Recently, rumors have surfaced regarding the implementation of systems through which students can anonymously report professors and preceptors for comments that they deem offensive and discriminatory. Articles published in The Daily Princetonian posit that a system proposed by the Council of the Princeton University Community would publish reports of discrimination. According to The Daily Princetonian, examples of the type of offensive speech the measure is trying to counter include a preceptor who asked students to talk about their relationship to slavery and a professor who criticized recent protests regarding Ferguson. Thankfully, Provost David Lee GS ’99 has denied these rumors. While making all students comfortable in the classroom is a worthy goal, attempting to punish our teachers for speech that may arbitrarily be considered offensive is not a good way to achieve this result.
The mere perception of offense is no justification for punishing those who respectfully espouse a viewpoint. Instituting an anonymous system that would allow students to report comments they dislike increases the likelihood of undesirable and unnecessary self-censorship; professors and preceptors will not be as willing to express their views if they know that they could be shamed publically if a student responds negatively to their comments. Someone could, for example, find opposition to affirmative action racially insensitive and report it, which would encourage public shaming even if it does not lead the university to take official action. Similarly, one could be reported for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage because it is seen as offensive and discriminatory to the LGBT community. Although these positions, if conveyed through civil discourse, are perfectly valid political views, they would nevertheless be subject to reporting.
The mere perception of offense by a listener is no grounds for punishing a speaker. For example, I consider myself a Republican. Professors often make very derogatory comments about Republicans and make it clear that they dislike the views of conservative students and politicians. I find these comments offensive because I believe that they are a misunderstanding of conservatism and because I feel that the professor is judging me as a person and will not take my views seriously in class. However, just because I am offended by a comment does not mean that the person who made the comment should be publically shamed, reported, or punished. Their view is part of a legitimate debate (in this case, the value of conservatism) even if that view offends me and makes me uncomfortable. Instead, the appropriate response would be to let the professor know why his comments have made me uncomfortable and why he should reconsider his opinion. Admittedly many students will have understandable misgivings about confronting a professor with allegations of bias or offensive. In this case, students should speak with preceptors or relevant departmental officials. Unlike the proposed system, this is unlikely to lead to self-censorship, as it would not include public shaming or an official report.
Some may counter that the system will not lead to censorship because only discriminatory comments will be reported. However, the examples sighted in the Daily Princetonian article indicate that it is very likely that comments that could seem offensive to some but are not necessarily discriminatory will get reported. A preceptor asking about students’ relationship to slavery may offend one student, but the preceptor may have been getting at a broader theme and may not have intended to make anybody uncomfortable. A professor criticizing protests may have legitimate reasons for expressing his views, and it is certainly acceptable to debate what the best ways to institute societal changes. The problem with an anonymous system is that the term “offensive comment” is extremely broad and inherently subjective.
In a diverse society, it is virtually impossible to find an issue that everyone agrees on. Even generally acceptable ideas that do not seem controversial—such as the normative superiority of democracy to autocracy—surely have their critics. This means that it is likely that someone will disagree with nearly any viewpoints expressed in a classroom. If the viewpoint is personal enough or hits too close to home, it is not just a disagreement, it is offensive and will be reported, especially if it is an unpopular opinion.
While it is important for all of us to be sensitive to the different experiences of those around us, political correctness and censorship often do more harm than good. When someone asks a minority student a perfectly legitimate question, they are often answered with a snarky comment like “educate yourself” or “check your privilege.” But what does “educate yourself” even mean? Does it mean going online and looking up information about the question the person asked about? Does it mean adopting a specific viewpoint or reading books on history and culture? Even if a person does all those things, they are likely to encounter secondhand interpretations of events, which are not exactly conducive to learning about other cultures.
As a Hispanic woman with a disability, I find that I have the most productive discussions with people when they ask questions that may be considered politically incorrect and offensive; like whether I was born blind, how much I can see, how I use a computer without looking at the screen, and how I access academic materials. After I answer these questions, people often say that they are much more knowledgeable than they were before, that they feel more comfortable interacting with me, that they feel they understand me better, and that they are much more aware of my experiences and struggles as a legally blind person. Instead of discussing my blindness, I could respond by reporting others for making comments insensitive to people with disabilities, but that would be unproductive; others would continue harboring the same misconceptions they originally held.
Even if I do hear an offensive comment every so often, I usually explain why the comment was offensive, and the person apologizes. Most people do not say offensive things because they harbor prejudices against the blind. Instead, they simply do not realize that they are acting offensively. Now consider if I instead reported others for their offensive comments. Depending on the logistics of the reporting system, they could be notified by the University or placed on a list. Such a system would discourage others from asking legitimate and important questions about my disability for fear of being branded “ableist.” If I reported the person, they would feel guilty, confused, and may not even understand what they have done wrong—if anything.
There is only so much one can learn from books and classes. In order to truly understand others’ cultures and viewpoints, personal interaction is necessary. This is why diversity is valuable to the University to some extent. There is clearly immense educational value in asking others about their experiences, even if doing so may be offensive to some. The preceptor who asks an African American student about his relationship to slavery may be trying to stimulate discussion about the lasting cultural and economic impacts of centuries of servitude. The professor who condemns same-sex marriage in front of gay or lesbian students may simply be attempting to force her pupils to evaluate counterarguments to their deeply held beliefs.
With this in mind, I return to the blindness example. If I were to report a preceptor for questions I deemed offensive, I would do nothing to help clear away misconceptions. I would leave the preceptor more confused than before. Not only has he failed to learn about blindness, but he is also now unsure why this behavior was considered offensive. Making him feel guilty for asking questions does nothing to increase understanding and dialogue. In fact, I often find that people who are not willing to ask me questions do more harm than good, because they never learn how to interact with me. They’ve never encountered a legally blind person before, they do not know how to react, and they think it is offensive to ask any questions, so they go on living their lives just as confused as they were before our interaction. Such people usually avoid talking to me or getting too close, because they don’t know how to react and think it is not acceptable to ask any questions. When extended to more salient issues such as the experiences and discriminations faced by racial and sexual minorities, this unwillingness to ask questions impedes learning about vital societal problems.
While genuine discrimination and bigotry undeniably exist and should be strongly condemned, many legitimate questions will be reported under the rumored system. Simply put, some people are just over-sensitive and will be offended by perfectly innocuous statements; except in extreme circumstances, there is little speech that can objectively be characterized as offensive and unacceptable. Anonymously condemning well-intentioned questions reflects a dangerous laziness to have a real conversation and does nothing to combat existing stereotypes. Instead of trying to silence people by censoring their views, we should encourage everyone to respectfully express their thoughts. In doing so, we, as a society, can counter others’ comments with dialogue, eliminate hidden misperceptions, and condemn speech that truly reflects prejudice and discrimination. Personal conversations will not solve all of society’s problems, but encouraging people to feel comfortable asking questions and having an open dialogue will do more to eliminate stereotypes than will political correctness, censoring, silencing or shaming genuine curiosity.
Sofia Gallo is a sophomore from New York City majoring in the Politics Department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.