The Universal Notebook: Political correctness is correct

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Bowdoin College officials took some flak recently for the way they reacted to a campus incident in which a few students wore little sombreros at a tequila party.

Seemed harmless enough, but some Hispanic students took offense. College officials and student government sought to discipline the alleged offenders. The comments in the media tended to portray the college as overreacting, the Hispanic students as overly sensitive, and the whole episode as a classic case of political correctness run amok.

“Politically correct” refers to language and policies designed not to offend or discriminate against any one person or group. That’s a good thing. But over the years, “politically correct” has come to be used in a pejorative manner, as though sensitivity to the feelings of others is a bad thing, even a sign of weakness.

Oddly, political correctness is generally ascribed to liberals and left-wing ideas, as though conservatives and right-wing thinking has never concerned itself with trying not to offend people. These days, of course, Republicans make a virtue of not being politically correct. That’s the appeal of men like Paul LePage and Donald Trump. They seem to think accusing others of being too PC excuses their own racism, sexism, xenophobia, bullying, egomania and general mean-spiritedness.

It doesn’t.

There was a time when ignorant, prejudiced people knew enough to keep their opinions to themselves or, failing that, to hide their faces from public view. But the culture wars in America have produced a bold new subculture of bigots who are actually proud of their prejudices. They feel entitled to say and do whatever they want, without regard to who gets hurt.

Back when my father attended Bowdoin in the 1940s, the college was a bastion of privileged white males. It was pretty much still that in the 1960s when I spent a lot of time on campus with Bowdoin friends. By the time my youngest daughter got there in 2009, however, Bowdoin had been co-ed for almost 40 years. The student body was half female and far more ethnically and economically diverse than ever before.

I have read enough letters and online comments by Bowdoin alums to know that some of them felt the college mishandled the tequila party incident. It’s too easy, however, to blame misplaced political correctness. I would assume most Bowdoin graduates possess sufficient critical thinking skills to understand why college officials these days have to bend over backwards to accommodate diversity and nip any perception of racism in the bud.

As one of the best small, liberal arts colleges in the nation, Bowdoin has a responsibility to inculcate a culture of welcome. College officials have to be more sensitive to issues of stereotyping, discrimination, and diversity than the mainstream of society, especially in a predominantly white state like Maine. Sometimes what looks like prejudice in Maine is just innocence and ignorance. Colleges like Bowdoin, Bates and Colby are social laboratories where culture is not just transmitted, but transformed.

It is one mark of an educated individual to understand that meaning no offense does not mean none is taken. Those in the dominant culture do not get to dictate what is acceptable and what is not. If Native Americans are offended, for example, when schools use Indians as mascots, then schools should not use Indians as mascots. If African-American students are offended when students hold gangsta-themed parties, and Hispanic students are uncomfortable when students wear sombreros at tequila parties, then thoughtful people need to learn to be sensitive to these slights, as unintentional as they may be.

The sombrero incident did not occur in a vacuum. It came as one in a series of racially insensitive episodes on campus and at a time when a leading candidate for the presidential nomination is making populist hay by insulting Muslims, Mexicans, Chinese and anyone else he thinks voters don’t like. That may be why Bowdoin officials were so quick to react when Hispanic students complained about something so seemingly innocuous as sombreros at a tequila party.

As Bowdoin President Clayton Rose noted in his written response to the incident, in order for the college to fulfill its higher education mission “every member of our community, every one of our students, must know themselves to be an equal member. Anything less diminishes their ability to participate, to become educated, and it diminishes their ability to add to the learning and creation of knowledge for others.”

Being politically correct is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. It means standing for what is right, regardless of whether it is popular or not.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • truther

    There’s nothing wrong with being respectful to others. The problem is this notion, that unfortunately comes with political correctness, that when someone takes offense, then the offender in turn must be punished. You see it all the time — demands that a professor who said something offensive be fired, or that an administrator step down, or that damages or apologies somehow be given for various perceived injustices.

    That a few students thought mini sombreros at a private tequila party was offensive is something the school should deal with appropriately. However there’s nothing appropriate about punishing Bowdoin students for wearing mini sombreros to a private tequila party. That’s just idiotic and is one of those one-step-forward, two-steps-back issues that always seems to plague efforts like this.

    • Jimmy_John67

      Completely agree and Beem either doesn’t understand that is the issue 95% of the people have with how Bowdoin handled the incident, or more likely, he does understand and intentionally chooses to ignore it because it doesn’t fit with his trolling narrative to create clickbait. Easier for him to spend an hour to regurgitate an item like this from months ago then actually put thought and effort into a well researched and developed opinion piece.

  • EABeem

    I purposely waited a month for the dust to clear and the facts to be ascertained before weighing in on the tequila party controversy. 1) Not sure you can have a private party in college housing. 2) The conservative press got hysterical and made accusations that were not true. Here’s what Snopes had to sa:

    Hat Schtick

    A cultural sensitivity controversy at Bowdoin College was misconstrued to suggest that mini sombreros offended oversensitive students.

    Claim: Students at Bowdoin College in Maine were offered counseling because a party involved mini sombreros.

    Mostly False

    WHAT’S TRUE: In February 2016, a controversy arose at Bowdoin College over cultural sensitivity and a tequila party; Bowdoin officials stated that subsequent harassment (not sombreros) were the cause of the controversy.

    WHAT’S FALSE: Students were offered counseling over the presence of “mini sombreros.”

    WHAT’S Undetermined: The specifics of the controversy, due to considerations of confidentiality.

    • Chew H Bird

      When would a private college not have a private party? I wasn’t invited… (J/K)

      • EABeem

        The suggestion was that the college had no business getting involved because it was a private party. That makes no sense, since everything that happens in college facilities is the college’s business. It was the press that overreacted the situation inciting a backlash among uninformed readers.

        • amainah

          Describe “uninformed reader” for us.

          • EABeem

            Most of the early reports about the incident, which took on a life of its own in the blogoshere, turned not to be true.

          • Jimmy_John67

            The articles in the Washington Post were the most well publicized on a national scale. Most people would classify the Washington Post as a left leaning publication but obviously to a troll such as yourself anyone or anything who disagrees with your opinion is automatically labeled and called names. So much easier for you to assign derogatory labels then actually do some research. That is probably why the furthest you advanced in your career as a writer was weekly opinion columnist for a free, local publication.

          • amainah

            Ok. Describe “know nothing conservative”. We must know something we are still here.

          • EABeem

            In the 1850s, “a group of anti-immigrant native-born Americans formed the Native American Party, commonly known as the Know Nothing party because their party members’ standard reply to questions about their activities was, “I know nothing about it.” The Know Nothing Party advocated severe restrictions on immigration, the exclusion of the foreign-born from voting or holding public office in the U.S. and for a 21-year residency requirement for citizenship. In addition, they argued the nation’s business owners should employ true Americans by denying employment to immigrants. Riding the popular anti-immigrants sentiment, the Know Nothing party won a series of local and congressional elections. It even nominated Millard Fillmore as their presidential candidate for the 1856 election. Fillmore lost the election, carrying only one state: Maryland. The party quickly declined after that.”
            Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign is largely supported by modern day Know-Nothings.

          • amainah

            Interesting. From what I’ve read about the Know Nothings they knew more than they were willing to admit. Trump at least is up front about how he feels. So is Bernie. Whether it is just political rhetoric or a statement of fact remains to be seen. (Maybe we all still know nothing) I heard a couple of Dems state, the other day, that they knew nothing about suing the Saudis over 9/11. I guess they have since agreed on which side they should be on. This issue has been on the burner for at least a year.

    • Jimmy_John67

      So your own cited source says that the specifics are undetermined but yet you claim to have “waited a month the facts to be ascertained” so you could write this piece? BWAAH HA HA! More excuses for his lazy writing from Beem the Troll.

  • Chew H Bird

    Hmmmm. So what about the old “toga parties”? I remember the (no longer correct) details of a few college parties like doing shots and beers, drinking through a funnel, or a straw up the nose, and many thing that go substantially downhill from those couple of “g rated” examples…

    Just because a few people are offended by some general college party themes is no reason to over react and create a national media circus. What Bowdoin College did was make themselves a laughing stock to the entire country. There are far larger issues with our society than the impropriety of a college party that in reality was not expressed in our media as being “over the top”.

    I wish Bowdoin College would teach their students how to press the illuminated walk signals when people cross the street at night wearing dark clothing in front of moving automobiles. I think that lesson might yield far more benefit for everyone than worrying about a tequila party with sombreros.

    • funfundvierzig

      Illiberal Bowdoin became an instant laughingstock not only in America, from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Little Rock and Lewiston, but in London as well!


  • EABeem

    I will just offer the following information and then let others continue the dialogue.
    1. This incident at Bowdoin is not about students wearing little sombreros.
    2. No one has done any original reporting about the situation. It’s all based on blogs and social media.
    3. The Washington Post columnist wrote an opinion piece based on a blog posting. She is a conservative columnist. She has an anti-PC agenda to flog.
    4. No student has been suspended or expelled because the incident.
    5. No student has had their academic progress impeded because the incident.
    6. No student sought counseling or was offered “safe space.”
    7. No student government representatives were impeached.
    8. Most people simply do not know what they are talking about.
    9. Minority students have been harassed and threatened because of the way this incident has been misreported online and in the media.

    • Jimmy_John67

      1. Then why were students placed on social probation for wearing little sombreros?
      2. The Bowdoin Orient itself did direct reporting.
      3. You are also basing your opinion piece on blog posting. You are a liberal columnist who has a pro PC agenda to flog. What makes your piece any more factual then the Washington Post columns?
      4. Students were placed on housing and social probation and the party hosts were forced to move.
      5. The party hosts had to leave school for a time due to the backlash from angry campus liberals including faculty members. That sounds like impeding academic progress to me.
      6. I am sure the Bowdoin counseling services would be very interested to know that you have access to protected student records otherwise there is no possible way you could know students did not seek counseling.
      7. Only because of the threat of a lawsuit.
      8. You also have no access to the facts and therefore no idea what you are talking about.
      9. The party hosts, attendees and people who publicly defended them were harassed and threatened by angry liberal students and faculty as well as punished by administration all for simply doing the exact same thing that Bowdoin itself had endorsed just 8 months earlier.

  • tiresias75

    I’m still puzzled as to why no one was busted – and no one seems concerned about – under age drinking…. That, not mini sombreros, is the cause of most sexual assaults on campuses today.

    • EABeem

      My guess is that any disciplinary action taken might have something to do with that.

    • Jimmy_John67

      Bowdoin, like many colleges, does not punish students for underage drinking. For evidence of that visit campus on Ivies weekend coming up and watch as hundreds of highly intoxocated underage students drink alchohol at college sponsored events while security and Bowdoin administration watches and does nothing.

      The students in this instance were punished for the sombreros. People like EABeem are saying it was for underage drinking in an attempt to spin the incident and support their own extreme left wing agenda.

  • Charles Martel

    My initial reaction to this story was: Oh, the poor little collegiate snowflakes. I hope they were provided with campus safe spaces. It still is.

  • Jimmy_John67

    One item to note that EA Beem failed to disclose in this article is that he writes for the Bowdoin magazine. The magazine is part of the Bowdoin Office of Alumni relations. The alumni backlash against how the administration handled the sombrero incident has been unprecedented and has negatively impacted alumni donations. Given that this article from Beem and his subsequent comments are a thinly veiled attempt at spin/damage control it is clear that Beem is simply trying to assist his other employers at Bowdoin by writing a biased piece which excludes multiple facts and facets of the debate in order to influence public and alumni opinion.

    • jack bauer

      So it sounds as if Beem is a covert shill for Bowdoin administration?

      • EABeem

        If that’s your theory then you must also believe that my views reflect those of the Forecaster publishers. I write one story a year for Bowdoin, 50 columns a year for the Forecaster. My views are my own. Period. End of story. My guess is that if I were doing the bidding of the Bowdoin administration they would have asked me not to write about the tequila party at all. But I do appreciate how much time you boys spend reading and responding to my columns. That’s just what the publishers want and why they publish them despite the fact that they do not share my political point of view.

        • Jimmy_John67

          Glad to see you admit that the primary goal of your columns is to serve as clickbait, the lowest form of writing.

          If your employment with Bowdoin had no influence on the content of this column then why not disclose it? Why try to hide it from your readers? Your constant lack of transparency and compulsive dishonesty is important for readers to be aware of.

          • jack bauer

            For Beem to be a paid Bowdoin staffer and fail to disclose as much demonstrates another of Beem’s many flaws. He seems proud that he receives so much criticism when, in fact, he really should be ashamed. But readers of his columns know that a strong conscience is not one of his attributes. He writes about topical items, that is true. It is just my wish that the Forecaster would replace him with a non-corrupt writer who can elucidate and/or advocate with transparency on important issues without the covert agendas and vitriol which is Beem.

        • BS

          Were you aware of the sombreros that were supplied for the Bowdoin alumni photo booth. double standards don’t work!

      • Jimmy_John67

        Well let’s look at the situation:

        1. He gets regular monetary gain from the Bowdoin Administration but did not disclose the existence of this gain in an article in which he attempted to justify the actions of the Bowdoin Administrstion.
        2. He repeatedly implies that he has inside information on the event that others do not possess including information on the punishment rationale which only Bowdoin Administration would have.
        3. He states the odd timing of the article was to “wait for all the facts to come out” then blatantly excludes or denies the existence of multiple key facts, all of which would portray the Bowdoin Administration in a negative light.

        Couple those items with Beem’s well documented lack of transparency and dishonesty and it is pretty clear that while he may not be acting at the direction of Bowdoin administration he is most certainly trying to curry favor in order to sustain or enhance the monetary gain he receives from the college while at the same time trick his readers into thinking he is an impartial observer.

  • funfundvierzig

    How can all the facts be ascertained, when College President Clayton Rose and his dutiful Deans who see the world through Rose-coloured glasses, immediately declared a BLACKOUT, locked their doors and refused further explanation or comment to the community and to the media? PR damage control worthy of Madison Avenue, and likely recommended by high-price PR consultants and attorneys.

    The ultra-secrecy and evasion of this College Administration strikes fear in innocent students and faculty who have no idea when they might act or think or say something or do anything traumatising or offencive to hypersensitive, PC-driven “victims” on the campus. That is no way to run an institution of higher learning, suppression trumping speech, repression replacing the free and rigorous exchange of ideas.

    OMG, Bowdoin has really gone so corporate, so Wall Street, so Bank of America, so ENRON, so DuPont Company with its Teflon Toxins.

    And then there is Mr. Beem, a clumsy gymnast practicing his Political Correctness, but, well, falling off the beam.


  • funfundvierzig

    Why, fifty years ago, intelligent and energised students at Columbia and Cornell and Yale and Berkeley demanded FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Today, not so intelligent and timorous students at Wellesley, Princeton, and Bowdoin are demanding FREEDOM FROM SPEECH! They cry about “trigger words” and clamour against “the culturally inappropriate”. And demand intensive “counseling”. Amazing phenomenon.


  • Real cool guy

    What do you know… my original comment has yet to be approved.

    Update: The local Hannaford aisles which are numbered and list items like crackers, coffee, honey, etc etc has an item listed under aisle 4 called Hispanic. I checked it out and found beans, salsa and artichoke hearts.

    Lucky for me I had kidney, black and chick on my list for my famous 3 bean bison chilli that I herby rename my famous Hispanic bison chili in honor of free speech, free expression, acceptance, respect for others heritage and former cultures and according to Beam to thumb my nose at Hispanics.

    Additionally, from Wenbsters online dictionary:

    som·bre·rosəm-ˈbrer-(ˌ)ō, säm-
    : a type of hat with a very wide brim that is often worn in Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
    Full Definition
    : an often high-crowned hat of felt or straw with a very wide brim worn especially in the Southwest and Mexico
    Other forms: plural som·bre·ros
    Origin: Spanish, from sombra shade.
    First use: 1599

    Notice how it identifies a region but doesn’t mention a persons presumably former nationality!? Were they Hispanic-Americans students Beam or foreign Hispanic students?