• Previously in this “NEW CENSORSHIP” series, I have written about the power of political correctness to suppress speech via the magnitude of its proponents’ outrage and calls for punishment of those who stray from “acceptable” opinion. In this episode of “THE NEW CENSORSHIP,” I will examine the argument of a scholar who defends the increasing powers of political correctness.

    On June 21st, I overheard an interview on CBC’s The 180, in which interviewer Jim Brown asked a gender studies grad student, Zaren Healey White, whether Canadian universities have become too politically correct at the expense of free academic thought. The conversation had the veneer of a serious philosophical discussion, but to my ear, it evaded the most problematic aspects of limiting free speech at the behest of ideology, however well-meaning it may claim to be.

    Thus, I sent a message to The 180, articulating some serious issues that I thought were missed in the discussion. Since it has now been two weeks, and I have not heard back, I offer that letter here.

    (NOTE: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post. I won’t be offended if you listen to or read the interview before taking in my reply.)

    Dear Mr. Brown:

    I enjoy your show and interview style. Your attempts to unearth new perspectives in our little group think world is admirable.

    In keeping with your mission, I would like to provide a 180 perspective on your 180 interview with Memorial University Gender Studies Masters student, Zaren Healey White, in regard to her contention that increasing political correctness in Canadian universities is a positive evolution.

    Your guest was articulate and charismatic, and yet she sidestepped significant problems with her ideology.

    When you asked Ms. Healey White to explain how she defines political correctness, she said, “I just basically mean things that I think are values that I think we should value. So basically it’s not political correctness for its own sake, it’s that ‘Let’s be empathetic, sensitive, and aware—-let’s be aware of language and how the words we use could impact people.”

    Empathy, sensitivity, and awareness all sound like nice goals to strive for in theory, but in practice who gets to decide which language and opinions pass the test? As much as Ms. Healey White and her colleagues may have good intentions and talented brains, there are lots of smart and kind people who disagree with their diagnoses.

    As the late journalist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens argued, “Who is going to decide?… Who will you appoint? Who will be the one who says, ‘I know exactly where the limit [on free speech] should be. I know how far you can go. And I know when you’ve gone too far. And I’ll decide that’? Who do you think, who do you know, who have you heard of, who have you read about in history who you would give that job?”

    To my eye, gender scholars such as Ms. Healey White are currently the leading arbiters of politically correct speech in university culture, and it is they who teach the students who subsequently demand increasing “sensitivity” in academic discussion. So, when we give into student protests and limit who can speak and what can be said at universities, we are allowing a small group of gender scholars to have incredible power over all academic discussion.

    This is not merely a theoretical speculation. Gender studies ideology has made some scary changes to the definition of sexual consent on university campuses, including the new notion that participants—-especially female participants—-cannot consent while intoxicated. Meanwhile, at the University of Ottawa, after two male hockey players were accused of sexual assault, the entire hockey team was suspended for a year. Those who criticize such repressive and autocratic justice are treated as pariahs by the gender studies collective.

    This means that gender studies leaders design strange new rules of justice but will not accept feedback from those not accredited by them to speak on such matters. For instance, when erudite and polite critics of feminism such as Dr. Warren Farrell, Dr. Janice Fiamengo, Dr. Paul Nathanson, and Dr. Katherine Young have attempted to speak at Canadian universities, they have been denounced by feminist protestors as “hate speakers,” “rape apologists,” and “misogynists.” While the students had a right to these accusations, they should not be lionized for such hostile (and baseless) behavior, which inhibits legitimate discussion. Moreover, in some of those cases, the protestors blocked entrances to their opponents’ talks and pulled fire alarms, thus proving themselves literally closed to criticism.

    Far from advocating compassion for those who see the world differently, gender scholars seem to allow no room for “error” amongst those with whom they disagree. Once someone says the “wrong” thing, they are not merely criticized, they are called to be excommunicated from their careers. Such chilling results surely give pause to others who might not agree with every commandment of gender scholarship but don’t want to lose their livelihood over it.

    And note that such restrictions in current university speech is not just about limiting vicious words but also traumatic content. “Trigger warnings,” which began in gender studies, are becoming an expectation of university professors when they engage in material that students might find challenging or provocative. The theory behind this strange practice is that the warning protects the students who may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being further traumatized. Again, this sounds compassionate on the surface, but in reality it is based on speculation that traumatized students will be triggered by content that reminds them of their harmful experiences. According to philosopher Christina Hoff-Summers, who has reviewed the scientific literature, there is no psychological evidence for this conclusion; in fact, quite the opposite, as students who are never exposed to content similar to their trauma have little opportunity to get free of it. Thus, instead of protecting students from harm, it gives additional power to the trauma, while demonizing discussion about it.

    Meanwhile, even if trigger warnings were psychologically justified and there were an objective way to censor disrespectful language without limiting ideas, there is a double standard in favour of protecting gender studies from [being criticized for] its own sometimes hostile ideology. For all her calls for “valuing the inherent dignity of people and caring about them, and caring about their lives and their experiences,” notice that Healey White more than once dismissed critics of political correctness as “privileged.” For instances:

    “I haven’t come across a lot of marginalized people who have a problem with political correctness. It seems to be people who have a lot of privilege who say, ‘Well I’m used to being able to say what I want, and I want to keep saying it.’”


    “I feel like the people leveraging the critiques that the students are too sensitive are the people that have benefitted from getting to say whatever they want, and not having to worry too much about oppression.”

    How does Ms. Healey White know whether such critics have privilege or not? Generally, privilege is shorthand for “white,” “male,” and/or “heterosexual,” which of course is not exactly treating people of such blasphemous traits with empathy, sensitivity, and awareness: instead it paints all such people with the same insult: regardless of the individual circumstances in your life, you have, by definition, been privileged by your biological traits, and so therefore we cannot take your perspective as seriously as ours.

    Such blanket wielding of the term “privilege” is bigotry personified. I won’t presume that Ms. Healey White is motivated by such mean-spirited intentions, but nevertheless she is capitalizing on a currently en vogue expression that carries with it a lot of vicious baggage.

    Moreover, even if we assume the veracity of Ms. Healey White’s almost-impossible-to-verify notion that most of those who criticize political correctness have never experienced oppression (Ayaan Hirsi Ali being, I guess, an aberration), how does that prove their contentions incorrect? In philosophical argument, ad hominem claims (i.e. arguments against the traits of a person instead of their argument) are considered irrelevant. An individual can be both personally flawed and possessing of a good intellectual argument simultaneously, so by definition the person’s traits cannot prove or disprove the validity of their argument.

    For instance, even if I defend free speech solely for my own selfish enjoyment of saying whatever I want (as Healey White suggests), it may be the case that my defence of free speech is still, inadvertently, correct. Meanwhile, even if gender studies students, who are mostly women, focus primarily on women’s rights over men’s rights, it’s possible that the feminist conclusions they draw are valid. The best way to determine the answer to those questions is to look at the arguments we all put forward, and examine them on their merits.

    Seth McDonough

    (REMINDER: The transcript of the interview is available as the first comment on this post.)

    Posted by SethBlog @ 1:11 PM

  • One Response

    • SethBlog Says:

      The following is the transcript I have created of the interview by Jim Brown of Zaren Healey White cited in this post:

      BROWN: University campuses are becoming overly protected, hypersensitive bastions of political correctness that inhibit real education. At least that’s how some people seem to feel as stories of student sensitivity to certain points of view spread around the Western world. In the United States, during a recent interview with ESPN radio, comedian Jerry Seinfeld said he’s been told not to play colleges because students are too PC, too willing to call things racist or sexist. And then there was this controversy from last week:

RECORDING OF CBC NEWS ANCHOR PETER MANSBRIDGE: An imminent British scientist has discovered a formula for outrage: just say something sexist.

      BROWN: That scientist was nobel prize winning biologist, Tim Hunt; the sexist part was his joke that laboratories should be segregated between the genders because women cry too much. He made the joke during a speech at a conference, and after days of public controversy he resigned his university position. Shortly after that, the mayor of London, himself, Boris Johnson, wrote a newspaper editorial denouncing political correctness, and demanding Hunt be reinstated. There is concern about creeping campus sensitivity here in Canada as well. Columnist Rex Murphy wrote in the National Post that some universities have become parodies of themselves, “shops of petty moral vanity.” In his column for the CBC website, Neil McDonald wrote recently that “the scourge of the 90s, PC, seems to be gaining a new foothold on college campuses.” With so much already said and written about the evils of political correctness on campus, we went looking for the view one hundred and eighty degrees opposite. Zaren Healey White is a Masters student of gender studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She’s also a broadcast journalist in St. John’s, and she says what critics call political correctness is actually improving education in Canada. Zaren Healy White joins me in our St. John’s studio. Good morning.

      HEALEY WHITE: Hello.

      BROWN: How often do you hear or read someone complain about a rising tide of political correctness on campus?

      HEALEY WHITE: I feel I’ve been seeing it a lot lately in a myriad of different places. You will see it in newspaper columns; you will see it in a lot of more alternative media, like online websites, magazines, that sort of thing. I’m seeing it a lot. And I feel like one of the big challenges around the discussion–and the discussion does need to happen–is what do people mean by political correctness, so–

      BROWN: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you next. How do you interpret the words
      “political correctness”?

      HEALEY WHITE: Well, for someone like myself who is doing, you know, a Masters in gender studies, and I’m interested in social justice, advocacy, and human rights, when I say political correctness, I just basically mean things that I think are values that I think we should value. So basically it’s not political correctness for its own sake, it’s that ‘Let’s be empathetic, sensitive, and aware– let’s be aware of language and how the words we use could impact people. So really when you break it down that way, what we’re doing is very, it all sounds very good, how could this be a problem for anyone? But I find that it’s the word, or the term political correct, or political correctness, those terms are often deployed as way to try to dismiss, devalue, invalidate, what the actual claim is. So, if I say, “You know, we should do this this way because it’s more politically correct,” (and I wouldn’t actually say it that way, I would say why), but a lot of people will say, “No, that’s just an issue of political correctness.” And they’re really striking at the heart of saying that that issue doesn’t matter, and when we are talking about this, I think we should also look at who’s saying it and why. I haven’t come across a lot of marginalized people who have a problem with political correctness. It seems to people who have a lot of privilege who say, “Well I’m used to being able to say what I want, and I want to keep saying it.”

      BROWN: So is there an increase in sensitivity on campus?

      HEALEY WHITE: It’s quite hard to make sweeping generalizations about university campuses either in this country or in other, you know, Western countries. How can we just say every institution is this way? So what I see–while others are saying that maybe the campus has devolved a space of free, unrestricted speech, and you can’t get away with saying anything anymore–I really see that as an evolution. I think we’ve evolved. And students have more of a say in their education than they did historically. I don’t think it’s as simple anymore as teacher-student, “I’m enlightened; you’re not.” You know, “I’m in charge; you’re listening,” and it’s not aways just that one-way relationship anymore, and I think students are taking more ownership of their education. I think it’s a great thing that people are starting to actually demand more accountability now among professors, among media, among politicians: we should be demanding accountability for people to do their best to respect people.

      BROWN: But there is another point of view that universities are a place for free and unrestricted speech. And a lot of people think that that’s something to strive for: a place where you can express different points of view freely and openly.

      HEALEY WHITE: Absolutely, and I think it is, and… but I think we have to look at what are those unrestricted points of views. Because we can’t just look at the ability to say whatever you want as apolitical or separate from values and judgments and ideologies. I mean it’s great to be able to say what you want and to challenge discussion, but a lot of times those unrestricted view points have damaging effects. And we have to be able to find a way that isn’t too censorious, I guess, like find a way where we can all figure out, “What is the best way to tackle challenging topics without alienating and further marginalizing people?” And I think that’s–

      BROWN: But aren’t we seeing from campuses more and more lately that the best way to deal with those challenging points of view is to just eliminate them. We’ve seen so many cases over the last year or so of guest speakers invited to a campus and then disinvited once the students started protesting. In Canada, a few years ago, we had an event a few years ago at the University of Ottawa that was supposed to feature the Conservative American Ann Coulter and that was cancelled because of a whole bunch of controversy. How is it in the spirit of academic freedom to oppose people speaking who may have unpopular or controversial views?

      HEALEY WHITE: That’s [a] really good question, and it’s absolutely challenging, and I don’t think I have a finished or finalized answer, which I also think is good, ‘cause I think this, there’s so many grey areas that it’s really futile to try to be exceptionally cut and dry about it. But the way I see it is that campuses – of course, you know, the university as an institution is designed to educate and challenge students to a variety of new ideas, but they also have a responsibility to promote tolerance and reduce harm, so we can’t just see a campus as completely neutral. You know, and they’re not. There’s way too much funding that goes, and corporate sponsorship and things, and political ties that go into every university campus in the world. It’s really hard to look at them as these neutral zones where you can just say whatever you want and it’s not seen as an endorsement. Now I know a lot of universities will bring in speakers and they’re not necessarily endorsing the viewpoint of that speaker. However, depending on the content of that speaker, it could be extremely harmful and hurtful. Now the incident with Ann Coulter, from my understanding, it was that so many people wanted to turn out, that they ultimately cancelled it because it was no way – you know that they got, I guess, concerned about the backlash, but it went to show that there was interest. People were – students were interested in going for whatever reason, so it’s challenging because we can look at course content as well: I mean there’s a million different viewpoints on any given topic. Do we allow creationism to be taught in biology class? Just because a lot of people believe in Adam and Eve? Do we let the flat earth’s society’s ideas inform our geography?

      BROWN: Isn’t it the case, and perhaps this is the larger point that a lot of these commenters and columnists are trying to make, the idea that, you know, it’s a rough world once you leave campus, and we’re probably not doing these students any favours by making these campuses such safe spaces, and then sending them out into a world where, in a sense, anything goes, and all points of view are on the table.

      HEALEY WHITE: I’ve never really bought this idea that there’s this fantasy land called university where people go, and then they leave it, and then they go out to this real world. I think students are experiencing aspects of the real world, especially with how many students have to work, how many students have families, mature students. You know. students are being students at all different phases of their lives, so, yeah we still have the stereotype of the freshman, or the first year that has parents, you know, trying to email the Prof, and that sort of thing. But at the same time I just don’t think it’s nearly as bad as people are making it out to be, and I feel like the people leveraging the critiques that the students are too sensitive are the people that have benefitted from getting to say whatever they want, and not having to worry too much about oppression.

      BROWN: How do see this focus on inclusion and respect affecting the future of university campuses?

      HEALEY WHITE: Well, for one thing, I think it needs to be explicitly taught in universities. There needs to be a mandatory first-year course of some kind – it could be called diversity; it could be called respecting others – something basic, because that’s obviously lacking. It’s not about teaching students to just know what to say, or not say the wrong thing. Political correctness has no value in and of itself, it’s not about doing it so you don’t get in trouble or you don’t get, you know, in trouble on the radio, or you don’t get in trouble in a class, or that students don’t complain about you if you’re an instructor. It’s about valuing the inherent dignity of people and caring about them, and caring about their lives and their experiences, so that’s one way I think that if there was more emphasis on some sort of program or something that could just introduce students to a lot of fundamental concepts that would really help them as they go forward. And it could also be a place where they do talk about aspects of learning about how to deal with some of these topics, and, you know, free speech, and diversity, and where are the lines, and could be a really, really positive thing.

      BROWN: Thank you very much for joining us.

      HEALEY WHITE Thank you so much.

      Full version of the episode that includes the above interview starting at 39:30.

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