Being offensive is today's cardinal sin

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Someone from a group of trainee FE teachers recently remonstrated with me for using the term "brain-storming". It was claimed, without any evidence, that the phrase was offensive to people with epilepsy. It was better to refer to "board blasting", until, as we can imagine, some pacifist FE lecturer or manager objects to the militaristic implications of that term and denounces the denouncers as verbal imperialists.

The absurdity of this and the lists of proscribed phrases and words that FE colleges produce is merely the trivial aspect of political correctness in FE. Tut-tutting when people use words such as "chairman" or "handicapped" or "master" copy or "slave" drive is an irritating substitution of etiquette for a serious concern with addressing and discussing social issues.

The idea may be that if we change the language the problem will seem to have gone away. It is difficult even to make fun of the speech codes that now appear in course handbooks and in college guidelines. We have lost the sense of the ludicrous that should embarrass us when, for example, we refer to someone as a "chair". For the most part, however, PC is manifested not in silly or uncomfortable reactions to mad proscriptions but in silent acquiescence.

PC has become mainstream, and FE is the most PC sector of education. This is why some authorities on PC note that there is no serious debate about PC in Britain, unlike the United States, where there is an on-going discussion about PC that shows little sign of ending.

Even Michael Howard found it hard to get a debate going about PC because he is as PC as the next person. The Tory party has often demonstrated its PC credentials by criticising and disciplining members who can't mind their language at dinner parties. PC is manifested not in proscriptions and silliness but in a refusal to discuss and debate. There are now certain values that everyone must adhere to or they are beyond the pale.

"Diversity" and "inclusiveness" are two shibboleths. Suggest that celebrating diversity might be more divisive and racist than earlier forms of racism because it naturalises difference and sets accidental cultural differences in stone, and you will give offence. Suggest that inclusiveness is objectionable as a value as it simply avoids judgement about right and wrong, and you will give offence.

Being offensive is today's cardinal sin. Students and lecturers, particularly in the caring and social services, have learned this lesson.

The challenge they make when presented with critical or different ideas, is always one that expresses a personal slight or hurt: "I find what's being said difficult, uncomfortable, unacceptable". It is a vicarious pain expressed on behalf of some vulnerable group of whom the speaker is usually not a member.

For the PC, concern with giving offence is an expression of a culture of victimhood. Lecturers see their students, and sometimes their fellow lecturers, as potential victims who need protection. But protection from what? From the vigorous debate that should be the essence of these, the caring and professional courses. Can this really be the case?

Many colleges have strict proscriptions on bigotry and proselytising by staff and students. As it will be hard to differentiate between real extremism and strong opinions, such proscriptions create a climate of conformity and compliance. Lecturers will keep their bigoted views and, worse still, these views, by being silenced, are put beyond criticism.

Of course, it will be argued that students are vulnerable to the views of "powerful" lecturers who can intimidate them and even threaten their marks.

It has been argued that lecturers must ensure that their students are "not exposed to the views of racists".

This is pure PC mollycoddling. Students are viewed as vulnerable children who must be protected by not even being allowed to hear potentially offensive beliefs and opinions. These are not the FE students that I know.

When I asked students from a local college what they would do if they had a proselytising and clearly racist lecturer, they were not cowed by "lecturer power". One of them, Kirsty, said that she'd "Have a go!" Even if it got her into trouble? She'd have a go.

What PC does is pretend there is a consensus by killing debate and free speech because they may hurt the supposedly vulnerable. By accepting the culture of victimhood, lecturers are adopting a demeaning attitude to their students. Students are thought to be incapable of standing up to bigots and arguing with them.

Such an attitude, of course, undermines any possibility of their winning arguments and becoming confident and courageous. This used to be what lecturers sought to achieve but not any more. Now that PC has become mainstream, students will feel more comfortable and safe dealing with racist lecturers by reporting them on a confidential rat line for violating a speech code and then going for counselling to deal with their fears, rather than engaging them in open debate.

This is just the beginning and the PC future for FE is truly frightening.

Our choice is between FE colleges infected by an atmosphere more conducive to the activities of fearful sneaks, and one that promotes open debate with all its dangers, and has Kirsty and her fellow students as a model. I, for one, am with the Kirstys of this world.

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