Considering political correctness: Queen’s and the collapse of clear thinking

By Cam Cotton-O\’Brien

While the University of Calgary has been grappling with the incredible test of free speech posed by Campus Pro-Life, Queen’s University has been busy committing much more egregious offences in the name of political correctness. Queen’s has decided to hire and train six students as conversation facilitators to wander around residence and listen in on conversations to ensure political correctness. While this may seem to some a positive step in the direction of tolerance, it is in fact a twisted plan that will stifle the all-too-necessary freedom of speech, invade privacy and undermine the very goal they have set out to accomplish.

By monitoring the private conversations of students, Queen’s is dangerously eroding their freedom. There is something inherently wrong with imposing outside sanctions on such intimate conversations. Excepting, perhaps, an individual’s diary entries, private discussions are closer to an individual’s own thoughts than anything else. As such, having an outside monitor of these discussions is one of the most corrosive invasions of privacy possible. For this reason alone, Queen’s decision is reprehensible. But the problem runs much deeper.

Ignoring for a moment the scary Orwellian nature of this program, it is apparent that its practical application would encounter serious difficulties. Though there are certain words and phrases commonly accepted as offensive or hateful, there are sure to be other words, generally deemed harmless, that will be considered offensive to some individual or group. Indeed, almost anything could be construed as offensive to someone. This being the case, it is hard to decide exactly what should be censored. The decision of what words were unacceptable would become political, necessarily elevating some groups above others (unless, of course, everything one said would be subject to inquisition). Further, it would be entirely arbitrary. At some point the decision of exactly where the line between what is politically correct and not would need to be made. As there is no clear place for this line, given the different offences that different individuals would find in different words and phrases, it would have to be randomly placed. This is not defensible as a coherent policy to adopt.

Most importantly, this asinine policy actually undermines the very thing that Queen’s is presumably trying to emphasize with it– tolerance. Instead of refraining from offensive or hateful statements because they recognize it is unnecessary or wrong, individuals would be doing so simply because that is what they were told. By imposing these sanctions, Queen’s is robbing the choice not to say such things of any actual content. It is now a matter of blindly following the rules, which can have no moral worth.

Instead of imposing sanctions upon individuals caught saying offensive things, it would be much wiser to continue approaching the issue through education. A public campaign to make students aware of the concerns that may arise from careless or malicious speech would far better serve the cause of tolerance. Not only would this allow students privacy, but it would restore the decision of what to say to them, thereby giving students the capacity to exercise their own judgement instead of reducing them to the meaningless practice of unthinking adherence to the rules. Students should be given the means to decide what is appropriate in what context. When they transgress these bounds, if there is a real concern, then their peers should be the ones to tell them that they have done so. This would be a much more thoughtful mechanism for the proper practice of tolerance and tact.

Particularly at a university this type of program should be rejected out of hand. It is one of the most radically inept policies to be articulated on a Canadian campus in a long time. Queen’s needs to give its students the responsibility they need to develop into responsible adults.

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