Throwing Off the Veil of Political Correctness


Last Month "Citizens for a Fag Free KSG" e-mailed four fellow Kennedy School of Government students "Fuck your First Amendment. Stop crying faggot! Go fuck yourselves up the ass!" Later, they threatened in a separate memo "the niggers, chinks and spics are next."

This year there were two separate incidents in which swastikas were scrawled on loose leaf paper and left on undergraduate dorm room doors.

Last February, the Law School Record's anonymous satirical column "Fenno" decried the U.S. government's tendency to "only help colored folks and pointy headed Jews."

Such incidents of hate speech make you wonder what's happened to the ninety's P.C. Patrol. Is political correctness on the wane?

"There is still a culture of political correctness that limits what people say," says Robert H. Friedman, one of the publishers of the Law School Record who was involved in the Fenno controversy.

Friedman defended the Record columnist saying the comments weren't hate speech given the humorous intent of the piece.

"Fenno was trying to walk a line between political correctness and speaking directly," Friedman, says. "In each instance you need to take into account both the context and the motives of those concerned."

The Faculty's Resolution on Rights and Responsibilities, the administrative equivalent of a free speech bible, maintains the College must "affirm, assure and protect the rights of its members to organize and join political associations, convene and conduct public meetings, publicly demonstrate, and picket...and publicize opinion by print, sign, and voice." But how can the College ensure a comfortable speech environment and to what extent is the nature of speech determined by its context?

"Our faithfulness to fairness can be measured by the spectrum of opinion here at Harvard," says Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. Epps says the number of political publications available on campus is evidence of the administration's encouragement of healthy student debate.

"I would say their presence is proof that we try to be evenhanded," Epps says.

Epps emphasized that when offensive speech does occur, the College issues an immediate response.

"Usually we can create a sense of balance if [someone from the administration] speaks out against it," says Epps. "The most important thing is to act promptly so the community knows where we stand."

But as Civil Liberties Union of Harvard (CLUH) Co-Chair Micah S. Myers '00 notes, the power of fighting speech with speech is limited.

"I think people should have a right to express opposing positions," says Myers. "Where I draw the line is when an explicit threat is made."

So what about cases such as Ralph Reed's speech earlier this year at the Institute of Politics ARCO Forum, where liberal protesters used tactics such as a kiss-in to prevent Reed from being heard? Is that threatening?

Perhaps. Especially when people are afraid to challenge the campus P.C. norm.

Undergraduate Council member Steven Mitby challenged this norm and the result is telling. The day after Mitby spoke against a bill urging the University to add "transgendered" to its non-discrimination policy, he found a threatening note complete with a hand-written swastika taped to his dorm room door.

Mitby said he saw the note as a targeted threat and was bothered that he couldn't voice his views without being personally attacked.

"Especially in a group of elected representatives it is important that people not be threatened for speaking their mind."

Alex S. Myers '00, the transgendered student around whom the U.C. debate was centered, decries the effect of political correctness. Myers says often the real threat in terms of hate speech is self-censorship--what people leave unsaid.

"Who knows how many council members agreed with what was being said [by opponents of the bill] but were just sitting on their hands, inhibited by P.C.-ism?" Myers says. "I think political correctness is an absolute trap in that it doesn't let people say what they want to. The hate just builds up."

At the same time, Myers admits a certain degree of political correctness is necessary for healthy campus debates.

"If this world weren't P.C.," Myers says, "I highly doubt I would be out or be here."

The task for Harvard students seems to be to preserve some semblance of political correctness in campus discussions without falling into the P.C. trap.

Micah Myers contends that the best response to inflammatory or non-P.C. speech is lively debate.

"I think the correct approach for more liberal minded students in the wake of non-politically correct speech is to put their own views out there in the marketplace of ideas," she says.

So how should students walk the fine line between tact and treason--speaking their mind without offending someone they may have to live next door to, eat with or sit by in class?

"I think it's important to be honest but at the same time to be respectful of individuals," says Scott R. Boule, one of the four Kennedy School students who received anonymous hate e-mails after writing an op-ed piece for the Citizen, the Kennedy School's student publication, in support of gay rights.

Boule defended a certain degree of political correctness as shielding minorities from outright persecution.

"I think a lot of times people deride political correctness as a way to brush off diversity issues," says Boule, who has used the e-mail incident as a "springboard to action."

From meetings with the Dean of the Kennedy School to a teach-in immediately following the incident, Boule and other students set a campus-wide example through direct action and an effort to "create forums for discussion"--to lift the veil of political correctness and expose what lies simmering beneath the surface.

"As leaders we need to know how to deal with issues of diversity," says Boule. "It's important at the Kennedy School and at all the schools of the University."

The answer to the P.C. paradox seems to lie in encouraging diversity training, student forums and sensitivity to free speech issues.

Friedman notes "there's definitely an increased awareness to the issue [of hate speech] at Harvard and other Ivy league schools...a sensitivity to the codes of conduct that define political correctness."

By exploring avenues of thoughtful discussion, both students and College administration may follow in the foot-steps--or dare I say surpass--good works begun at the Kennedy School, throwing off the veil of political correctness and exposing both the good and the bad that lies beneath.