One of the biggest culture shocks I faced coming to the United States was learning the term “political correctness.” I found it paradoxical that in this so-called land of the free people would euphemize and avoid using certain expressions out of a fear of upsetting others. I expected to be able to think critically and engage in open dialogue upon my arrival at Cornell. Yet, I could not help but feel as though many of my peers and professors attempted to protect me from what I could never fully be protected of.
We condemn the numerous accounts of bias and hate speech that have taken place across campus and around the world. But we tend to forget that such actions stem from within our very own community. We fail to remember that we live among misogynists and homophobes. And without giving all people an equal platform to speak freely, hate-inspired crimes will continue to transpire from beneath the surface. We can never fully address the hatred until we acknowledge its existence in the first place.
In theory, political correctness is a means of being sensitive and respectful of each other’s beliefs. However, in practice, it masks the animosity that continues to prevail, because developing politically correct terms does not mean that one automatically becomes more accepting and understanding of other opinions. To borrow the words of author Roxane Gay, trigger warnings create an “illusion of safety” in which people are under the false impression that they are in a safe space, when there is no universal guideline applicable to all people in reality.
All of us come from different backgrounds and retain different beliefs. What I believe to be offensive may be different from anyone else’s standards. If we aim to establish a single universal standard through which everyone should abide by, we undermine our ability to recognize the different perspectives that exist in this country. It is through dialogue, not shutting out views, that our society can better embrace its diverse characteristics. But political correctness restricts the possibility of engaging in such discussion.
In a university setting in particular, many of my peers seem to disregard the fact that they cannot and should not be safeguarded from those differing ways of thinking. It is time that we as young adults reaching beyond our campus approach the real world as it is. The other day, I was told by a peer to use the word “newcomer” instead of immigrant. How can we have an open conversation on these matters if I cannot use terms for what they are? Universities like Cornell shall make clear that its students, as members of civil society, need to learn to embrace free, democratic discussion that allows us to advance further.
Advocates for political correctness argue that we need to be mindful of the language we use in order not to degrade minorities. Students on college campuses, they say, should be protected from malevolent speech. However, non-PC terminology does not equal demeaning others, but being frank and open to other ideas. We are not living in a perfect world, and if we do not speak our mind, our community cannot move forward. Embracing open dialogue does not mean debasing minorities, but actually embracing both majority and minority views through appreciating the various interests and cultures that exist. Limiting one’s ability to speak one’s mind is a practice of intolerance that many advocates of political correctness preach against.
In recent years, many colleges have become a space in which its students are sheltered from the outside world. And in an isolated place such as Ithaca, this is even more apparent. However, our society needs scholars who are ready to consult problems with a receptive, complex and diversified mindset. University should be a place in which its students are exposed to new horizons through open discussion. Only then will its graduates head into the real world embracing the premise of freedom to express oneself, as well as the heterogeneity of the world in which we live.
DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Here, There and Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester. She can be reached at email@example.com.