Learning to Listen

Avoiding the Trap of Intellectual Laziness

By Henry Burbank

Discuss any sensitive social issue with a Kenyon student today, and the words privilege or political correctness are likely to come up. As many of us know, the increasing use of these terms is not unique to our small Gambier hilltop, as evidenced by the prominent New York Magazine article “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” by Jonathan Chait, and its rebuttal by Vox’s Amanda Taub in “The truth about political correctness is that it doesn’t actually exist.”

If you have not read the articles, here is a brief summary. Chait argues that the contemporary political left has taken the Marxist economic view that “equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims…simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations” and “substituted race and gender identities for economic ones.” The result of this shift is known as political correctness, defined by Chait as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” In Chait’s eyes, what this ultimately means is that political correctness, spearheaded by the vanguard of the left, is an inherently undemocratic and, ironically, illiberal practice. Understandably, this ruffled some feathers.

Taub was one of many who disagreed with Chait’s article. In her response to his arguments, she states that “political correctness is a term that we use to dismiss ideas that make us uncomfortable” and accuses Chait and those like him of using the term to invalidate any idea posed by a member of a marginalized group as “just a bunch of annoying whining and that efforts to address their concerns are unnecessary.” Later on, she points out that while “Chait proudly praises the historical record of American liberalism for extending rights to blacks, Jews, gays, and women…Americans used to be able to refer to members of those groups as coloreds, kikes, and fags without fearing the consequences.” Only through coercive “social censure,” she claims, could the problematic language be phased out of the lexicon.

They are both right. The only difference is that where Chait cites microaggressions and trigger warnings as blanket terms used to discredit ideas without actually engaging with them, Taub uses political correctness.

While both terms can and are used in scenarios that are legitimate, the specifics of which I will conveniently refrain from describing in this piece, they become problematic when used as an excuse to invalidate opinions with which the user disagrees. As for an example of crossing the line, Chait brings up an instance where Mireille Miller-Young, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, violently stole a sign from anti-abortion activists that displayed graphic photos of aborted fetuses, as opposed to respecting the free speech rights of the protesters whom she disagreed with. Likewise, Taub is quick to mention Virginia State Legislator Del Jackson Miller’s classification of the disapproval of the Washington Redskins brand as “political correctness on overdrive” as opposed to making an argument on the merits of the name.

By constantly resorting to the easy response of “check your privilege” or “stop being so p.c.” instead of engaging with arguments and ideas that make us uncomfortable, threatened, or challenge our worldview, we not only do ourselves a disservice as students but as members of a liberal society as well.

Kenyon is not immune to actions such as these, whether manifested in the theft of signs from right wing Christians on Middle Path or the YikYak posts demeaning the Crozier Center for Women and its supporters in the run-up to Take Back the Night this fall. What’s more, the social acceptability of actions such as these are rising, thanks to both what New York Times columnist David Brooks describes as “the hyper-moralization of politics,” and the impenetrable wall that technological anonymity now provides.

It would be a great tragedy for this kind of behavior to become the norm at Kenyon. Not only is it shameful to steal from and bully people who disagree with us politically, but it is also intellectually lazy and unhelpful to our society as a whole. As President Decatur said in a blog post following the shooting of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police, “all of us at Kenyon make a commitment to lead well-examined lives, to understand the complexity behind tragic events, to learn lessons from both history and present-day, and to apply these lessons as we move beyond the Hill.” He continues, “the study of the liberal arts is not intended to be an exercise in self-indulgence. Rather, we engage in the study of the liberal arts because of an ancient belief that…it makes us better citizens.” By constantly resorting to the easy response of “check your privilege” or “stop being so p.c.” instead of engaging with arguments and ideas that make us uncomfortable, threatened, or challenge our worldview, we not only do ourselves a disservice as students but as members of a liberal society as well.

The ever-pragmatist, I struggle with how to rectify this situation in my own life, where I tend to, as most of us do, congregate with those who share my moderate political views. But I find that the conversations I enjoy most are not the ones where my friends and I talk about (and agree on) who will be nominated by the GOP in 2016, but the ones where I debate the causes and effects of gentrification in Detroit with a group of Anthropology majors. We vehemently disagree with each other and we come at the problem from radically conflicting perspectives, but I always walk away with both a stronger conviction in my own beliefs (because they have either withstood or been struck down by scrutiny) and in the validity of those of my intellectual and political opponents. By being open, honest and, yes, challenging of one’s own beliefs instead of resorting to name calling and ad hominem attacks, my friends and I are able to both understand problems in a way that we had not before and see our personal solutions through the eyes of someone who disagrees with us. When our own arguments do not match up to the critiques of our opponents, we are not afraid to change our minds.

As a student who is currently abroad, the glimpses of Kenyon give me hope. I see somewhat intelligent conversations about issues taking place on YikYak, and I read two thought provoking, yet disagreeing op-eds in the Collegian regarding the recent guest lecture by Steven Salaita. Many at Kenyon seem to want to have these conversations. Many want to debate, many want to have their views challenged, and many want to learn more about the world from the perspectives of others. However, as both Chait and Taub will almost surely agree, those conversations can only happen when there is mutual trust that parties will respect and listen to the arguments of those around them.

So please, disagree with me. Tell me I’m wrong. I’m willing to listen, I just expect you to do the same.

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