Limerick on Political Correctness and Polite Directness

A drawing of a Mormon family is depicted while living in Pueblo. (Daily Record)

A drawing of a Mormon family is depicted while living in Pueblo. (Daily Record)

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.


  1. Prof. Limerick needs to define what she means by “politically correct”, but she never does. She apparently makes an assumption about what the reader thinks it means (e.g., perhaps some sort of excessive adherence to ultraliberal views on race/gender/sexual orientation/religion and an obsessive fear of stepping on anyone else’s toes?) I don’t know, maybe that isn’t what she thinks. I mostly hear the term being used in a generally pejorative sense by more right-wing types as a proactive defense for a racist/sexist/sectarian type of “humor”; in other words, rallying behind the anti-politically correct flag is mostly just an excuse for being impolite. As such, the supposed distinction between politically correct and directly polite is a manufactured dichotomy, which Limerick then goes on to analyze in her usual slightly smug manner (and with some bad verse).

    Her argument is a good example of the “straw man” fallacy that Matthew appropriately discussed in another thread here, where he noted that “Straw Man is one of the commonest of fallacies. It is endemic in public debates on politics, ethics, and religion. A straw man argument occurs in the context of a debate―formal or informal―when one side attacks a position―the “straw man”―not held by the other side, then acts as though the other side’s position has been refuted.”

    • Guy

      A straw man is like your statement above: “in other words, rallying behind the anti-politically correct flag is mostly just an excuse for being impolite”. Your statement attacks people rather than the issue. I believe that that also qualifies as stereotyping. Hmm, I wonder why does the word sanctimonious suddenly comes to mind?

      Do I read you right in that you think that only the politics of liberals are political correct? Therefore, by definition right wing types are “anti-politically correct”. So who gave you the authority to define what is politically correct. Shouldn’t the US Constitution and the bill of rights define what is politically correct?

  2. Guy.. I’m surprised that you think that this is a “strawman”, because that attitude does exist in academia. Maybe it’s more prevalent in liberal arts than in sciences, but because you are not aware of it does not mean it doesn’t exist. So we need proof in all cases, that that the opinion cited does exist? That’s OK, as long as we apply it consistently.

    And that is kind of a strawman itself, because you are saying “used in a more pejorative sense” without any equivalent citation…

    Further you are additionally impugning motives to people..

    ” I mostly hear the term being used in a generally pejorative sense by more right-wing types as a proactive defense for a racist/sexist/sectarian type of “humor”; in other words, rallying behind the anti-politically correct flag is mostly just an excuse for being impolite. ”
    Here’s my personal experience.. it does really exist in academia (at least liberal arts) and it really does cut off debate. And what Limerick is saying you can still have a discussion and be polite. Do you disagree?

    • Sharon, here’s the point, which I think you’ve missed: When you say “that attitude”, “the opinion cited”, “it really does exist”, and “it really does cut off debate”, what exactly is it that you are talking about???

      That is what I’m saying: Limerick never bothers to define “political correctness”, nor have you, so it becomes a rhetorical bridge to nowhere. I gave you my interpretation of how/when the term is used, and you or others may disagree with that interpretation, but to suggest I need a “citation” for my opinion is silly. At least now you know what “political correctness” means to me, but one has to guess at what it means to Limerick or to you, since you haven’t told us.

      Yes, one can have a discussion and be polite, I think you distilled her essay pretty well. I don’t see any reason to infer disagreement with that premise, in fact I’ve agreed with it for all of the 35+ years that I’ve been in academia. Is it noteworthy enough to write an op-ed about? To me, no, but it’s a personal opinion, I guess.

  3. Like Professor Limerick, I start out my college lectures by asking students to identify their religious affiliation. That way, I can fine-tune the presentation to avoid stepping on sensitive toes. Jehovah’s Witnesses in the room? I’ll steer clear of anything that smacks of evolution. Wiccans? I’ll avoid starring my theses in Powerpoint slides. No references to “Godless Communism” for fear that Christians might feel nostalgic for the good old days when America stood up to Russia.

    • That’s very prudent and commendable. I assume you’re also careful to avoid issues of overpopulation, beef cuisine, and tea leaves. I suppose a forestry prof’s worst nightmare would be to have a couple of druids in the class… This has been enlightening, though I still don’t quite get the idea of using digital clickers to communicate with students. Oh well, add Luddites to the sensitive list…

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