Academic Questions  Spring 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2, 36‑45


Heinz-Joachim Klatt

For the last two years I have taught an 8-months senior undergraduate course on Political Correctness in the Psychology Department at King’s College of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario: PSY 383E: Psychology and Ideology - the Study of Political Correctness.  The fact that this course became possible, in the current atmosphere of passionate devotion to the cause of ideological conformity and censorship, is due to a number of particular events and personalities without which the course would never have been approved.

I would like to begin my exposé, in a few strokes, by outlining the pregnancy stage of the course that finally resulted in its birth.  Thereafter, I will describe its infancy and speculate about later developmental stages.  My hope is that this course which is now being taught in a psychology department will soon be offered by many other departments in the country.  It is my further hope that in the not too distant future it will be taught only as a history course and will then be centred on a topic that will have been utterly defeated and relegated to the follies of the embarrassing past.

1.  Three Events that Led to Teaching a Course on PC

Certain aspects of the events that led to the creation of the course are bizarre and basically incomprehensible unless three earlier events are known that set the stage.

The story begins in 1987 when I had a mentally retarded student in my Child Psychology class.  This student, according to her own admission, since the university would not release correspondence or test results, came from a special high school program for the “intellectually impaired” and was admitted as a student with a so-called learning disability. She had decanal permission to enrol in just two courses and she chose Sociology (where she obtained a B) and my course in Child Psychology.  The Disabilities Office requested a number of “accommodations,” i. e., privileges, for her which I was not willing to grant unless I could be convinced that this was not another of the innumerable cases of academic fraud committed in the name of “helping the disabled.”  Matters became complicated and messy when the dean refused, even though the policy requires it, to convene a committee to deal with the matter, when the instructor does not agree to grant the desired privileges.

The student was treated and evaluated as any other; she failed the course; she appealed her mark, and I was pressured to pass her.  Since I did not mollify but rather went public with articles in the press, and later in a scientific journal, as well as on radio, the dean withdrew her from class after she had spent 8 months in class and further 5 months after the final examination.

The very public and protracted debate was strictly about policies and issues rather than personalities; nevertheless the university was thoroughly embarrassed by the exposure of the fact that it admits mentally retarded students under the label of “learning disability,” and it is a matter of debate whether the justifications that were offered in the press by disabilities advisors, by chairman, dean, principal, and university president reduced or increased the embarrassment.  I personally was left, at least among some important segments of the local society, with the reputation of being insensitive and cruel toward the “disabled.”  I had committed a politically most incorrect sin.  Prof. Westhues in his book Eliminating Professors (1998) very ably analyses the role that my exposure of the admission of mentally retarded students to the university played in my later battles with PC on campus.

The debate had not yet ended when the same dean in 1989 interfered in, and thus impeded, my election to the chairmanship of the department.  The meddling was so gross and in blatant violation of our policies that I grieved against him, not to obtain the chairmanship but to restrain a dean who knew no bounds.  The grievance involved an ad hoc committee, faculty association, our national professorial organization, lawyers and the bishop and resulted in a disapproval of the dean’s actions.  Grievances had never been filed against the dean at our college and the dean after his reprimand wisely decided not to stand for a renewal of his first-term contract.  I had by now established my reputation as a PITA (Pain in the Ass), as Prof. Westhues calls dissenters.

In 1991, finally, the grievance procedures were still in full swing and the faculty was very divided over the issue, when I was accused by four women students of having sexually harassed them in my Child Psychology class.  The same letter that informed me of the charges also contained the judgment of guilt and announced the establishment of a tribunal that would determine the punishment which, I was told, could be a written reprimand for the file and dismissal.  That the accusations were taken seriously is understandable, if at all, only in light of the previous battles which were fought with the same warriors.

Every one of the following charges, before I was even informed of their existence, was judged by the Harassment Advisors as a ”serious form of sexual harassment”: I.    I had said that the first menstruation of a young girl, in its emotional significance, is comparable to the first sitting up of a child and to the first day in school.
II.    I expressed my view that genital mutilation of non-consenting victims is abhorrent.
III.    I was accused of evaluating women more harshly than men, in a class, by the way, in which there was only one single male student, who ironically did quite badly.
IV.    The most grievous transgression that I was guilty of, however, was the fact that I had called a student, Lucrecia, by her nickname “Lucky Lucy.”  Lucrecia used the moniker herself when signing and appreciated the fact that I occasionally used the familiar form, and she passionately and in tears defended me during the proceedings.  It was other women students (with an average of 55%) who claimed that they felt I had created a “negative psychological environment” for them which prevented them from studying.

These accusations, which should not have taken more than perhaps half an hour of administrators’ time, were taken most seriously in an atmosphere of moral panic, zero tolerance for sexual harassment and acrimony over the previous battles.  In a process of unbelievable lawlessness and arbitrariness I was first judged guilty, then informed and investigated, and after another two years of highly unpleasant procedures exonerated and compensated, if money and a year’s paid leave of absence can be considered compensation commensurate with the indignities suffered.  Although I had signed away my rights to sue the institution, the administrators and the mendacious students, I did not receive an apology.

During the 2 years of rehabilitation (on March 9, 93) King’s College received an unsolicited letter from Professor Richard Henshel from the Sociology Department of the university who, informed through the press, expressed how “shocked and horrified” he was about the procedures that “lacked even the most elementary standards of fair play.”  In particular, he insisted that “sanctions must be implemented to deter frivolous or malicious claims.”  As most of you will know, this support was the beginning of a short-lived friendship that was terminated by Professor Henshel’s untimely death of cancer, my administration of his estate and the underwriting of this conference by NAS, the major beneficiary of his last will.

2.  The Creation of a Course on Political Correctness

After the dust had settled at my university and I was advised by family and friends to be grateful for the compensation, in 1999, I decided to take the second step to fight the malignancy.  Knowing full well the traps, barriers, cliffs and vortices that I would have to face I judged that I had gained enough immunity, respect and savvy through my earlier battles that I could dare it.  Thus I proposed a new course to my department: Psychology and Ideology - the Study Political Correctness.  The course proposal made it through the usual committees with merely one irregularity, i. e., some parts of the debate, to which I was not privy, without any precedent were held in camera.  PC was given the status of a person that could be commented on only behind closed doors, a sign of the times!

As soon as the course was approved to be taught for the first time from September 2000 to April 2001, I informed the National Post, one of the three big national daily papers in Canada.  The endorsement was enthusiastic and became the first of a long series of more endorsements in other papers and the topic of many lengthy radio interviews between Vancouver and the BBC in London.  Merely one published commentary was negative, the one that came from the Women’s Caucus of the University of Western Ontario.  The complaint was that there was no need for such a course since all the issues to be discussed were already well covered in many existing courses, especially in Sociology and Women’s Studies.  When later I invited the Women’s Caucus President and Vice-President to come to my class to present their views the invitation was declined.

Why was the course approved since neither college nor university was under any legal or contractual obligation?  I see five facts as allowing PC to become an academic subject matter:

1. First of all, we had a new dean and a new principal.
2. Further, the prerequisites for enrolling, against my wishes, were determined in such a fashion that only very few students would qualify to enrol.  Limited enrolment makes the breakthrough of offering a course on PC less dramatic and important.
3. I assume, as well, that my anticipated retirement in 2004 was taken into account thus promising that the course would not remain on the books after that date.
4. However, who knows, perhaps I have persuaded someone to accept the idea that PC indeed is a worthwhile academic subject matter that requires analysis, debate and evaluation.
5. Finally, I am personally convinced that those who voted were mindful of the fact that however they decided there would be lots of publicity and media attention, positive in case of approval, negative in case of rejection.  This speculation proved to be true.  All the publicity was very positive and encouraging.

One particular fact about the public debate I found especially revealing and noteworthy.  Over and over, the university was told, even lectured about, by editorialists, journalists, students and other citizens in the letter sections what the importance of freedom of expression and of academic freedom is.  What irony!  Professors appear to have lost their moorings in the muddy and smelly waters of PC and need to be told by the non-academic world what the mandate of the university is.

3.  PC as an Academic Subject Matter
a. Dilemma

What is special about teaching a course on Political Correctness?
The most obvious dilemma is posed by the fact that virtually everything that has to be said in such a course is politically incorrect and brings the instructor in conflict with laws and regulations from which he cannot opt out.  In my particular case - but the internal policies resemble each other like eggs - I am subject to the following codes:

1. The Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures (1991) state that I must not engage in any “repeated behaviour, verbal or physical, that, by denigrating an individual or group on the basis of sexual orientation or gender [sic], interferes with the academic or work environment” (4, d).
2. The Race Relations Policy (1994) states that I must not “engag[e] in a course of comment or conduct of a racially oriented nature that is vexatious and is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome” (4.02).
Nota bene, “The term “race” is understood by the University to refer to “race, ancestry, place of origin, color, and ethnic origin” (p. 9).
3. The Human Rights Code (1995) states that I must not “engag[e] in a course of vexatious comment or conduct that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome” (10[1]).

The dilemma, as can readily be seen, consists of having to dissect, analyse and criticise empirical facts about social groups and social policies affecting these groups and, in doing so, having to navigate around the verbiage of “verbal behavior,” “denigrating,” “gender,” “interference,” “environment,” “vexatious,” “comment,” “unwelcome.”  A fortiori, an instructor in a course on PC “ought reasonably to know” what possibly is “unwelcome” to some students of “color,” “race” and “place of origin.”  If some instructors might have an excuse for not knowing, a professor of PC cannot expect leniency and understanding, he “ought to know”!  Whereas most professors, for ex., may be forgiven for not knowing that because my “place of origin” is Germany I belong to a different “race” than those from England, specialists in PC are expected to be enlightened by our contemporary distinctions and will not be forgiven for not knowing.  It is apparent that someone teaching a course on PC is particularly vulnerable.

What is the solution to the problem that consists of teaching a curriculum that in its entirety and for countless reasons is apt to make a great variety of people feel “unwelcome”?  The situation does not make me think so much of Ulysses who merely had to avoid Scylla and Charybdis but of someone who risks being gobbled up by one of hundreds of whirlpools.

In order to protect me from persecutions by PC tribunals I took two measures and, in addition, benefited from two circumstances that were mostly beyond my control.

b. Precautions

The most important protection, I judged, was to treat the subject matter of PC as any other academic topic and to teach the course as I would teach any other.  Opposing views are offered, free debate is encouraged, censorship and self-censorship are frowned upon.  Judgments are made on the basis of empirical data and logic.  The course is not taught as the academic arm of a political movement that pursues a social or political agenda (such as the empowerment of women or blacks) other than to bring rationality into the debate about issues that are systematically avoided in other courses.

A particular problem was posed by the need to compile a reading list that does justice to the most diverse views and that takes into consideration the limitation that was imposed when the course was approved: Only psychology students enrolled in the honours program could be admitted and the readings had to reflect that limitation.  Even within these constraints it would be easy to create a list of books and articles that covers the entire spectrum of viewpoints with original publications, but such a list would be unmanageable with today’s students even in a whole-year course.  After all, the course in question is only one course, and not one on feminism, one on sexual politics, on multiculturalism and diversity, on affirmative action, freedom of speech, etc..

The second step that I took to reduce the chances of being indicted by the thought and language police of the Equity Office was to write an exordium that goes beyond an introduction in that it requires the students not just to acknowledge its stipulations but to agree with them before they sign up.  At first sight it appears perhaps odd that in a course on PC where intellectual diversity is sought and encouraged I insist on agreement before even the studying begins.  What is it that I want my students to accept before they sign up?

First of all, I want the students to know what they are getting into.  To this end, in much greater detail than in any conventional Course Outline I define the notion of PC and outline the topics to be covered.  But then I explain academic freedom, characterize it as a duty (and necessity) rather than as a privilege of professor and student, and express “my strong hope that none of you will ever even consider invoking a harassment policy against anybody else in order to muzzle someone, to vent frustration, or get even, to wreak havoc or to be vengeful.  Have the decency to resolve disagreements and to mute bad feelings through dialogue, open or private, rather than through accusations and incriminations” (2000, 11).  I further inform them that tolerance is expected of them and respect for those who formulate “offensive” thoughts.  Lastly, I explain that, in my view, the “professor’s obligation is toward accuracy, appropriate restraint in judgment, respect for the opinions of others, and tact and courtesy, but not toward ‘feeling good.’  There is no obligation, nor is it desirable, to make everyone comfortable.  I emphatically reject considering the students’ feelings as the criterion for establishing what constitutes improper behavior of the professor and what constitutes a ‘hostile environment’” (2000, 11).

c. Circumstances

In addition to these 2 precautions that I took, I benefited from 2 circumstances that were largely beyond my control: Self-selection of the students and my imagined or real immunity.

So far students who have signed up were only those genuinely interested in the topic and who had no axe to grind.  There were no spies, agents provocateurs or emissaries from the campus temples of PC in class.  However, at the beginning of class in September most students saw the preference for eating beef as equivalent to the preference for eating human flesh, the difference merely being one of taste.  As some prefer tulips to roses, others prefer roses to tulips and de gustibus non est disputandum, therefore there is not much room for debate.  Apparently an entire generation of our students has swallowed wholesale the principles of cultural relativism and moral equivalence, and the better students are not those who know better but who are willing to listen to counterarguments. However, even with an elite group it is an uphill battle to defeat the dogma that the abdication of reasoning and non-judgmentalism are the most important moral principles.

In addition to the favorable self-selection of the students, the fact that further protected me from vexatious and malicious accusations was my imagined or real immunity.  I like to believe that my previous battles with the administration and students have made all potential warriors more cautious.

d. Definition of PC

PC was defined in the following terms:

PC is a canon of orthodoxies and prohibitions.  It is a set of claims that society today does not readily allow to be questioned.  It has characteristics of a secular religion, is motivated by resentment and strives to establish a radically egalitarian society.”

PC is adamant in the promulgation of its “correct” creed, enforces adherence through censorship, the control of language and, in particular, the use of epithets (such as “racist,” “sexist”) that are designed to bring controversies and debates to an end.  So-called (sexual and racial) harassment policies that function as speech codes are the prime vehicle for the enforcement of PC in that they do not allow anything to be said that creates “discomfort” or a “hostile or poisonous environment.”  The resulting self-censorship is so effective that no overt censorship is necessary to enforce conformity.

Its champions typically claim to be “liberals” although it is difficult to see how someone who insists on being correct and exercises censorship can call himself a “liberal.”

As in any religion and ideology, PC has its heretics, those who are “politically incorrect,” who are to be vilified and shunned and not allowed on institutional committees.

PC has its particular code of ethics that is grounded in the notions of “equity” and “diversity.”  “Equity” refers to the commandment that every organization, private and public, reflect the sexual composition of society, except those in which women dominate by their numbers.  “Diversity” refers to the commandment that every organization, private and public, reflect the racial composition of society.  In paradoxical fashion it is argued that all races are equal and can contribute equally to society and ergo that we need representatives of all races everywhere because “diversity is our strength.”  The government finances and supervises the social engineering, rewards compliance and punishes disobedience.  The Human Rights Commissions excommunicate the heretics.

Because of its illiberal fanaticism, PC espouses zero tolerance policies which inter alia allow schools to suspend four-year-old boys, who kiss three-year-old girls, from kindergarten for “sexual harassment.”  Zero tolerance policies, as well, permit schools to suspend children, because of their “violence,” who click their fingers in imitation of a gun, and it is zero tolerance policies that prohibit the children’s game of musical chairs because it supposedly promotes aggression.  It is because of this fanaticism that the enforcement of PC very often is tragi-comical and lends itself to satire and even entertainment.

Many manifestations of PC are so absurd and laughable that one finds it difficult to distinguish reality from a cabaret.  When in Stockholm in the year 2000, I learned that a feminist group at the university is campaigning to ban all urinals and that some schools have already dismantled the contraption.  The PC argument is that standing up is “degrading to women,” a “nasty macho gesture” that suggests male violence, a gesture, it may be added, that women are never supposed to witness!  PC prohibits ethnic, sexual, racial and other jokes, but has unwillingly become a laughing stock itself.  Somehow humor and wit find a way to survive.  If PC is on the defensive today it is not so much because it has been proven wrong but because it has been mocked, derided and ridiculed profusely for its absurdities and pettiness (“blanched paper” for “white paper;” “hole” for “manhole;” “Amen” verboten because it excludes women!).

Very central is the dogma that all but white, able-bodied men are “victims” and therefore entitled to special considerations in employment and education.  As “victims” they have greater credibility in courts and tribunals and are entitled to be treated “unequally,” i. e., with special “sensitivity.”  An elaborate grievance growth industry with armies of experts, consultants and advisors assists the “victims” and “survivors” to take advantage of the benefits that our “sensitive” and “multicultural” society has to offer to those who feel hurt.

With Nietzschean contempt for Western culture and civilization, PC rejects essential elements of scientific methods of investigation, rationality and the notion of progress and espouses “alternative modes” of thinking.  The “method” of the “feminist lens,” adopted by the Canadian Panel on Violence against Women (1993), is a prime example of this postmodern relativism.  In postmodern fashion, “correct” in PC does not refer to facts but to attitudes, to comportments that bring about utopian perfection.

Finally, and with great irony, the adepts of PC insist that there is no such phenomenon, that PC is a prevarication of dark reactionary forces and a myth created by those who wish to keep women and racial minorities in subordinate places.

e. Course Content

PC, similar to Marxism and feminism, is an ideology and not a scientific discipline.  As such it gives direction and purpose to political and to private life, to the courts, and, above all, to academia, in particular, to the humanities and the social sciences.  The formal and natural sciences, however, are not immune either, as “ethnomathematics” and “physics from a feminist perspective” and “physics for girls” demonstrate.

PC, being the secular religion that it is with its venomous tentacles permeating all institutions of society, would have its legitimate place in many academic departments and disciplines.  What topics should be covered will largely depend upon the department that offers the course.  Independent of the academic department, however, the following subject matters should be incorporated in any case:

1. Principles and mechanisms of PC: censorship and self-censorship; speech codes; intimidation by policies, tribunals, forced reeducation; hate laws; infantilization of students by the university in loco parentis; PC terrorism;

2. Principles and values that are threatened by PC: freedom of expression and academic freedom; the merit principle in hiring and promotion; the principle of equality before the law; individual rights and responsibilities;

3. Faddish, pseudoscientific follies: postmodernism, alternative, intuitive science; cultural relativism; moral equivalence; victimology; “hurt feeling” movement; multiculturalism.

In a psychology course on PC, some of the following topics should be included: multiple personality (DID); repressed and recovered memories; child abuse; “war against girls,” “violence against women,” “sexual harassment,” “date rape” and pornography; homosexuality, pedophilia; self-esteem and learning disabilities; the myth of the noble savage; social conformity.

 4. Conclusion

Political correctness has become part of our culture and continues to shape people’s thoughts; it continues to determine how they speak, how judges adjudicate, how professors allow their academic freedom to be curtailed, and whom universities admit.  Even respectable and thoughtful people argue in favor of affirmative action because they see progress in more minority members being admitted to universities and businesses at whatever price.  Highly politicized women’s courses are being taken for granted.  Students continue to be given extraordinary privileges in competitive examinations on the grounds that they “suffer” from some fictitious “learning disability.”  The highly politicized term “gender” has largely replaced the only meaningful term “sex” as when men and women are counted and the distribution is called the “gender distribution.”  Even in the better journals, expressions such as “Everybody has their own opinion” and “the child sits on their own chair” have become commonplace and do not raise eyebrows anymore.

There is a continuing need to reflect upon these practices and to introduce students to the issues in a thoughtful and critical manner; in short, it is imperative to teach courses on political correctness.

1. Kenneth Westhues, Eliminating Professors: A Guide to the Dismissal Process (Queenston: Kempner Collegium, 1998).
2. Heinz Klatt, Psychology and Ideology - the Study of Political Correctness, 2 volumes (London, Ont.: University of Western Ontario, 2000).
3. Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, Changing the Landscape: Ending Violence - Achieving Equality (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services - Canada, 1993).

Note: This paper is adapted from remarks delivered at a conference, cosponsored by the New York Association of Scholars, titled "Academic Freedom and Intellectual Pluralism: U. S. and Canadian Perspectives." The conference took place at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY, on 21 and 22 September 2002.
Heinz-Joachim Klatt is professor of Psychology at King's College, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, e-mail: Klatt.

Return to Academic Freedom Page