More on political correctness

So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.

In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day. Of course, no sooner had I tried this out than many of my colleagues began working assiduously to undermine that narrative, by putting on a show of precisely the traits that I was trying to claim had blown over. Oh well. I’ll stick to my narrative as long as I can. After all, someone has to try to justify our funding.

There are a couple of points that I would love to have made, but that didn’t fit into the already-too-long op-ed. I mentioned that there is lots of student activism in Canada (most notably in Quebec), but that most of it has a strong orientation toward bread-and-butter issues, especially tuition fees. (If U.S. students have such incredible power over university administrators, one wonders why they don’t use it to protest rising tuition fees?) I actually think there an important connection there that is difficult to tease out — that the overall political impotence of U.S. intellectuals (professors and students) is part of what drives them to get overinvested in small, symbolic conflicts. It’s like “I can’t stop Republicans from taking over Congress, but the least I can do is stop them from coming to campus and giving commencement addresses!” In Canada, by contrast, there are avenues open for both faculty and students to pursue real political power and influence, and so there is less of a tendency (less, not zero!) to get sidetracked into internecine campus struggles.

I would love to have had the space to point out one gigantic difference between Canada and the U.S. on the “political correctness” front, which is that in Canada there is no affirmative action in university admissions. (I know this is true in Ontario, but I’m not sure it is true across the entire country… Anybody know?) Of course, since the two largest visible minority groups in Canada (East Asian, South Asian) are over-represented in university enrollments relative to their population share, race-based affirmative action policies would be complicated to design, even if there were an appetite for them. Nevertheless, if there were a huge wave of political correctness overtaking our universities, isn’t this that sort of thing that students would be agitating for? (Imagine what would happen in the U.S. if colleges announced that they were going to terminate affirmative action…) The system we have in place in Canada right now is basically a ruthless, sink-or-swim meritocracy — or at least, is far closer to being so than the U.S. system — and I don’t see any evidence of students agitating to change that.

On the other hand, I am starting to see that my perspective is heavily biased by spending too much time at only a few Canadian universities — University of Toronto, Université de Montréal, McGill — which seem to be on the very low end of the political correctness scale. And perhaps by being in philosophy, where there is no deference at all to capital-T “Theory” (because that’s all we do).

One other thing I would like to have mentioned is that social media is a new factor in the whole equation, making it possible to whip up something very much like an old-fashioned witch-hunt. Professors are intimidated by this, both intrinsically, but also because their students have much greater master of the tools than they do. So that is a point on the “students are scary” side of the ledger.

Finally, I should mention that my “The problem of “me” studies” post last week was actually just the first in a series. Glutton for punishment that I am, I have another one coming up later this week, called “The problem of normative sociology.” Look for it!

Edit: Something else I forgot to mention — unions (thanks reddit). Canadian universities have lots of ’em. (I just happen not to be in one, so it slipped my mind.) Not only are faculty unionized at half of Canadian universities, but adjuncts are mostly unionized as well. The latter I have more experience with, since I’ve been in an administrative job where I had to deal with adjuncts and student complaints. And let me tell you, the stuff I was dealing with was not “the professor said something that offended me,” it was more like “the professor disappeared a month ago, didn’t return my paper, hasn’t submitted grades, so now I can’t graduate, and hasn’t answered any emails…” Without getting into the details, let’s just say that even under such circumstances, not renewing a contract can be challenging.


More on political correctness — 3 Comments

  1. A lot of the contrasts being made here seem on-point, but I’m not so sure about the idea of universities as outlets for political activity due to an ossified party system.

    I think it’s far more relevant that most Canadian schools are what would be called in the U.S. “commuter schools”. Many (not all) U.S. schools have far more student activity in all ways: sports teams, campus journalism, campus housing – these are all a huge part of the undergrad experience at most good U.S. schools. Canadian schools are more likely to be populated by students who drop in for a few hours a couple times a week to sit in lecture halls with many hundreds of students, and never have any contact with their professors whatsoever. (There are U.S. schools like this, but they are also not the ones with safe spaces and trigger warnings.) So it should be obvious which context is more likely to produce on-campus political activism.

    Although I guess that the absence of much visible student activism in the smaller Nova Scotia schools may reflect a broader cultural divide. But even then it seems to that political culture, like all other forms of culture, is increasingly globalized/homogenized. So versions of “American”-style political correctness inevitably show up in the U.K. and Canada (my impression is that the U.K. is worse than Canada, but I don’t have direct experience of the U.K.).

  2. Must confess that I fell for this one a bit. Mea culpa! Thanks for setting me straight, Joseph!