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  • Advocacy, Therapy, and Pedagogy
  • John E. MacKinnon
Beyond Political Correctness: Toward the Inclusive University, edited by Stephen Richer and Lorna Weir; 272 pp. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995, $55.00 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Anyone who would doubt the relevance of philosophy to public affairs ought to attend to the unhappy evolution of the Canadian university. On campuses across the country in recent years, speech codes have been introduced, the “re-education” of professors urged, visiting speakers on controversial subjects silenced, and classes monitored by administrators eager to do the bidding of various special interest groups. As universities have come more and more to see their role as that of some sort of multipurpose social project, education itself has become less pressing a priority. Thus, while money is found to hire sexual harassment officers, employment equity advisors and “wellness” mavens, academic posts disappear. Those that remain are frequently filled in accordance with crass gender and race-based quotas, and when that fails to guarantee positions for members of bureaucratically favored groups, contrived “schools” and pseudodisciplines proliferate. Many of these developments, however, are simply the manifestation of trickle-down deconstruction, trickle-down Rortyism, trickle-down “politics of difference,” of the sort that Charles Taylor is prone to rhapsodize. Notions of value, nature and merit, of equality, universality and objectivity are dismissed as mere inventions, “imperial” notions designed to favor the powerful and oppress the disenfranchised. The art [End Page 492] of spoken and written argument, with their ideals of detachment and discipline, are taken as evidence of a smug “androcentrism,” while rationality itself is derided as a “regime” that works “to maintain patriarchal control of knowledge and knowledge production.” Even the notion of evaluating students by means of essays and exams is ridiculed as scandalously “non-feminist.” While past attacks on academic independence have tended to come from outside the university, Canadian academics over the past decade have slavishly accepted their own domestication. More disconcerting still has been the role of pliant university presidents, most of whom have proved eager to unburden themselves of the inconvenience of scholarship and to indulge the cosmological musings of the radical left.

Beyond Political Correctness: Toward the Inclusive University bristles both with resentment that such criticisms should even be aired and paranoia about their motivation. According to its contributors, the challenge to political correctness—the very use of the term as an epithet—is the result of a “neo-conservative” attack that has been orchestrated in and “imported” wholesale from the United States (to morally smug Canadians, there can be no more dastardly provenance) and insinuated into public debate by a servile media. The first two articles in the collection, by Dorothy Smith and Lorna Weir respectively, pursue this very theme. Each betrays that dreary habit, particularly prevalent among social scientists, of rendering imposingly technical the most bracingly trite. For instance, Smith writes: “The textuality of public text-mediated discourse is essential to its peculiar temporal and spatial properties of ubiquity and constancy of replication across multiple and various actual situations of watching, reading, or hearing” (p. 25). Translation? The more one sees, reads or hears a view expressed, the more one tends to believe it’s true. Her concern here, of course, is to establish that whoever controls the means of public debate controls its terms as well, that those means happen to be controlled by neo-conservative interests bent on retarding social progress, and that growing public disquiet about educational reform simply confirms the success of that neo-conservative strategy. But the failure of Smith’s account goes far beyond the thoroughly rebarbative nature of her expression.

According to Smith, the very term, “political correctness,” is shorthand for an “ideological code” that has been expressly designed by “neo-conservatives” to caricature the good works of the visionary left. An ideological code, she says, operates as a “free-floating form of control,” which, once established, is “self-reproducing” (p. 27). Now, [End Page 493] the trouble with this picture is that it can account only for ascendant ideological codes, those that are successfully transmitted and progressively consolidated. And yet, in recent years, the ideological code of the left has to a considerable extent...

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