The advantages of talking back

Judith Stiehm

May 30, 1991|By Judith Stiehm

WHY ARE so many able, privileged folk whining about "political correctness"? What suddenly gives this phenomenon cover-story status?

Could it be that we are debating issues that previously were unmentionable? Could it be that pundits whose views once went unchallenged are finding out that competing in the marketplace of ideas isn't always fun? Could it be that previous winners, like George Will and Alan Dershowitz, are poor losers? Could it be that they don't believe the political process "works" when its outcome is displeasing? Can't these guys take peer pressure?

Learning and having to respond to what others are thinking can be a shock.

The first time I taught "Sex, Power and Politics," a course in feminist theory, classroom discussion was so intense and so acrimonious that even I dreaded going to class. Eventually I realized what was happening. I had been too successful: Students were really debating; they were expressing themselves eloquently. The catch was that they had not previously been exposed to each other's "real" thinking, and having to confront it was making them incredulous, hurt and angry.

The women believed that the men were baiting them with questions like: "Would you be willing to be drafted and sent into combat?" The men couldn't believe that "normal" women would expect their husbands to resign a good job and follow them to another city. In short, each student knew that she or he was arguing in good faith, but believed passionately that the others were not.

The next year I solved the problem by assigning an obviously (to me) sexist text. I asked the men and women to go into different rooms to discuss it. The discussions were videotaped. Afterward we watched the tapes together. Seeing these "private" discussions, men-only and women-only, students learned three important things.

First, they discovered that "bizarre" or "extreme" ideas they had never before heard uttered were deeply familiar to other people and sincerely held. Understanding this made it possible for them to treat each other respectfully even if they did not budge from their own positions. Second, the whole range of intellectual views was observable on each tape; the perception that it was the men against the women was demonstrably not true. Third, over the course of the 90-minute discussion, individuals (usually men) were seen to contradict themselves, to shift position, to express doubt. An intellectual openness, which the debate style of the classroom had concealed, became evident.

Class discussion had not been structured as a debate; however, it seemed inevitably to evolve in that direction, probably because the men were not accustomed to being challenged or contradicted by women, and because both men and women tended to rally behind their own.

There was a happy ending. Understanding that the individuals were speaking in class as they ordinarily did only in private, students became conscientious discussers. Since women and minority men are more likely to be guarded, it was a new experience for them to speak honestly and aggressively in public. For white men, the new experience was to find themselves often in the minority.

I suspect that the experience in my class is an analogue for what is happening more broadly on campuses and in other arenas, too. The once-silent, who were assumed to agree, are stating their disagreement. The once-unchallenged are being put on the defensive. The inadequacies of radical individualism are being exposed. The myth of a golden age of meritocracy is being questioned: Just imagine what it would be like if we all really did get just what we deserved!

Dark mutterings about "political correctness" are the mark of the greenhorn, of one new to the rough and tumble of debate or unaccustomed to having to live with some uncomfortable results of the democratic process. Substituting symbols and name-calling for evidence and logic has long been the hallmark of an especially destructive and nasty form of win-at-any-cost politics. Shouldn't we strive for something better? Can't we agree that we will sometimes disagree?

Whining about "PC" is unbecoming, George. It is a cheap shot, Alan. Why not simply state and defend your position, wherever, whenever and as long as necessary, like the rest of us? It isn't always fun, and you don't always win. In the old days, when women complained, we were told that all we needed was some "good sex." Later, we were "castrating." Now, we're just not "team players." Frankly, I'd be glad to settle for being called incorrect.

Judith Stiehm is provost of Florida International University in Miami and author of "Arms and the Enlisted Woman."

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