RESPONSE: On the So-Called "PC Culture"

Jonah Dratfield’s recent opinion piece in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian questions the idea that what he calls “PC culture” is consistent with liberal values. Modern American liberalism has certainly been focused on social issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and racial justice in the most recent election cycles, but the ideology has also been identified with goals of civil liberties, equality, and social justice more generally. Dratfield readily states that “protection of basic human rights” is the defining liberal value, but he appears to misunderstand what it means to be “politically correct”; that is to say, he pushes the recurring idea that liberals and young progressives have taken political correctness too far and seek to censor those whose ideas are different or challenging. This perspective scares up images of students in safe spaces with their fingers in their ears, rejecting criticism or violently lashing out against people with different values.

I couldn’t disagree more.

In my view, what has been called “PC culture” is a backlash from those with privilege who are being called out or facing consequences for racism, hate speech, cultural appropriation, and exclusion. These issues come to the forefront on college campuses, where many young students face diverse communities for the first time. As the United States becomes less white and less dominated by European cultural norms and values, many activists, academics, and students have taken the lead in finding new ways of discussing issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the ways that systematic oppression pervades all corners of our society. It’s a broad conversation that needs to happen everywhere, and that conversation involves new language that is not historically oppressive.

SPLC on Campus, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s program for college students, empowers student activists to discuss such issues on their campuses and work for social justice in their communities. There is currently no SPLC on Campus club at UMass (Dratfield erroneously states otherwise, linking instead to the UMass Amherst Community Campaign, where UMass faculty and staff, in support of #UMassCares, can donate to the nonprofit of their choice). We do, however, have about 50 SPLC on Campus clubs around the country that are dedicated to student activism, voting rights, and speaking out against hate on campus.

Dratfield himself says that “criticizing what one views as unethical is not only a right, it is a civic responsibility.” The government and publically-funded colleges cannot infringe on one’s freedom of speech, but that does not mean that extremists and people using hate speech are above criticism or face no consequences. It is unethical and wrong for those with privilege to use violent and oppressive rhetoric to keep historically marginalized communities down, and it is wrong for them to keep silent in the face of oppression. As long as communities worldwide suffer the ongoing results of European colonialism, communities remain segregated, black and brown people in the United States are disproportionately targeted by an unfair criminal justice system, and trans people are victims of violence, there will be a need for liberals and others to have a way to discuss these oppressive systems and also a way to speak out against them.