Harvard | February 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm

When Political Correctness Is Incorrect

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A response to the following article by two of the Race Relations Tutors in Kirkland House can be found here

Harvard University prides itself on its ability to foster a vibrant community of students spanning countless racial, ethnic, and national groups. University President Drew Gilpin Faust outwardly aims to make Harvard an institution where students of  “every race, gender, and circumstance” have a place and a voice. Popular college ranking website College Prowler even awarded Harvard an “A+” for diversity, noting how “students of all races, backgrounds, and beliefs will find a forum in which they can express and discuss their opinions” around campus.

To bridge the gap between Harvard's expectations of open dialogue and reality, Harvard needs to take a more commonsense approach.

Yet for all its lauded work at building an institution of inclusiveness, Harvard does not quite reach the high bar it has set for itself in practice when fostering a student body free of constraints on speech and ideas. No, I am not referring to the Occupy protests in which University officials have generally acted with caution and level-headedness to balance freedom of speech and safety of resident freshmen. I instead point to undergraduate Houses, because all things considered, they serve as incubators of all sorts of expression among students in more intimate settings. No better example can be seen of this than in my native Kirkland House, where an idiosyncratic development related to nothing more than a Stein Club event turned a few heads.

The e-mail in question came from the Kirkland House Committee (HoCo), which advertised an “In Da’ Pub” Stein Club. It was entitled, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the Yard,” and the (controversial snippet of the) message stated:

“And they’re like, it’s better than yours!! Join me and da rest of Ho(od)Co fo’ a $tein Club dat you don’ wanna miss y’all!!”

Within a day after this publicity e-mail was sent over the Kirkland List, the HoCo issued an apology for the “inappropriate and insensitive” content of the message after having met with Kirkland’s Race Relations Tutors.

Let’s take a step back and analyze this for a moment.

Those who found fault with the e-mail cited the racially-charged language it invoked by referencing urban slums (i.e. “Ho(od)”), among other things, in a derogatory fashion. In other words, they found the message either racist or culturally insensitive. But exactly who was the message targeting? Was it African Americans for using urban dialect? Or fans of Ke$ha for replacing an “S” with a dollar sign? Perhaps even students from the South for tossing the folksy “y’all” in there? The message was so nebulous to the point of being indiscernible as to whom it was actually targeting, if anyone at all. Is this not language that we as college students have grown accustomed to in everyday life? Furthermore, can the same not be said about the music that saturates the airwaves and popular culture on a regular basis? We are exposed to this very same charged language everywhere we go—be it in the servery of the dining hall or in individual rooms during social gatherings. In cases like this, Morgan Freeman’s words seem particularly insightful and apropos. Vocalizing concerns about racial difference cannot only be overwrought if done consistently and over mild cultural references, but it only accentuates a feeling of difference and exclusivity within a given community.

The fact that Race Relations Tutors insinuated themselves is a cause for concern for the extent to which it expands the domain of political correctness in our living spaces. Because the Tutors and Administration’s involvement provided sufficient impetus for the HoCo to issue an apology, they managed to generate a massive amount of buzz among puzzled Kirklanders and magnified the issue of race when it was not an evident concern in the e-mail to begin with. The residual effect it has on students is considerable. First, it makes everyone more self-conscious about what they say in public and imposes a state of perpetual self-censorship on casual discourse. It is always advisable and proper to navigate cautiously when alluding to racial or ethnic categories and to exercise some self-censorship so as to never make far-reaching negative assaults on a group. However, this is a different situation whereby one has to be cognizant of an extra-student body taking action.

This brings us to another problem: the institutionalization of Race Relations Tutors poses a threat to productive discourse about race. Upon matriculating to the University, we all underwent an exhaustive application process that served as a litmus test for our compatibility with Harvard’s commitment to open-mindedness and inclusivity; we were accepted precisely because we are responsible and conscientious students, especially of others and their feelings. Do slippages occur? Absolutely. But there are many other avenues to pursue. Community Conversations during Opening Days of freshman year is a ritual intended to broaden the conceptual framework of students to such central race issues, and the conversations has even continued in the form of Sustained Dialogue and myriad other student groups. While Race Relations Tutors are certainly one potential source for obtaining support, the alternative is more faithful to upholding Harvard’s mission statement. If Race Relations Tutors as intermediaries served a more limited role in scenarios like this, such as an assistant of last resort, students would be all the more encouraged to reach out to fellow students about particularly disagreeable publicly aired comments and engage them in an organic, productive manner.

The HoCo cannot be entirely faulted for employing phrases of broad cultural appeal in a unique way to attract a larger crowd to its Stein Club event, and are engaging with these cultural markers as any other does. Heck, plenty of American advertisers use similar strategies to drive consumer behaviors, but never have to answer to a regulatory body. Some may argue that there is a difference in this case because the HoCo serves as an official governing body of students in the House, and should exercise more prudence in interacting with the student body. Conceded, but in the end, we should not deceive ourselves: they are students just like all of us, and have the interest of attracting students to distinct college social events in creative and novel ways on a repeated basis; this is not the federal government engaging in the public square. It is frankly fruitless to over-think all this and reduce it to a comparative study of political science.

Not just as college students, but also as a society, we should not isolate ourselves from ethnic, racial, or cultural reference points and symbols. In interacting with them and sounding them out, we navigate their social relevance and significance, and engage in meaningful and thought-provoking debate in an inclusive way. These same reference points and symbols are not ad hominem attacks against particular individuals or groups, but are rather inextricably and indisputably linked to our daily lives. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photo Credits: Harvard Gazette

 

UPDATED (2/20): I feel the need to introduce a point of clarification in light of recent information released by the House Committee. Based on what information I had from conversations in the House and interpretation of the House Committee apology, I felt it necessary to engage in a purely academic assessment of the institutionalization of political correctness in society today. Reading the apology made me think deeply about the issue at hand—not as an “opportunist” attempting to capitalize on the sensitivities of others—and made me question whether political correctness actually has a role in accentuating the divisions in society.

I still believe that this is a valid avenue of inquiry, and as it turned out, the Kirkland situation was not a representative example of this phenomenon. Before writing my article the series of events I was told goes as follows: someone complained about the content of the Stein Club email; the issue was brought before the Race Relations Tutors; and, as Cynthia and Robert have since confirmed, the issue was taken up with the Dean. Then a recommendation came down from the administration strongly suggesting that the House Committee issue a public apology. I apologize if my portrayal of this sequence of events was inaccurate. In my initial article, I used the term “effectively forced” to describe the apology issued by the House Committee. I regret my word choice, which did not fully grasp the nature of the proceedings.

I wish to address one other point. I feel that I have been attacked repeatedly and unfairly during the protracted debate over the House list and even in the HPR rebuttal. My goal was to address the issue of political correctness in society in the most considerate, temperate, and balanced way that I know how. Of course, as many have pointed out, intention does not matter.  For whatever it’s worth though, I did try my best to address a controversial issue in an honest, fair, and balanced way, and that I do not regret.  

There’s no easy way to address the types of issues that have come up on this thread, but we can all learn from the experience and aim to be better in the future.  Perhaps Herman Cain said it best with those prophetic words that he famously appropriated from the Pokemon movie: “Life can be a challenge. Life can seem impossible.  It’s never easy when there’s so much on the line.”    

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Thanks,

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Naji Filali

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