Post Your Opinion
Field Notes - Polarities and Polemics
by Libby Scheier

ALL LAST YEAR I read in the papers how the political-correctness movement was rampant on university campuses, smothering academic freedom and crippling free and open discussion. Then 1 would go up to York University and teach my three creative writing workshops a week, finding the classes rather similar in political character to previous years. Each group had a few radical leftists, a few conservatives, and a large apolitical middle group who were about as interested in high controversy as they were in getting failing grades.

Maybe the politically-correct missionaries are elsewhere, 1 mused. But the media said they were mainly in the arts.

1 decided on some detective work and assigned "Whose Voice Is It, Anyway?" (Books in Canada, January/February 1991 a compendium of various Canadian authors' views on appropriation of voice, to my three workshops - first-, second-, and third-year students, respectively. My students were to read the article and write their own opinion pieces.

The results were interesting and diverse, but the most significant general outcome was the near absence of anyone adhering to a line of left-wing "political correctness." Despite all the media hype about the supposed threat of a growing political-correctness movement on campuses, there was little evidence of it in my classes. As arts students are generally to the left of the student body as a whole, one could conclude from reading these 55 student opinion pieces that the campus political-correctness movement had been invented by sections of the media- perhaps led by the nose by American rightwing politicians such as George Bush and colleagues - and that this invention is really an attack on new ideas being developed by feminists and people of colour, still a small minority of most university student bodies.

In Illiberal Education, a sensation-producing book that was excerpted in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1991), the former Reagan aide Dinesh D'Souza claimed that left-wing political-correctness movements on the campuses were leading to "an education in closed-mindedness and intolerance." And Bush, in a 1991 commencement address, warned a university graduating class against the dire consequences of the campus political-correctness movement. Such leadership and advocacy should have given pause to liberal thinkers who felt the chief danger of suppression was coming from the left.

In their assigned opinion pieces, the most politically aware and progressive of my students acknowledged the influence of factors such as gender, race, class, and sexual orientation on writing; spoke about the need for responsibility in representation; acknowledged that, historically, cultural appropriation has been known to take place, and is connected to political and social oppression of one group by another; and, finally, expressed the view that art often does reflect the world's power relations. But even these students could not bring themselves to decree specific guidelines for writing. Instead, they argued for an informed, sensitive, responsible literati. I suppose one could take issue with that (Charles Bukowski or William Burroughs might like to make mincemeat out of such civil sentiments), but one could scarcely accuse those progressive students of narrow-mindedness or censorship.

Many students expressed the view that anyone could write anything and no one had the right to tell anyone else what to write. Some students railed against bringing politics into art, and a few others expressed anger at militant minorities for imposing their views on others. The paranoia of the privileged regarding the oppressed also found expression in one male student's prose piece about the Montreal Massacre, in which he expressed the fear that "some psycho bitch" might seek retribution by bursting into the classroom with a shotgun and rubbing out all the male students.

So, while 1 found no pointy-headed leftists on missions of imposing political correctness far and wide in my classes, 1 did notice a certain chill on workshop discussion fast year, as compared with previous years.

Prior to the anti-political-correctness campaign, when issues of race, gender, and class and their relationship to writing came up, there was usually a free-wheeling, open-ended discussion, with various questions and opinions expressed. Last year, the simple raising of these matters inspired comments from conservative students about "political correctness" before a discussion could even get under way, effectively preventing any creative, useful exchanges by immediately polarizing the situation into heated debate with fixed sides. The epithet "political correctness" was used by the more conservative students in the manner that redbaiting has been used historically, and it worked in the same way. It struck fear into the hearts of the large middle ground of students who were loath to risk entering such dangerous territory, and it backed other students into corners where they wound up defending positions they did not hold.

While suppression of free artistic expression can certainly come from the left (the history of Stalinism provides ample proof), there is now more reason to fear a right-wing assault on new approaches being put forward by women and people of colour- such an assault could well become part of the conservative program to rum back the clock on progressive political advances of recent decades.

I'm not sure what to do about the chill on classroom discussion created by the anti-political-correctness movement. Ideas, anyone?


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