PC: More Than a Computer

Jim L. Riley

Professor of Political Science

Regis University

Denver, Colorado


A term introduced to American lexicon in general and academic circles in particular raises important issues for those concerned about public affairs and academic freedom: political correctness. Although difficult to define with precision it may be fairly characterized as a multifaceted movement seeking to purge American society (including academia) of various traditional values and concepts that are perceived and labeled as nationalist, ethnocentric, sexist, racist, homophobic or culturally biased.  

For many who adhere to historic American principles -- including but not limited to the traditional family, Judeo-Christian religion, love of country, individual rights and responsibilities, unfettered freedom of conscience, expression and association, and a belief in the American dream of success through personal achievement -- political correctness represents at the very least a doubt of such values and, at the most extreme, a complete rejection of them. Efforts are made to substitute a substantially different value system.  A dogma of political correct words, phrases, symbols, and expressions is being propounded and supported. These range from the trivial to the profound. For some campuses a specter now looms before them: the specter of censorship and conformity in the name of group sensitivity, group respect and group status. Questions of importance are placed in danger of being restricted because the questions posed and possible answers found may not suit politically correct values. Moreover, in numerous institutions requirements regarding study of Western cultural traditions and institutions are being supplanted with an emphasis on non-Western values and traditions.

Examination of sensitive racial issues has become a professional minefield as two visiting Professors at Denver University learned. Their course dealt with intelligence and race. It produced a controversy of significant proportions. Consideration was given to canceling the class. The source of this dispute was directly traceable to the subject being examined. The course was eventually offered after considerable debate but not until it had been established that views contrary to those of the primary professors would be presented.

At Yale University Dean Donald Kagen recommended a few years ago that students should "learn the great traditions that are the special gifts of Western civilization, which is the main foundation of our university and our country." These remarks were labeled "racist," "sexist," "obnoxious," and "intellectually dishonest" by various individuals and group leaders at Yale. What were once only commonly accepted aphorisms have become targets for shrill epithets.

On another level, Tulane University went so far as to make it a "responsibility" of students to "welcome" and "encourage" all members of the university community. One may wonder what punishment, if any, will be visited upon those who fail to provide such "encouragement."  Does failure to "welcome" and "encourage" constitute a valid reason for chastisement or worse? Does the concept of freedom of association disappear at the college gates?

Stanford University altered its curriculum such it its Western Culture requirement was eliminated and in its place was substituted courses which focus on race and gender topics penned by Third World authors, members of minority groups and women. Similarly, Mount Holyoke College instituted as part of its core requirements a course in Third world culture while none was there regarding Western Culture.

Traditional American values surely include the search for truth, individual fulfillment and service to others. It would appear that freedom of speech, conscience, association and inquiry are necessary to those pursuing these important values. Identifying problems, delving into hard questions, developing possible answers and exploring their consequences are essential to the pursuit of truth. Robust debate over sensitive subjects demonstrates open mindedness and a willingness to exchange viewpoints.

Fundamental freedoms are in danger when attempts are made to silence or condemn those who have the courage to examine controversial and important subjects. No doubt the costs associated with freedom of expression and inquiry are numerous. Individual feelings may be bruised. Personal beliefs may be challenged. Prevailing attitudes may suffer opposition. Nevertheless, our society is based in great measure on Western values which embraces the notion that such costs are to be accepted in the pursuit of progress and truth while protecting individual rights of free speech and association. Continuing the great traditions of Western Civilization while examining, but not promoting non-Western values seems to many, including myself, as a proper course of action for American academia.



One aspect to the concept of "political correctness" not addressed in the remarks above is "multiculturalism."  This term generates much controversy grounded in part by vastly different interpretations of its meaning.   On the one hand it may infer little more than a proper respect for persons with a different cultural background, language, and ways of living.  It may, however, also be interpreted as anti-Western, anti-individual, and as encouraging a morally relativistic and ethnically based value system.  Unfortunately, in my view, the latter approach has tended to prevail on college campuses throughout much of the United States.  It was well stated by Victor Hanson in American Heritage (Feb/March 2002, p46): 

 Multiculturalism, conflict-resolution theory, postmoderinism, pacifism, and a host of other new isms and ologies all sought to achieve a kinder world where equality of results would be enforced rather than equality of opportunity ensured, where injustice, disagreement, and thus war itself could somehow disappear. . . .[M]any of our cultural leaders know little of history, and they mask their ignorance with the arrogance of good intentions, fueled by the bounty of American materialism.

Although he was writing in the context of United States efforts to combat the latest manifestation of terrorism to plague the world, his views capture well the naivete embedded in much of the multiculturalism dogma permeating academia, entertainment, and politics at the present time.

For a similar view, see the statement by former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm on Multiculturalism.

Nationally known columnist George Will has also brought this issue up in his 2012 article The Closing of the American Mind.