
Many critics still oppose this by saying that the “real world” doesn’t have trigger warnings. However, being at these educational institutions, where we can amuse progressive and challenging ideas, we are able to plan for the “real world” that we want to create when we graduate. In these conversations that we are having about trigger warnings and political correctness, we can be discussing the support services available for people who experience trauma and the institutionalized oppression that exists within the workplace. The implementation of trigger warnings is an act of critical thinking where we acknowledge that university is more than an “ivory tower.”
Do trigger warnings mean we can no longer talk about or study certain topics on campus? Not at all. Trigger warnings exist to preface discussions in order for students who have dealt with trauma to decide how their stories are told. Being more acutely aware of how students respond to challenging material leads to more responsible and effective pedagogy.
Oftentimes, when individuals speak out on acts of oppression, such as sexism or ableism, they are told that they are being “too PC.” This ultimately derails the conversation and forgoes an opportunity for a mutually beneficial learning experience, counterproductive to the nature of university. With political correctness and trigger warnings, we are still able to have difficult conversations. And we should; being uncomfortable is often necessary in learning as it means we are challenging what we know and critically engaging with what is presented to us. Adopting a PC perspective ensures that these conversations are constructive and that we recognize our words for what they are - impactful.