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Pedagogy 4.2 (2004) 191-214
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The Limits of PC Discourse:
Linking Language Use to Social Practice
Marlia E. Banning
References to political correctness (PC) are so common that it is difficult to get through a day without hearing or reading the term.1 It is typically used without elaboration and with a familiarity implying that it refers to something that the speaker and listeners already know well—it inhabits the space of common sense. Yet it has been only in the last decade or so that the discourse of political correctness has gained momentum and a kind of canonical status, crossing from countercultural to mainstream use and increasingly making appearances in the university arena.
The term is regularly deployed in the upper-division writing courses that I teach, in which I ask students to critically examine contemporary issues introduced by a wide variety of practical, popular, and persuasive texts. Course materials draw attention to the routine practices of assent and dissent in debates of public interest, to the ways power is enacted in U.S. society and across nations, and, more broadly, to questions of social justice in these courses. My aim is to create a forum in which students can speak openly and develop critical communicative capacities.
In these classes, invariably some students will invoke political correctness, and when it is introduced, it is often with a certainty and finality that suggests that discussion is over. The mere utterance of the term, in other words, announces closure and may, in fact, halt further analysis and discussion. This power to foreclose classroom discussion galvanized my interest in the discourse of political correctness. [End Page 191]
My aim in this piece is to analyze the discursive limits that the discourse of political correctness2 places on those classrooms that are designed to examine critically contemporary issues of popular culture and the public sphere. Ultimately, I am concerned with the impact of the discourse on composition classrooms dealing with questions of social justice and public debate, and, more broadly, with the question of what role rhetoric and writing courses could play in preparing students for civic engagement.
It is nearly impossible to teach in the humanities without being positioned somewhere along "the culture wars" continuum, the heightened contest occurring in and over the cultural arena in the recent decade. Courses addressing topics overtly identified as political and debatable across popular opinion and mainstream media, such as the upper-division writing courses I teach, are likely to be directly embroiled in the debates framed by a discourse of political correctness. To illustrate how PC can shape class discussion, let me offer some typical classroom exchanges in which political correctness might be referenced, using for example an upper-division expository writing course that I have been teaching for the past few years titled "Public Discourse, Popular Culture, and Everyday Life."
This course is offered at Kent State University and consists predominantly of white students, many of whom identify themselves as working class and who offer information that suggests their self-description is accurate. These students report that their mothers are steadily employed as factory or restaurant workers, or marginally employed elsewhere in the service sector. They also report that their fathers are firefighters, police officers, or work (or have worked) in a factory or local steel mill. I ask students in the course to write a series of short papers based on their reading of texts that include scholarly articles and the Sunday New York Times. I usually include a didactic and controversial film, bell hooks: Cultural Criticism and Transformation. In the film, hooks critiques the media, capitalism, white supremacy, and sexism as central in organizing relations of power in U.S. society and argues that students should read the media and everyday world critically. Students also write a longer research paper based on an issue of their choosing.
During class discussions, it is typical for some students to dismiss as "politically correct" those texts that raise issues of representation; focus on race, class, or gender; that question stereotypes; critically analyze popular...