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Sticks, stones and the Berkeley bubble

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MARCH 31, 2016

Shortly after taking my first steps onto the UC Berkeley campus, I learned what is considered politically correct and incorrect. Before taking those steps, I had never even heard of political correctness, but I soon understood its sanctity among the student body. Wanting to fit in with everyone else, I tried my very best to be politically correct too, learning what is considered acceptable and unacceptable to say. I quickly discovered that the list of intolerable words and phrases is quite long and grew both afraid and frustrated. Every day, I feared I would say something that upset one of my peers. One wrong word from my mouth would incite outrage. I did not want to face such condemnation, nor did I want to offend anyone, but I also hated feeling like I was walking on eggshells everyday.

The first time I went home during my freshman year, I realized how much this culture of political correctness had changed me when I talked to my family about politics. Instead of being condemned for saying something wrong, I was condemning them for saying things I had been trained to criticize. They honestly thought I had gone crazy, but I thought the same about them. I told my dad calling someone an “illegal immigrant” was disrespectful. I challenged my mom for asserting businesses do not have to cover the cost of birth control for their female employees, explaining how this kind of thinking undermines women’s rights. I told my 10-year-old brother it was not OK to dress up as a Native American for Halloween because that was cultural appropriation.

Seeing how confused my family was by my new rhetoric, I realized I had become politically correct. I was PC! Finally, I would not need to fear saying something my peers would find offensive. I had learned what constitutes acceptable speech at UC Berkeley, and it definitely did not include the kinds of things my family said on a daily basis at home. But almost as soon as I took joy in this realization, I came to understand just how wrong it was for me to shut down others, including my own family, simply because I disagreed with what they said or how they said it.

The following Monday, I talked to one of my friends about these revelations. As I reflected on the experience, he introduced me to the “Berkeley Bubble.” He explained how it is as if we are all living within a bubble, sheltered from the rest of society and its politically incorrect conceptions. By getting away from UC Berkeley, I learned just how unique the perspective of our campus community truly is. We both laughed about it, finding humor in the idea of UC Berkeley being shielded by a bubble of political correctness.

But while the idea of the Berkeley Bubble is comical, it has grave implications to those enclosed within it. In seeking shelter, students have lost their sense of what is really hurtful. By shielding us from the forms of speech that we deem to be intolerable, our bubble mentality has deluded us into thinking that other people’s ways of thinking can actually harm us. As we were growing up, our parents, teachers, coaches or some other informative figure in our lives at one point told us to remember, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” The saying sounds trivial, but it contains a significant truth for our overly sensitive student body.

People will try to hurt us at some point or another. They will disrespect our dignity or even try to oppress us. Like so many other women on this campus, I have personally been called a variety of objectifying names by far too many misogynistic men — getting taunted as I simply walk home after a long day at school. Many students on this campus still have to deal with systemic racism in our society, encountering a variety of social, political and economic obstacles. These issues are unjust, and they need to be corrected. But political correctness will not do that.

In focusing so much nowadays on how we should say things, we have limited ourselves to academic discussions about words. We have stopped actively pursuing justice. More than 50 years ago, UC Berkeley students ignited nationwide movements to bring justice to disadvantaged citizens in the United States. They did not shield themselves behind a bubble of political correctness. This only does more injustice. By attempting to protect ourselves from the words of those who seek to disrespect or oppress us, UC Berkeley, and so many other universities across the United States, is not equipping students with the sticks and stones necessary to break down the barriers to their own happiness and success. We are instead choosing to feel pain from speech but not to forcefully confront, challenge and crush the ideas behind ignorant and hateful language.

Furthermore, by delineating the ideas that are allowed to be discussed and those that are not, our bubble is preventing us from understanding how other people think outside of our university. With home being fewer than two hours away in Sacramento, I get out of Berkeley frequently enough to escape our bubble of extreme political correctness. I hear my family say things I would never hear on the UC Berkeley campus. But I no longer denounce them because I know all too well what it is like to be condemned for thinking a certain way. I simply talk to them. I do not put a bubble around myself, seeking a shield from language I may find offensive or perspectives alternative to my own, because I know words cannot actually hurt me. I would only hurt myself by refusing to listen to them.

Madeline Dyer writes the Thursday blog on providing an alternative to UC Berkeley liberalism. Contact her at [email protected].

MARCH 31, 2016