Inclusivity or Political Correctness? Bridging Polar Perspectives
One of the complex issues that educational institutions are grappling with is how to navigate inclusion in such a manner that all stakeholders feel heard and understood. The idea of opening the curriculum, recruitment, leadership, guest speaker invitations and partnerships to a wide and inclusive range of constituents seems straightforward at face value but it is not.
The Inclusive Position
On one side of the spectrum, progressive voices call for a number of inclusive measures. These start at mainly rhetorical and fairly meek initiatives such as diversity, equity and inclusion statements across the institution; statements of intent on non-discriminatory hiring (equal opportunities); the public recognition of ancestral land ownership (as is the case, increasingly, in Australia) and allowing for gender pronoun identification (for example, signing off with “she/her” or “he/him”).
These progress to more pronounced actions such as active diversity training, affirmative recruitment based on quotas, rethinking cultural and canonical references in the curriculum and zero-tolerance policies on the use of discriminatory language and actions.
Finally, at the extreme of the spectrum, are what could be considered radical positions. These include the no-platforming of speakers and cancelling of public figures with ideological predispositions that are seen as patriarchal and/or racist, the removal of statues and the renaming of place names when there have been historical associations with trans-atlantic slavery and/or colonisation. The more radical expression of inclusion involves political movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too. It is ensconced in postcolonial and postmodern literary and cultural theory, driven by ideas such as those of Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Arundhatii Roy, Helen Cixous, Michael Vavrus, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Chimamanda Ngozo Adiche and Helen Sleeter – to mention but a few.
These voices represent the oppressed in areas of gender, race, sexual orientation and class.The central position here is that knowledge is designed and legitimated by those in power. Therefore, what is presented as socially normal or true should be critiqued since it is actually a discourse of historical privilege and power. Social norms are mere constructs that can and, ultimately, should be subverted.
A question might be, when does inclusion become exclusion? When do acts to redress inequality become oppressive? Is there, as some reactionary philosophers argue, a Marxist, hegemonic stranglehold on American Liberal Arts Colleges preventing healthy open dialogue? Has the imperative to become inclusive turned into political correctness?
The Anti-Political Correctness Guard
At the other side of the spectrum is what could be described as the conservative guard. Espousing Enlightenment notions of freedom of speech and the sanctity of the individual, wishing to preserve a literary and cultural canon that is essentially Greaco-Roman, resisting urges to represent the past differently and suspicious of any affirmative action that might ebb away at purely meritocratic ideals, this group too has moderate and more forceful dimensions to it.
The moderate position is one of gentle conservatism: it remains important to know about Western achievements as these have currency in the world today and should be privileged as “powerful knowledge”; people should be allowed to disagree and no-one should be cancelled or no-platformed, unless, perhaps, they are guilty of hate speech; the best candidate should be chosen irrespective of criteria related to race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
More extreme, there are those who label efforts at inclusion as “political correctness”, a term with a complex history that essentially describes a series of complaints cultural conservatives have with those promoting inclusion. Political Correctness means a type of straightjacket of groupthink whereby anyone who strays from the “right” ideas is ostracised and vilified. There is a fear that if inclusion is too forceful, it will erode freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. Geoffrey Hughes’ study is a scholarly approach to the whole question worth reading.
Finally, at the extremity of this line of thinking, is strident cultural elitism, openly and provocatively suggesting that some cultures are superior to others; pro-colonial discourses on the virtues and benefits of imperialism; anti-immigration rhetoric and action in the name of cultural homogeneity and public stances against transgender identities, communitarianism, and the call to discipline activists through penal force. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are seen as hyperbole, pandering to a coddling of society.
Thinkers that can be loosely categorised in this group include Matthew Arnold, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Harold Bloom, Alan Bloom, Christopher Hitchins, Roger Scruton, ED Hirsch, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray, Theodore Dalrymple and Jordan Peterson. At the risk of oversimplifying these thinkers, we could situate their ideas as lying somewhere in the midst of scientism, biological determinism, robust Enlightenment libertarianism, total intellectual freedom, cultural elitism and unabashed Eurocentrism. The main idea is that critical thinking and intellectual exchange should be free of any curtailment and many minority rights efforts, rather than calling to redress an unequal playing field, are actually disingenuous identity politics where the category comes before the individual, which eats away at the pillars of Western democracy.
Implications for Education
What does all this mean for us on the front line of teaching or leading educational institutions? Debates rage across faculties on which books to teach, whose history, which speakers to platform, how to deal with transgenderism and gender fluidity, especially among young people, and the type of human resource policy that should be put in action.
Our humanity is divided on questions of inclusivity and diversity. The solipsistic nature of social media further anchors this polarity, feeding people with their own predilections.
To open minds, there must be active reflection, empathy and self-doubt, qualities that can and must be developed in schools and universities.
In deciding how to discuss these issues with colleagues or students, I would suggest the following four guiding questions that will allow for fruitful decision making:
- How can we ensure that the knowledge we are imparting to learners is always open to scrutiny and debate?
- How can we ensure that we are not impervious to questions of social justice and that we show sensitivity to multiple perspectives, historically, socially, culturally and personally?
- Is student diversity reflected in faculty diversity? Why or why not?
- How do we ensure that every learner feels included in the learning process?