By Khushboo Upret
The world today seems to be in the grips of excessive political correctness. However, this is not an attempt to discount the struggle of the underprivileged or the goals of the social justice movement. In fact, at times these criticisms prove to be crucial since they help us in calling out problematic practices which are often justified under the garb of tradition.
We need to highlight how this attitude of taking offence over frivolous issues on part of some individuals and looking at banning of certain opinions as an answer is counterproductive to the social justice movement as a whole.
In the attempt to promote justice, there has been an attempt to shield people from minor offences, especially on University campuses. This can be seen with the fad of micro-aggressions. These are slights, usually unintended, which can be perceived as evidence of underlying prejudicial assumptions. Its propensity to veer towards extremity is evident in University of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit circular wherein an example of everyday racism includes asking someone where they’re originally from. Universities in Europe have further witnessed the coming up of the idea of safe spaces. A novel idea, it is supposed to be a place in which people can avoid discrimination based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s been taken to inane lengths with a student being booted out of a university safe space due to the raising of her hands being an example of it.
Why is this problematic?
Such mollycoddling becomes problematic because the world can not be a ‘safe space’ or come with ‘trigger warnings’ no matter how much we would like. There will always be people whose opinions are different, at times directly at odds, from our own and we will have to engage with them. Colleges are meant to prepare students for the life that is outside. They are meant to provide a fertile ground for challenging students’ opinions and push them to view the world from different perspectives. Such obsessive protection is only going to produce a generation of sensitive students who resort to shunning opinions of others. Moreover, the lack of exposure to diverse opinions can only work to inhibit an individual’s growth and level of maturity.
Notably, in such an atmosphere of vindictive protectiveness, the voicing of infamous opinions has often met with disproportionate reactions. This can be seen in the case of James Damore, a promising employee at Google who was fired due to a memo which cited that there are psychological differences owing to which men are more predisposed to take up technical jobs than women. Interestingly, experts find an element of truth in his conclusion while agreeing that Damore ignored counter evidence. Nonetheless, the reaction was wholly unjustified.
Similarly, feminist Germaine Greer was not allowed to speak at an event because of her controversial opinions on transgenders. Even if her opinions were worthy of condemnation, the better way out would invariably have been to engage in a discussion and influence her by weight of logic.
University is supposed to be a space where people can express their opinion even if it is uncomfortable. With the attempt to calibrate speech, we are only working towards taking away free speech.
Moreover, it really needs to be asked whether such over sensitivity is actually leading to tangible change. For instance, in France, gender-neutral terminology is being used, but the real question is if it is actually helping in changing the inherent sentiments of these people.
Such nit-picking further deflects attention from legitimate and substantive issues such as improved access to education, health, housing, employment, ending discrimination for the marginalised sections of the society.
More importantly, it allows right wingers to completely dismiss the liberal movement and the cause it upholds. Such a gratuitously aggressive stand on part of certain supporters of the movement can also drive away potential supporters for the movement.
Engaging with others
The panacea lies in deliberating with opponents to convince them through reason. It is almost cathartic to meet people with like-minded views and re-affirm what we all believe in. However, the real challenge lies in engaging with those with contrary, even bigoted opinions and that is how society changes.
When engaging with others, it’s essential to desist from relying too heavily on jargon. Even if the attempt is to educate and communicate with others, this jargon effectively blocks you from being understood. Moreover, be patient, not patronising or dismissive when talking to others.
Lessons from the world over are essential for the social movement in India as well. More importantly, the art of engagement with the opponent is something which both the rightists and leftists are yet to learn in India.
Khushboo Upreti is a writing analyst at Qrius.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius