The Problem with Political Correctness

At the end of last semester, the SIUE faculty-staff list-serv was filled with a flurry of emails about “Grills Gone Wild,” the outdoor cafe-grill on campus.  The discussion was initiated by a staff member who acknowledged his discomfort with the name, and many of the emails that responded to his were written by members of the campus community who explained that they too were uncomfortable but had not spoken up, lest they not be taken seriously.  In this blog post, Prof. Trish Oberweis considers the name of the grill, and she also writes about the debate that ensued and a more general reluctance to engage in topics that might be perceived as falling under the umbrella of “political correctness.”  Her essay appeared in a shorter form in The Chronicle of Higher Education (a big deal!) which you can view, along with the comments–some respectful, some not–here.  We are happy to print the essay in full on our blog.

Recently, a series of discussions took place at my University centering on the name of a campus food stand, called “Grills Gone Wild.” The name, of course, is a play on words related to the name of the series of videos in which young, frequently intoxicated women bared their breasts or engaged in other lewd behavior for the camera.   The producer has been sued a number of times, including multiple lawsuits related to subjects’ lack of consent, and the brand is now bankrupt. As you might imagine, some on the campus did not approve.

A member of the campus community overheard some students expressing their irritation about the name. Their conversation prompted this colleague to publicly raise the students’ concern on an email thread. The email, in turn, generated additional discussions. Although the grill’s name was not particularly new, public debate about it was. You can already imagine the two sets of responses lining up to publicly and privately roll their eyes that we would even need to hold such discussion. On the one side were those complaining that the name is insensitive. This group presented rape statistics, noted the national attention turning to campus sexual assault (we’d just hosted the state Attorney General for a training event on our campus), and pointed out that half or more of the campus is comprised of women. On the other side were the voices saying that the off color name is funny and is not legally prohibited and, therefore, an acceptable choice. This second group decried the kowtowing to political correctness.

From SIUE Instagram

From SIUE Instagram

The University has a relevant policy of sorts; well, it’s really more of a pledge than a true policy. But the idea is to remind everyone who uses the campus to be civil and respectful. It’s called the “We Are One” promise. Students, staff, faculty and administrators were asked some years ago to sign this pledge. Early signers were even rewarded with a free t-shirt.   Does the Grills Gone Wild moniker honor this pledge? Is it required to? The answer to both questions is “probably not.”

Surely, we can all agree that the name is legal. So is consuming gallons of soda and dozens of doughnuts. That doesn’t make it a wise choice. Despite the stupidity and self-defeat inherent in the doughnut diet, I am not legally prohibited from going for it. And how could I be? What kind of law could be crafted to require that I use common sense in my junk food consumption? Would we want to live in a society that legislates these things?

The same balancing act seems apropos to consider here; is a name that jokingly speaks of sexual objectification the wisest choice for a campus community with an alleged “We Are One” commitment? Is that the right way to promote safety—or a welcoming climate–for women in a University setting? Does it support young men fostering respectful relationships with women during this period of sexual development? When parents bring their students to visit our campus and decide if ours would be a good school for them, should we have parents stop for a bite at the Grills Gone Wild? What would that communicate to them? Still, what kind of law could (or should) be written to codify common sense? Would we want to live in a society that legislates these things?

This is a time of budget reductions and tight competition. There is a fair amount of talk about programs, degrees and professors being dismissed from the campus, as state aid dwindles (we are in the midst of a proposed 32% cut in state allocation) and tuition revenues are maxed out (our Board of Trustees has said that rates can’t be raised any higher). We need students to come to our school; they are what keep us going! At best, the name of the café, prominently located just outside the student union, doesn’t serve as a main selling feature for families weighing their college options, even if the cost and quality of the food itself are points in the “plus” column. It seems prudent that we should consider the possibility that, at worst, that name may give pause to some parents. Although some parents may chuckle and have no objection, other parents, seeing the implications for their own children living in an environment that tolerates this particular model of sexuality, may think “To what other school can I afford to send my daughter or my son?”  It’s not the reaction any college is hoping for, especially right now. While not all visiting families would feel this way, certainly some will, especially with the current attention begin given to campus sexual assault.

But the name doesn’t only seem unwelcoming to new families. Those of us who are already here may have reservations, too, and not the kind that mean “Hold a table for me.” On the contrary, the name has been a source of irritation to some faculty members for years, although an early complaint fell on deaf ears, and there seemed to be more pressing issues for many of us, including saving our programs from dire budget cuts.

Some commenters dismissed the complaint as frivolous, pointing to the fact that there were women who did not feel that the name needed a change. That not all women on campus took issue should come as no surprise; conversely, not all men on campus were fine with the name. In fact, the person who posted the original critical email was a man.   There is no reason to expect that every person with one or the other set of genitalia should agree on any issue. It freaks me out a little bit that some expect all women to be linked into a uni-mind. When have we ever expected all men to agree on any political issue? More to the point: when we have ever dismissed an issue because men were not all on the same side of it?

Moreover, in 2011 the Department of Education reminded university administrators across the nation that institutions have an obligation to deal with sexual assaults on campus. Although the notice was, among other things, a much-needed reminder to address the situation after rape happens, it makes as much (or even more) sense to be thoughtful and proactive and to address the campus climate—including sexualized objectification– before a rape happens., and the letter does not overlook this.   To me—a professor of both criminal justice and women’s studies–that makes sense. It may not be required, but it does seem wise.

So, you can tell where I stand on the name-that-grill question: It is legal, sure, but that does not make it a wise choice for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a self-interested desire for continued employment. If we scare away our students and their families, we are not violating the law, just throwing common sense to the wind. Fortunately, the University decision-makers came to the same conclusion. After the campus emptied for summer, administrators announced that the name would be changed.

In thinking seriously about the name of the lunch stand and the ensuing, if somewhat predictable, discussion, I finally realized something that matters to me. In the concern about kowtowing to political correctness, I discovered why I so strongly dislike that framework. Here it is: the notion itself suggests that “political” correctness is a different animal than plain old correctness. It suggests that doing something politically correct is not actually right; it is instead a coerced injustice. Herein lies the thing that makes my eye twitch a little.

The term “politically correct” implies that inclusive language or behavior is, in itself, not correct. The qualifier “political” reliably turns correctness into its opposite.   When that term was applied to the grill discussion, it was a frustrated resignation, of sorts. It was an admission of powerlessness among a portion of those who were not bothered by the name, some of whom may have actually had the power to change it–although they clearly did not have a monopoly on that power.

That term, “politically correct,” dismissed everything that is correct about renaming the grill, without ever having to weigh those parts of the discussion. The term renders all those points insignificant: creating an inclusive climate, naming a common area with a commonly engaging term, clearly rejecting sexual objectification of women in a rape-saturated environment (college, although perhaps not our college specifically), and creating a campus that reassures rather than scares off prospective students and their families.   All of it is swept crisply out of the discussion, simply by injecting the “political” in front of the correct. Calling it “politically correct” says that such a change is not correct at all, and represents only capitulation to hypersensitive chicks who don’t speak for everyone (although another perspective might suggest that the original name comes from a hyper-masculine paradigm that also doesn’t speak for everyone). No one even noticed that it was a man who brought it up, and that there were men who raised some of the very issues that were so quickly dismissed by the “politically correct” objection.

Thus, the University’s decision to change the name leaves the underlying issues unresolved, however great their intentions. Invoking political correctness simultaneously disregards any duty to understand an issue from any perspective other than one’s own, and implies that any attempt to do so is distasteful and a bit cowardly. The name changed, but the attitude itself, wrapped in the defensive Nemean cloak of “political correctness” remains in tact. The University’s use of a more inclusive name is marred by the assertion that this change happened through an unjust exercise of power. Deploying the “politically correct” line chills the real discussion that must happen–the one that involves honest dialogue and true listening.

What bothered me most about the entire fracas is that, whatever the We Are One pledge says, playing the “politically correct” card says in no uncertain terms that changing the name is not correct…it is only politically correct. Standing up for an inclusive climate is not correct….it is only politically correct.   Actively working to create an environment that deliberately chooses not to lightly sexualize women is not correct…it is only politically correct.   Making our campus appear welcoming to the families who will pay to send their young adults here is somehow not correct! It is only politically correct.

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