Last week, Jesse Horowitz ’19 wrote a column for the Opinions section that critiqued the pervasive “political correctness” of discussions on Vassar’s campus. He argued that we need to stop being so concerned with offending anyone who possibly might be offended.
Working for the Miscellany for four years, I’ve encountered more than one column that expresses these sentiments. On a basic level I can see how this frustration arises. No one wants to double think everything they say. Shifting your discourse can be tiring. But you need to do it.
Let’s make one thing clear right off the bat. Jokes that make light of oppression or play off of identity-based struggle aren’t harmless. Microaggressions aren’t harmless. We need to put an end to this narrative that targeting someone for who they are and who they have struggled and fought to be isn’t always an attack.
There are real consequences to language, even if the language isn’t explicitly, overtly, completely 100% obvious-enough-for-someone-who-isn’t-paying-attention problematic. And what’s more, these consequences aren’t just hurt feelings or awkwardness.
Being forced to contend with words that attack one’s identity isn’t the same thing as discovering someone disagrees with you. Oppressive language is not about feelings. It isn’t about being uncomfortable. It’s about violence.
As writer Ngoc Loan Tran wrote, “Oppression is not a feeling. Reducing it to how a community ‘feels’ they are being treated minimizes the violences that are enacted upon them, makes structural injustices a matter of perception of individual acceptance or rejection of oppressive conditions. Oppression creates feelings, definitely. It creates trauma, internalized conflict, dissonance, confusion. but oppression is not a feeling” (Black Girl Dangerous, “It’s Not About Feelings”, 11/4/13).
These critiques of the suffocation of so-called “political correctness” on campus usually feature the same argument. Being hyper-critical of our own language prevents meaningful exchange. We can’t be so worried about offending someone because if we are, we won’t have the kinds of conversations that lead to learning.
Here’s the thing. I am all for meaningful discussion and learning opportunities. And when someone says something that creates problems, I think it is critical that they learn from that moment. However, that doesn’t mean that we, as community members, should forget about those around us, about their identities and their own personal narratives. People make enough mistakes even when they are actively trying not to use aggressive language.
Using this kind of language that disregards marginalized people effectively pushes them out of the conversation. When someone says something targeted, they are preventing dialogue, not supporting it. And having a conversation that is accessible, one in which everyone feels as if they are able to participate isn’t about leftist ideology.
Political Correctness is, or should be, apolitical. Frankly, not being terrible shouldn’t put you in conflict with anyone other than terrible people.
To get into more of the specifics, Horowitz mentions a joke that he wanted to tell as part of a standup routine but felt he couldn’t because of possible sensitivity to it. I’m not going to reprint the joke here, but you can find it easily by looking at the archives on the Miscellany’s website.
The theme of the joke is Donald Trump’s narcissism but of course, the good part, that part that really puts the zing into the air refers to sexuality, Horowitz objects to possible criticism. It isn’t homophobic, he confidently claims. Leaving aside the fact that it isn’t a great joke, my objection here is two-fold.
First, it isn’t up to him to decide that. He doesn’t get to prescribe how people who might be alienated by the joke feel. Even if some people who fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella aren’t bothered by it, if some do feel targeted, then he has to respect that. If people are concerned with the joke, don’t tell it. Second, it is literally a joke. Comparing the alleged injustice of political correctness that would prevent Horowitz from telling his joke to the oppressive forces that make every day a battle for some marginalized communities puts things into stark contrast.
Who ultimately stands to suffer more? The would-be comedian or the queer folk who could add that to their ever-extending list of daily injustices?
Finally, maybe, as a thought experiment, it could be useful to consider what it would mean for what PC critics argue to be true. What if Vassar really is a place that needlessly checks its language?
What if the people we risk “offending” don’t really deal with the oppressive forces that they claim fuel anti-political correctness? Taking a moment to listen to the grievances of so many marginalized communities at Vassar, yes even at Vassar, would disprove this theory in a second.
But even if the theory were true, even if Vassar overprotected some and favored marginalized voices over everyone else, I wouldn’t see a problem.
Because you only need to take a few steps off campus to understand that the small moves Vassar has made to protect oppressed people pale in comparison to the forces out there that want to keep systems of oppression bulldozing forward. Ultimately, really, whose voice is more supported?
—Noble Ingram ’16 is an English major.