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.

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