correct...the smokescreen by which bullying thrives
by Dr. Susan Steinman
For so long we've been told to use nice words. To Speakright.
There is nothing wrong with the concept of political correctness - in fact, it
had been designed to halt humiliating terminology which is a result of
intolerance, prejudice and hatred. The concept is noble, the abuse of
political correctness is less than praiseworthy.
While the idea of poltical correctness is not to offend - in
fact at the core - not to be abusive, it had become offensive in some instances. "They" - a clique decided that it is offensive, that it
is not OK to be "blind" and that people should rather be "visually impaired",
that people are not "victims" because it seems to be shameful, they are "targets"
and "survivors". The New Terminology is not at the request of those affected
who are accepting of themselves, but a self-righteous group of people who are
not in touch with the dark side of their own prejudices and think that, by renaming
the sad things that can happen to real people or renaming a person's state of
being, their own prejudices would go away.
But despite political correctness, discrimination against minorities
and the powerless, still flourish globally. We are not more civilised - in fact,
we are slipping into anarchy and we are living in a violent world. And by this
I do not say that real offensive words intended to be harmful and verbally abusive,
should not be removed from our vocabulary - it is only when it offends those
affected, that we should take note and consult the affected and change compassionately
and in solidarity. What struck me, is that people who are at ease with themselves,
in touch with themselves and accepting of all people, use the politically incorrect
terms to refer to themselves. This has a wholesome ring to it.
If terminology or words are meant to be verbally abusive with
the intent to hurt or humiliate, it is wrong and it is bullying. But do we accomplish
anything by changing words and not attitudes? Have we become that shallow in
The abuse of political correctness is in essence dishonesty and it ignores
the consultative process and very often those who are affected (like the
visually impaired), and because we are not at ease with the New Terminology,
it is often the object of jokes - clearly indicating that political correctness
causes tension within ourselves. It is in fact magnifying differences, mocking
diversity and camouflaging prejudices and injustices in the process. Using words
is no art - it takes nothing but your tongue to do it. Caring and compassion
takes effort and calls for introspection. Attitude is everything - accepting
people, their cultures, their beliefs, their preferences and dislikes as they
present themselves, is a challenge. Honesty requires you to take a look at the
dark side of your soul, enter into debate, and it requires you to change, to
become more by firstly accepting yourself and then show unconditional tolerance
towards others. To let people be, by whatever name. And most of whole it calls
for psychological wholeness.
This brings me to an important point. Once I asked a question
on whether any researchers in our academic work trauma discussion group picked
up a link between workplace bullying and political correctness.
Prof Ken Westhues, the head of the Sociology Department of the
University of Waterloo, Canada, responded:
My paper, "Postmodernism, political correctness, and
the attacks of September 11," is published in several places on the web;
here's one: http://www.safs.ca/academicfreedom/westhues.html
The same site includes quite a good paper by Heinz Klatt, a psychologist at
the University of Western Ontario, entitled "Political Correctness as an
Academic Discipline." Here's the URL: http://www.safs.ca/academicfreedom/klatt.html
Probably the majority of the academic mobbings I've studied
over the past ten years were carried out by professors and administrators who
saw themselves as paragons of ethical superiority, determined to cleanse their
workplaces of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., and having a zero-tolerance
attitude toward sundry kinds of misbehaviour. This self-conception of righteousness
enabled them to inflict severe cruelty on their targets, while believing they
were doing good. Here is my review of two novels that present case-studies of
this sort of thing, Philip Roth's Human Stain and Francine Prose's Blue Angel:
Roth's book is now a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, but I
haven't yet seen it. An excellent non-fiction case study of a mobbing at probably
the most politically correct university in Canada is David Finley's account
of the firing and public humiliation of swim coach Liam Donnelly: http://www.fraserinstitute.ca/admin/books/files/Sexharr(v8).pdf
The case backfired, a nice example of what Brian Martin calls the boomerang
effect, and Donnelly eventually got his job back, while the university president
I hasten to add, however, that there are plenty of casualties
on both (or all) sides of the culture wars. I was horrified and embarrassed
in September of 2002, taking part in a conference on academic freedom at Medaille
College in Buffalo, New York, that brought together prominent right-wing proponents
of free speech like David Horowitz, Steve Balch, and Alan Kors, to discover
that just a few months before, at that very college, two more or less left-wing
professors had been summarily fired for turpitude, when they had done absolutely
nothing wrong. So I've been writing about the Medaille College mobbings ever
since, and the American Association of University Professors has just published
a scathing denunication of the Medaille administration: http://www.aaup.org/Com-a/Institutions/04mc.htm
I've found that in general, in North America, the AAUP and
its Canadian counterpart (CAUT) have tended to support left-wing mobbing targets
like those at Medaille, while organizations like NAS (National Association of
Scholars) and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) have tended
to support right-wing mobbing targets. I'm glad to support organizations on
both sides of the fence, in so far as they rescue professors who have been wrongly
punished and smeared. The goal of the anti-mobbing and anti-bullying movement
should be, in my view, that no worker at all be subjected to psychological terror,
humiliation, and destruction, neither by the right nor by the left, but that
we cultivate as best we can an ethic of live and let live, a culture of debate
and dialogue. The mentality of looking for witches is the main thing we need
to fight, so I believe.
For easy reference, Prof Westhues' article is published below
with references to websites where you will find more on the topic, should you
want to read further:
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Postmodernism, Political Correctness, and the
attacks of 9/11
Panel presentation at the Tenth Anniversary Meeting of the
Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, University of Western Ontario,
London, May 4, 2002.
Shortly after the attacks of September 11, I met my class of
a hundred students in introductory sociology. I invited them to stand with me
in a moment of silence for those who died. Then I ventured to comment on the
attacks. Unsure of what to say, I nonetheless felt a duty, as many professors
did, to try to help students make sense of the news.
Part of what I said was this: "Hey, students, there is a real
world. It's not all social construction. Yesterday, the World Trade Center's
twin towers were really there in New York. You could see them on the skyline.
Today, they are gone, really gone. And some thousands of people who yesterday
were alive and going about their business just as we are now-today they are
dead, really dead, burned up or squashed. It's not a matter of point of view.
It's a fact."
Srange comments! Banal in any other time, not in ours. The key
attribute of the cultural wave that has engulfed universities these past thirty
years, the wave against which SAFS tries to be a seawall, is aversion to facts
in favour of rightminded dreaming, the utopianism captured in John Lennon's
song, "Imagine all the people, living for today, ... and the world will live
Imagining how things might or ought to be is an essential human
ability. Affirming it is half of the secret of success of Western civilization,
especially in its modern period. The other half is subjecting imagination to
the discipline of how things are. Previous generations have brought us to present
affluence not just by dreaming but by the hard, dialectical work of trying to
reconcile dreams and realites-which is what reason, science, and industry are
In the postmodern movement of recent decades, imagination escaped
the requisite discipline, as if empirical facts-natural, physical ones and social,
historical ones-could be wished away. "Perspective," so the TV ad for the Globe
& Mail insists, "is everything"-as if, seen from the right angle, those
planes did not really crash into the World Trade Center after all.
Orwell identified the postmodern, deconstructive, destructive
cultural wave well before it washed over North America. O'Brien, the torturer
in Nineteen Eighty-Four, lectures the man he is torturing: "You believe
that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. ...
But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the
human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes,
and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party, which is collective
and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth, is truth." (p. 261)
We today honour Doreen Kimura for what the postmodern party
has condemned her and other psychologists here at Western: for fidelity to the
ethic of modernity in the face of sanctimonious dreaming about an absolutely
egalitarian utopia, for insistence upon empirical realities-about individual
differences, for instance, and collective differences by sex and race, in aptitude
for various kinds of learning.
The September 11 attacks were a dramatic intrusion of the real
world on postmodern goofiness. To assess their effect on the dominant cultural
wave that SAFS has set itself against, it helps to recall what gave rise to
the wave in the first place.
Modernity, in a way, fell victim to its own success. Science
and industry enabled creation of a bubble of comfort in North America during
the last third of the twentieth century, wherein intellectual and cultural elites
(the so-called "new class") have been unusually protected from objective realities.
means of subsistence-food, clothing, shelter, things that preoccupied nearly
all humans all of the time in past centuries-have been assured for this class,
taken for granted for practical purposes. Supermarket shelves have been perennially
well stocked. Not since the 1930s has physical privation been widespread.
2. Mortality has declined and longevity increased to the point that death
need not, and does not, weigh upon human consciousness nearly as much as it
3. On account of low death rates, effective contraception, legalized abortion,
and the eagerness of people in premodern countries to immigrate to ours, the
need to reproduce our species is but lightly felt in this new class, and the
natural connection between sexual activity and parenthood is to a great extent
4. Notwithstanding U.S. military campaigns in faraway places, the prospect
of us being conquered and subjugated by a foreign enemy has not loomed in
a serious way since the defeat of the Axis powers, an event which only senior
citizens today can remember.
5. City life isolates most members of the new class not just from the elements
and seasons, but from primary and secondary industry, which is increasingly
even offshore. People eat beef their whole lives without seeing a calf slaughtered,
much less butchering one themselves.
6. Layers upon layers of bureaucracy in universities, professions, granting
agencies, and government ministries insulate academic departments and disciplines
from the publics that ultimately foot the higher-education bill.
These are the main material conditions, the main separations
of today's intelligentsia from facts of life, that have permitted many scholarly
groups to lose touch: to apologize for what our civilization has achieved, to
sneer at scientific and technological advance, to treat risk as inimical to
life, to accord equal value to societies where the infant mortality rate exceeds
the literacy rate as to our own, to condemn dissenters from androgynous fantasies,
and otherwise to undermine the society that accords them privilege. On the liberal-arts
side of our campuses, where "progressive" thinking has reached its apogee, life
often seems surreal, as if what Kors and Silverglate call the shadow university
has displaced the real thing.
Today's intellectual elites are like the princess in Hans Christian
Andersen's fairy tale, who rose sleepless and bruised from a night's repose
on a bed piled with twenty duvets on top of twenty mattresses, beneath which
there was a single dried pea. A peasant girl, having worked all day in field
and kitchen, could sleep soundly on a board. So could a girl exhausted by the
embraces of a boy she loved and hoped would father in her a child. Andersen's
princess, marvelously self-absorbed in her bubble of emancipation from earthy
realities, instead wailed that this single pea had caused her injury: "I am
black and blue all over my body. It's horrible." The prince, in a display of
equal lunacy, married her.
In universities, as in law and the media, where postmodern lunacies
have most completely washed good sense away, the attacks of September 11 have
had on the whole a salutary effect. They have sobered intellectual discourse,
compelled attention to natural and social realities that can be ignored only
at peril to our lives and the lives of our children.
Before the attacks, Sunera Thobani's denunciation of America
would have been little challenged in the press, probably little noticed, it
being an oft-heard refrain. Instead Thobani herself was denounced in the media,
even in Parliament. Al Qaeda's war on America and America's war on it, along
with the war between Islamic terrorist organizations and Israel, have provoked
the most vigorous debate about our civilization-what it means, which of its
elements deserve defense and which ones not-at least since the Vietnam War.
For the first time in decades, questions of good and evil are seriously raised,
albeit more by journalists than academics.
Our challenge is to keep this debate going, freely and reasonably,
and see it through to a revitalized Western culture. That will not be easy.
If large-scale terrorist attacks continue, if the Western world
is further threatened by foreign enemies, we are likely to slip into the siege
mentality reflected in President Bush's statement that if you're not with us,
you're with the terrorists. In a state of siege, dissent tends to be suppressed
and debate stifled, social criticism of any kind being seen as disloyalty.
On the other hand, if the United States and its allies successfully
neutralize our foreign enemies, the lively, healthy questioning of recent months
may peter out in favour of return to the bubble, what Galbraith has called the
culture of contentment.
So far as I can tell, incursions on the work of professors faithful
to the modern project have abated not just since last September but over the
past half dozen years. By my review of the data, witch hunts in the name of
combatting sexism and racism peaked about 1994. Administrators since then have
become less responsive to postmodern fanaticism, thanks in part to the threat
of adverse publicity by organizations like SAFS, NAS, and FIRE. Administrators
have become more responsive to business elites, which have little use for postmodernism,
though not much more for the liberal arts.
The recent brand of political correctness is not yet a spent
force, but like the NDP, its main party instrument in Canada, it is on the wane.
It has been to some extent a generational phenomenon, a hobbyhorse of intellectuals
now in their fifties and sixties. With luck, the coming generation can pick
up the pieces out of the ruins of our arts faculties, and start rebuilding.
As I look at this younger generation, undergraduates in particular,
I see fewer hang-ups over sex and race, an encouragingly realistic attitude
toward life, and much readiness to work and learn about the natural and social
realities from which their earlier education has in some cases shielded them.
Best of all, in my efforts to teach these undergrads, I have observed a quality
that might yet save us: a sense of irony and humour about this magnificent life
Kenneth Westhues is a professor of sciology at the University
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WEBSITES TO EXPLORE
· The Society
for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
· National Association of Scholars (N.A.S.)
· The Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education, Inc. (FIRE)