Frequent readers know I am a fan of Professor Patty Limerick at University of Colorado and Director of the Center of the American West who has been doing the “Frackingsense” series on oil and gas development. Rebecca Watson’s presentation is tomorrow. All the podcasts can be found here.
But the reason I brought up Professor Limerick today is that she is also interested, like us, in discourse and improving it.
To that end, she had an op-ed in yesterday’s Denver Post. Here’s the link and below is the op-ed.
Let’s aim to be politically direct, not politically correct
By Patty Limerick
We have gathered to pause and reflect
On the concept, “politically correct.”
While the right of free speech
Protects freedom to screech,
We’ll still make a claim on respect.
I invite you to join in the launching of a movement. My expectations are modest. I’m hoping to recruit and enlist just a few allies. Here is the core program of our movement: When heading into a conversation on a sensitive subject, drop “political correctness,” and replace it with “polite directness.”
Don’t decide what you think just yet. Instead, take a moment to visit my world as a professor teaching Western American studies. Let’s head straight back in time to my classroom on March 6.
Given the centrality of Mormonism in the West’s past, present and future, anyone teaching this course must devote time to that topic. Nonetheless, taking up this subject, a professor has reasons to feel on edge.
The digital world allows professors to scope out these circumstances with precision. You ask the students a multiple-choice question. They take out their clickers and choose a response. The responses appear on the screen as a bar graph.
On March 6, the clicker poll informs me that three students identified themselves as Mormons, and 12 students identified themselves as holders of anti-Mormon attitudes.
Looking at that bar graph, I know two things: I do not want the students who are Mormon to feel vulnerable for their religious beliefs, and I do not want to prevent students who want to learn more to feel uncomfortable about asking questions. I will intervene if anyone speaks in ways that denigrate or demean the Latter-day Saints, but I will also intervene if anyone tries to cast an honest question as an unmistakable expression of anti-Mormon prejudice. I am, in other words, trying to steer our course toward polite directness, not political correctness.
Sex and race barely begin the catalogue of issues that can create sensitivity over political correctness. Add just a few of the big ones (religion, culture, party affiliation, income inequality, fossil fuel use, etc.), and political correctness can seem close to imposing a monastic regime of silence on classrooms and on civil society. And, grimmest of all, it comes close to suppressing and penalizing curiosity, the one utterly essential and indispensable item in a teacher’s tool chest.
Almost half a century ago, I received a demonstration of the value of freely expressed honest curiosity. In our hometown, a friend and I had organized a workshop on race relations. The conversation among our participants limped along, hampered by caution and indirectness.
And then a close relative of mine came for a visit. After listening to concerns about injustices and getting more perplexed, she suddenly exclaimed, “Just what do you people want?”
I was mortified over my relative’s ignorance, expressed with unfettered use of phrasing that was “politically incorrect” long before the term was invented. And then I noticed that the conversation was thriving. My relative’s question had set the conversation free of nervous indirection.
As I have personal reasons to believe, a hopeful movement can gain crucial force and aim from a guiding limerick:
Education requires talking
With respect, not with scorn or with mocking.
Thus, it’s time to defect
From the politically correct,
And to open the doors we’ve been locking.
I don’t know why schools and class discussions can go the way of “political correctness”. I know some folks think “why go there, I’ll just be pounced upon, and I might get a bad grade.” But in my opinion, we are not helping people think or care (treat people who disagree with respect) and really not helping the world become a better place when the academy is not a safe place to dialogue.
I remember once when I administered the McIntire-Stennis program, I visited a large western university, the home of two noted forest ecologists with diverging worldviews. I commented to the administrator I was working with, “it must be very exciting for the students of these two famous folk to hear their dialogues.” And the administrator replied “their students are more like two armed camps, and the professors don’t dialogue about their differences.” In another western school, forest management and conservation were two separate departments (this served to combine budget and resource competition and back-biting with philosophical differences).
If I were in a position to influence academic programs, respectful discourse would be one of the main “learning goals.” “Why do you think that way?” is just as important a question as “what does that critter eat? IMHO.