Political correctness in Berkeley

PC_McErlean_Weekender
Caragh McErlean/Staff

“(a).…Also prohibited shall be material that so incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.”

California Educational Code § 48907

 

Like any kid on a high school newspaper or yearbook staff, I familiarized myself over the years with the nuances and  subtle  legalities of how to print as much as I could without being (successfully) sued. Slander, libel and defamation cases were always the easiest to quell — don’t make up what you write, and it will be hard for someone to bring a case against you. But recently, I found myself entirely perplexed by a situation confronting the yearbook staff at my southern California public school.

A student showed up for his senior yearbook photo wearing a keffiyeh, a cotton headdress traditionally worn in Middle Eastern countries. This  would not have raised any eyebrows —  if not for the fact that the headdress was not a part of his daily attire and that he didn’t claim any ties to Middle Eastern culture. Because of this, when portrait proofs were returned to the students in charge of compiling the yearbook, an anonymous survey was distributed to the staff and the result was a unanimous 30-person vote in favor of removing the photo. Citing her rights under the California Educational Code, editor in chief Sara Madani pulled the plug. The student wearing the keffiyeh, senior Jon Kari, was informed that his photograph would not be featured in the yearbook but that he was welcome to take a replacement photo free of charge. He refused the offer, claiming that his goal from the onset had been for the yearbook to censor his photo. He hoped to emphasize cultural stereotyping by taking the picture. “I picked the keffiyeh because it’s used all around the world,” he said. “Because of that, you can’t stereotype. If it’s universal, why are you stereotyping me to be an Arab?”

Dialogic as the two arguments appear, they are both tarrying with the idea of political correctness. This particular instance is not too unlike the exchanges that go on each and every day on this campus, as the push toward a growing culture of political correctness leaves some stating that their freedoms have been infringed upon. With “PC culture” often linked to political liberalism and Berkeley being situated amid the United States’ most liberal region, campus students are exposed daily to this dilemma as we come into contact with the myriad student groups and political activists.

The reality, though, is that the distinction between being politically correct and simply not wanting to hear dissenting opinions — a conflict central to the issue — has become ambiguous. Some political rhetoric, obviously, is meant to be offensive, malicious and even hateful — I’m looking at you, Donald. But what about the less openly abrasive opinions facing the yearbook activists of the world? I agree that Kari’s photograph did not belong in his high school’s book for a number of reasons: He was not known for prior political activism, he utilized an odd platform to spread his message, as well as other confounding factors that if different, could have come into play and very well influenced my own opinion to disagree with him. Yet, in these cases on which we don’t agree, how much of an offensive or controversial opinion are we obligated to listen to before we decide that there is no room for it in our lives? The boundary between legitimate expression and malicious offense is enormously different for different people, occasionally making it challenging to fully engage in two-sided discussion. Furthermore, the omnipresent pressure to remain increasingly politically correct sometimes acts to hinder dialogue regarding sensitive talking points, such as race or religion.

An August 2015 column in The Daily Californian laments that UC Berkeley students are so careful to avoid stepping on the toes of any one group that constructive exchanges are avoided lest a sensitive topic arise. In the piece, Shanzeh Khurram notes, “Even in Berkeley, the center of the Free Speech Movement, most people are so concerned about being politically correct that they end up stifling open discussion.” Just this week, the news broke that the University of California seeks to approve anti-Zionism as an inadmissible form of religious discrimination. Personally, I support the existence of an Israeli state and will gladly debate anyone who feels that they can convince me otherwise. Sadly, we might soon be obligated by school policy to walk outside the boundaries of our institution of higher learning in order to have that debate, should I or any onlookers be offended by your anti-Zionist sentiments. Any discussion of politics, race or religion that one may have in the residence hall room or cafe patio is becoming forcibly stymied before it reaches depth.

But, still, it is blatantly hypocritical that the UC system can feign an attempt to level the playing field for underrepresented minority students by simply shielding them from implicit references to the United States’ inequality of opportunity, while  simultaneously enrolling African American students at just an abysmal 3 percent.

This generational inclination toward trying to scrub our campus and our world clean of any potentially offensive themes or words is one that is fundamentally rooted in important ideals of respect and equality, but has of late been known to act where it is not needed. Lawfully censoring a potentially offensive yearbook photo because its political context is questionable is well within the bounds of reason. What is not reasonable is a 2015 seminar that invited the deans and department heads of 10 UC schools to be informed of potentially offensive messages found in the classroom, including but not limited to referring to America as “the land of opportunity.”

Now, I get it. America is, realistically, not the unending well of promise that it claims to be for everyone. Institutionalized racism, sexism, classism and almost every other bad –ism continue to hold back the majority of Americans from the opportunity they are told exists in abundance. And, a white male university professor referring casually to the United States’ bottomless resources could possibly have the indirect effect of drawing even more attention to the disparities in how the United States treats its people. But, still, it is blatantly hypocritical that the UC system can feign an attempt to level the playing field for underrepresented minority students by simply shielding them from implicit references to the United States’ inequality of opportunity, while  simultaneously enrolling African American students at just an abysmal 3 percent. Policing the use of rhetoric is a simplistic and paradoxical attempt at fixing a much larger problem, protecting racialized groups from potentially harmful words rather than ceasing several centuries of definitively harmful actions. Wiping away issues, instead of actively noting them, will never bring about the necessary change.

The kind of political correctness that will initiate real cultural change in the world is the kind that demands respect of opposing opinions, opens up acceptance of varied perspectives and has an eagerness to address issues of controversy with the goal of reaching a positive conclusion.

Sharing controversial ideas, passionately debating each other, potentiating a dialogue on a tense issue: These are all things that are not meant to be avoided. If the demonstrators and protestors become hesitant to speak their minds out of fear of antagonizing or offending, then our campus will lose its charm. If the classroom turns into a shelter from harmful language rather than a sanctuary for open debate, then our educations and the progress of our culture at large will doubtlessly suffer. It is possible to be politically correct without being overly cautious, but the unstoppable tide of PC culture that Millennials brought with them, though based in humanitarian principles of social justice, is often taken to a level that constrains effective discussion on matters that have the potential to enlighten us as students at a globally resonant university. The kind of political correctness that will initiate real cultural change in the world is the kind that demands respect of opposing opinions, opens up acceptance of varied perspectives and has an eagerness to address issues of controversy with the goal of reaching a positive conclusion. Open a dialogue, the right way, and run with it — skirting the most substantial problems with our nation and culture because they are just that, substantial, is the best way to guarantee that they are never resolved.

Contact Nathan Magee at [email protected]