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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : Surprise! You Can Be Politically Correct and a Critical Thinker, Too

June 30, 1991|Bryan Steele | Bryan Steele, an English major, graduated this month from UC Irvine

IRVINE, CALIF. — Not the least of the joys of summer vacation for college students will be the chance to leave debates over political correctness behind for a few months. But while President George Bush's commencement speech defending free speech against what he views as academic censors is still fresh on our minds, it is important to debate what he said. The President, by joining the issue of free speech with PC, is drawing on rhetorical techniques to defend politically advantageous but otherwise critically unsustainable positions.

There appear to be two basic methods of producing an opinion: the critical and the ideological. A person employing the critical approach attempts to gather information, analyze it and then form an opinion based on that available information. This is what your doctor does when you complain of an ailment. First, he or she takes note of your symptoms, analyzes those symptoms and then bases a conclusion on that analysis.

The ideological approach contrasts with that of the critical thinker. The ideologue, when confronted with new information, is primarily concerned with how this new information will affect old conclusions. Information that supports old ideas is accepted, but information that contradicts old ideas is rejected. It is the ideologue, academia would argue, who is limiting open debate by charging opponents with trying to be politically correct rather than engaging in a critical discussion of the question at hand.

One needs to go no farther than the Catholic Church to find an excellent example of ideological thought. Birth control is a necessary practice in those parts of the world that are experiencing a catastrophic growth in population. Yet the church is not interested in discussing birth control as a means of dealing with this suffering because such information contradicts its old conclusions.

The problem with the ideologue's approach is that both the environment and the available information pertaining to that environment are constantly changing. The church is relying on conclusions, thousands of years old, that were concerned with perpetuating a race in the face of underpopulation.

Today our planet is faced with the serious threat of over-population, yet the church is unable to respond because of its loyalty to old ideas.

Academia rejects the position of the ideologues because they are unwilling to acknowledge all the available information. Ideologues, in turn, attempt to blur the distinction between themselves and academia's critical way of thinking by raising the issue of politically correct speech.

If academia really did use a rigid politically correct standard to determine the worthiness of an idea, that would undermine its own credibility as a critically based institution. If the ideologue can persuade others that academia is following a preconceived agenda of ideas, then the difference between the two is moot. Bandying the term about gives the illusion that academia is the ideological monster it is not.

Universities demand students only argue those opinions that are critically sustainable. It is this demand for critical thinking that differentiates our era from that of Copernicus. In 1512, Western thought was dominated by the church.

The church was so dominant that it was not politically correct at the time to claim that the Earth revolved around the sun. Yet Copernicus did come to understand that the sun was the center of our solar system because he was willing to set aside the church's preconceptions. Copernicus guaranteed his position in history by relying on the analysis of his own observations rather than the ideology of the church.

Today, academia would consider anyone who argued that the Earth was the center of our solar system a fool. For the same reason, anyone claiming the superiority of the white race would also be considered a fool by academia. This is because both these arguments fail to be supported by a critical analysis of available information.

It was my experience at UC Irvine that the PC term is only used by those looking for an easy defense against the demands of critical thought. Instead of defending their position with critical argumentation, they retreat to name calling.

So what we have is a slogan that has become a battle cry for those shortsighted ideologues who desire respectability for their views. The President's quick foray into the issue has only supported those who wish to foster their prejudice and ignorance.

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