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Philosophy professor Mark Kingwell (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Philosophy professor Mark Kingwell

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Mark Kingwell

Who has the right to say what’s correct? Add to ...

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Back in the 1980s, when I was the editor of what most people would consider a pretty lefty campus newspaper, we wore badges on our black thrift-store overcoats that read “Politically Incorrect.” We thought this was funny, since the idea of political correctness – a daft notion of ideological purity embodied by posturing Marxist publications such as the McGill Daily – was itself a bad joke. Who can possibly command orthodoxy in an age of diversity?

Times have changed and political correctness is no longer a matter for ironic comment. U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made the term a combination dog-whistle and free-floating signifier. He routinely employs it to mean everything from business-as-usual Beltway politicking – something at which his own party is adept – to legitimate justice claims concerning race or gender. Thus fortified, his supporters feel empowered to physically assault protesters and call for the heads of “lying” media representatives.

Mr. Trump is, as usual, just the wackadoodle tip of a bigger political iceberg. Political correctness is decried everywhere in comment threads and Twitter feeds, often with attendant sneers at “professional black people” and “SJWs” (that’s social-justice warriors for those who have been living under rocks or watching baseball). A recent survey by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 66 per cent of Canadians thought political correctness had “gone too far,” while 72 per cent said they censor themselves to avoid offending others. No word came on what respondents understood by political correctness or what “too far” might mean.

But beware the pushback on pushback. When University of Chicago dean of students John Ellison recently sent a message to the incoming class, he included a sentiment that the school would not be cowed by fashionable calls for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” on campus. If nothing else, this was brand-forward thinking in the age of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt has called “the coddling of the American mind.” Forget hypersensitive Northwestern, where everyone is a survivor of some psychodrama or other; send your kids to tough, south-side U of C.

Predictably, Dr. Ellison was widely mocked for his failure to check his privilege and for using academic freedom as a club to bash trauma victims and assault survivors. Take that, you complacent heteronormative cisgendered (probably tenured) white guy! In truth, trigger warnings are no different from the content advisories you see before television shows with sex and violence. I wouldn’t give a lecture on Aristotle’s politics without criticizing slavery, and I doubt my colleagues in English expound on A Clockwork Orange without careful discussion of rape – not to mention the evils of behavioural modification. When and how the warning is delivered strikes me as a matter of choice, as with anything in a lecture. Students are welcome to walk out early, just as they insist on walking in late. As for safe spaces, aren’t those just what normal people call clubs? Like-minded people have a right to congregate.

You may think I’m trivializing, but these were in fact the counter arguments levelled by critics of Dr. Ellison. And they suggest that the real issue here is not political correctness, but the way we approach contentious subjects – otherwise known as civility, something Dr. Ellison staunchly defended in the same letter.

Civility is much misunderstood. It is not politeness, the stifling of personal opinion in the service of social niceties. Politeness is a minor virtue of communal life. I might reply, when asked my opinion of a dinner, that it was “quite good.” I don’t really believe it and probably my host doesn’t either. Enough said.

Genuine civility, by contrast, marks a willingness to engage the other in the service of understanding, not competition. This is never easy. Will what I say offend someone else? Well, maybe. Is there still good reason for saying it, and saying it this way? What, finally, is the point, here?

Nobody anywhere, on campus or off, has ever had the privilege of saying anything at all without consequences. The next time you think political correctness has “gone too far,” ask yourself if maybe you are the one saying unproductive, small-minded or stupid things. Just as important, we all need to remember that nothing is ever correct until we argue the point – and usually not even then.

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