The society convened for the second debate of the semester to consider Resolved: Political Correctness Undermines Discourse. Making his induction, Mr. Samuel Kleinman (COL ’16) of Virginia affirmed with Ms. Abigail Grace (SFS ’16) of Mississippi. Also making his induction, Mr. Drew Cunningham (COL ’14) of Connecticut spoke for the negation with Mr. Joshua Weiner (COL ’15) of Illinois.
Mr. Kleinman began by carefully framing the question at hand. He defined political correctness as language, ideas, and policies that seek to not offend. Recasting the question in legal language, he asked whether political correctness places an undue burden on our dialogue, debate, and discourse. Likening political correctness to a form of self-censorship, he argued that a society dedicated to eloquence in defense of liberty would betray itself if it voted to negate. “We are categorically against self-censorship”. Mr. Kleinman pointed to the Scopes trial and the Reagan administration’s derision towards AIDS as examples of politically correct attitudes undermining civil discourse and the truth.
Mr. Cunningham re-iterated the framing laid out by Mr. Kleinman but countered that political correctness is far from self-censorship. He maintained that political correctness simply ensures that questions of civil and minority rights are asked in a dignified and considerate way. If stakeholders in these issues use politically correct language, they can establish a common ground that actually catalyzes an even more productive dialogue.
Ms. Grace disputed the claim that political correctness puts different groups on an equal footing by arguing that its vocabulary is imposed by the dominant group instead of created by the people it is meant to protect. By declaring certain things off limits, the dominant group undermines discourse. “We are not capable of engaging with ideas that we can’t talk about”.
Mr. Weiner responded that people involved in a conversation can still engage with difficult ideas while being politically correct. Far from limiting conversation, political correctness forces participants to think more deeply before they say anything.
Mr. Michael Mouch countered that political correctness is problematic precisely because it prevents people from expressing the first thought that comes to mind. If that thought is prejudiced we want to hear it in order to confront the person. Mr. Dennis Quinn questioned whether it would be smart to allow such expression if it might exclude some people from the conversation. Ms. Heather Regen disputed Mr. Quinn’s assertion. Because political correctness is manufactured by people in power, we need subversive language to further the rights and dignity of the oppressed. Ms. Madeleine Ringwald contended that dominant groups cannot use subversive language in the same way as its authors and should avoid offense.
Mr. Patrick Spagnuolo reproached the society for getting too caught up in language. In his view, policy keeps the oppressed in their low position while politically correct language distracts.
Vice President Anna Hernick argued that being politically correct means eschewing group labels, and focusing on affirming the individual. Ms. Colleen Wood agreed that it’s important to treat others as individuals but deemed it impractical to do away with categories in modern societies. Politically correct language prevents discourse about this categorization. Ms. Emily Coccia held that no matter how we categorize people, political correctness enhances civility but Ms. Amanda Wynter emphasized that empathy is only possible through the learning experience that awkward, politically incorrect encounters provide. Mr. David Edgar disagreed, referencing the politically incorrect language he encountered in Argentina as an example of the dangers inherent in a discourse without bounds.
Mr. Fabian Di Lizia (University of Sydney ’16) harkened back to Mr. Spagnuolo’s speech by declaring that today’s discourse emphasizes form at the expense of substance. Mr. Ethan Chess (COL ’14) countered that today’s discourse is laudable compared to fifty years ago because political correctness allows so many to participate without fear of discrimination. Mr. Tyler Hunt-Smith (SFS ’16) questioned whether political correctness deserves the credit for this expansion of respect, noting that the concept was created by Stalin to stifle opposing views. Ms. Annie Aleman (SFS ’16) focused on the role political correctness plays in protection of minority groups.
Ms. Tricia Correia argued that political correctness censors speech, pointing to the film The Butler as an example. Mr. Warren Wilson agreed that Ms. Correia’s argument was a good one but claimed that Mr. Edgar and Ms. Coccia had already undermined it by demonstrating the need for establishing common ground in discourse. Political correctness is simply that common ground. Mr. Greg Miller disputed this definition, instead contending that political correctness undermines discourse because it has become the discourse. Mr. Daniel Kendrick responded by noting that the two sides were talking past each other. Political correctness can be either a Stalinist form of authoritarianism or the embodiment of American civility. He stressed that we were debating the latter, which enhances discourse productively.
Chancellor Peter Prindiville rejected the idea that political correctness concerns language alone. Politically incorrect beliefs offend people while language simply expresses those beliefs. Shrouding them under the veil of political correctness is unproductive because it undermines our ability to change minds. Ms. Hannah Miller submitted that Chancellor Prindiville had really argued for the negation. She contended that being politically correct forces people to think carefully before they speak but Mr. Jacob Arber maintained that confrontation is more productive than deliberation.
After the floor speeches, the debate returned to Mr. Joshua Weiner who contested that idea raised by Mr. Miller that political correctness has become the central element of public discourse. He compared political correctness to framing a Philodemic debate. It’s a necessary first step before starting a great conversation.
Ms. Abigail Grace responded by telling the society a story from her high school days in Mississippi. She wrote a letter to the local newspaper about abortion rights that expressed politically incorrect views. Although she offended many, a dialogue began that would not have existed otherwise.
Mr. Drew Cunningham deconstructed the arguments presented by the affirmation. Noting that Ms. Grace had used the politically correct terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in her very effective keynote, he contended that the affirmation was being politically correct by focusing so much on the pitfalls of being politically correct. He pointed out that no one had been politically incorrect during the debate but the discourse we had was still a good one.
Mr. Samuel Kleinman followed one very good keynote with another. He described his experience transferring to Georgetown from Tufts University, a place that takes political correctness to an extreme degree. “I wanted to come to a place where people feel free to speak frankly”. He gestured to his mother in the audience and explained that she had been denied membership in the society when she was at Georgetown on account of her gender. Declaring that the Philodemic of today has gotten past that bigotry through political incorrectness, he urged us to affirm.
The society voted 31-4-22 to affirm.
The society inducted Mr. Kleinman and Mr. Cunningham. Huzzah!