Sixty eight percent of respondents to a recent survey conducted by a class taught by Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz indicated that they believe that political correctness is a ‘problem at Bowdoin currently.’
The respondents represented an even distribution of class years and genders, and were numerous enough to represent the broader Bowdoin community.
Students’ individual definitions of political correctness vary, but the survey indicates that students are unhappy about the level of political correctness on campus. Some students the Orient spoke with argued for political correctness, while others said that it has become difficult to voice a minority opinion on campus.
“It seems to me that people have this idea that there is this pervasive force among Bowdoin students that is the language police,” said James Jelin ’16, who writes a column for the Orient. “And if you say anything that doesn’t gel with the currents of appropriateness that you’re suddenly going to be exiled from the Bowdoin community.”
The survey also asked about Cracksgiving and the Inappropriate Party, two recent events that have sparked discussion about the necessity of political correctness. Twenty seven percent of respondents approved of the way the College handled Cracksgiving, 47 percent did not approve, and 25 percent felt they did not have enough information to say. Thirty eight percent of respondents indicated that “students in Ladd House unfortunately caved to pressure from Res Life,” 17 percent believe the Ladd house residents “made the right call,” 37 percent said that they “see the merits of both sides” and eight percent said that they did not have enough information to decide.
Director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity Kate Stern feels that the limited discussion surrounding these events is the bigger issue.
“I think people use the term political correctness like a stop sign and then we don’t go past that,” Stern said. “We don’t talk about what the impact was of Cracksgiving on our Native American students. We just talk about the administration being politically correct. But we’re not getting to that next step.”
Yet many students, divided on whether political correctness is a necessary roadblock, find it difficult to get to this next step. Since Cracksgiving and the cancellation of the Inappropriate Party, students have debated whether political correctness protects people or stifles them, or whether it does both.
“[I think it’s] everyone’s responsibility to engage in conversation and to promote a space where political correctness doesn’t inhibit, but also protects those it is meant to protect,” Michelle Kruk ’16 said. “I don’t think that being politically correct necessarily means censorship.”
Debate about Yik Yak mirrors the debate about political correctness, particularly in regards to censorship. Some believe that Yik Yak provides a platform for students to speak their minds freely and voice potentially unpopular opinions.
“People feel more inclined to speak their minds when you don’t have to sign your name after it. If you feel comfortable speaking up for yourself there, then I would say go for it,” said Ned Wang ’18.
Stern agreed that the lower stakes of anonymous forums can make them attractive to students.
“I think part of the PC backlash—which I agree with—is that if we just don’t say it because we’re not allowed to say it, it doesn’t change how we’re thinking,” Stern said. “That feeling of I can’t say it, but I’m still thinking it, drives the conversation to Yik Yak.”
Some people however, believe that Yik Yak too easily allows for hurtful comments to be made. In a recent column in the Orient, Vee Fyer-Morrel ’15 warned that Yik Yak has led to particularly harmful comments with regard to body image, allowing people to “lash out from behind the anonymous comfort of a screen.”
The anonymity of Yik Yak is lost in the classroom, and some believe that political correctness is a problem there. Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies Tess Chakkalakal encourages “lively debate” in her classes, yet often finds political correctness hindering discussion.
“I think that disagreement, debate, argument, is an important part not only of an academic institution like Bowdoin College but also of a democracy,” Chakkalakal said. “I encourage disagreement and I worry that political correctness forces us to all agree, which I believe, and according to that survey, we do not. We have differences of opinion that I believe should be voiced respectfully—but voiced and not stifled.”
Between Bowdoin Climate Action’s (BCA) sit-ins and the Ferguson die-ins, activists on campus have been busy, and their visibility has perhaps increased attention on issues of open discussion. Some students attributed the problem of political correctness to campus activists.
“I think a lot of the activists on campus are the biggest offenders,” Nick Mansfield ’17 said. “The people who think they are the most liberal, free-thinking people are the most intolerant ones. Most of the ones I’ve encountered have no desire to negotiate or understand the opposing viewpoint at all.”
Mansfield cited hostility toward people who take a pro-life stance as an example of liberal students taking an intolerant position.
“If you’re pro-life at Bowdoin you would get shot down in a hailstorm of bullets,” he said. “No one would really respect that viewpoint even though you’re perfectly entitled to it and you might have your reasons for it.”
Hayley Nicholas ’17 said she believes such a sentiment is a result of a lack of communication on campus.
“I don’t think it’s the activism itself [perpetuating this divide]. It’s the lack of communication,” she said.
Nicholas referred to BCA as an example of a group failing to communicate.
“The only problem that I have with BCA is that they realize that there’s a huge disconnect on campus between students who want to divest and students who don’t, and I feel like they haven’t been trying to bridge that gap,” she said.
Yet Nicholas was careful not to attribute political correctness to activism.
“I think people confuse the terms activism and political correctness,” she said. “They think they’re one and the same.”
Jelin said he thinks the lack of communication can be characterized differently. He believes that campus discussion has become too one sided and that opposing voices are plentiful but simply hesitant to engage.
“I think that all of the people who disagree with this primary dialogue, they’re just not talking about it. Nobody else is writing letters to the editor in the Orient, nobody else is holding rallies,” Jelin said. “I think that there’s this fallacy that everyone at Bowdoin believes these things when really it’s just a small but vocal minority.”
The survey’s results seem to support Jelin’s theory, since the majority of students declared themselves unsatisfied with the current state of discussion. Chakkalakal said that the discourse should be elevated, but not by the administration.
“I don’t think it’s the administration’s responsibility,” Chakkalakal said. “I think it’s the students’. I put it on you.”
Editor's note: The story originally stated that 69 percent of students think that political correctness is a problem at Bowdoin. That number was in fact 68 percent.