A friend, a distinguished lawyer who is now retired from his firm, teaches at a local college. The students are not from the privileged classes and are often the first in their families to have attended college. Many are immigrants or have parents who were born abroad or are members of a disadvantaged American minority.

The friend is teaching a course that probes the concept of justice. The class had explored that difficult biblical text about the sins of the fathers. His students had examined the provisions that make torture illegal under international law and the American statute that expressly forbids torture abroad but does not address its legality within the United States. The class discussed whether torture, even in the face of these legal prohibitions, could ever be justified, and, of course, as discussions of torture inevitably do, the ticking bomb hypothetical came up: You know that a bomb will soon explode in a place that will kill many people. You have in custody someone who has the code to defuse the bomb, but he will not divulge it. Would you, should you, torture that bomber to save the lives at the expected explosion site?

One student said it did not matter whether torture under these circumstances was legal or not because the torture would be useless. If the potential torture subject was committed to the cause of the bombing, he would either completely resist the torture, which under the scenario would not be long, or provide false information that would buy enough time for the bomb to explode. After the class had discussed this position for a while, another student, who had hardly ever talked in class and was recently arrived from China, quietly said, “If you want to get the information, don’t torture the bomber; torture his family.” This led to a spirited give-and-take with references back to the class’s discussion of international law and the sins of the father. The period ended with the students still engaged in debate.

The friend was pleased with the class. The students had confronted the material in thoughtful ways. The friend was pleased not only that the newly-arrived Chinese student had spoken up, but that he had given a perspective not before considered by others that may have derived from his cultural background or experience. This seemed to be the point to the diversity often ballyhooed in academia. Since the class had gone so well, the friend was especially pleased that this was the day that a member of the fulltime faculty, who would report to the Dean about the part-time teacher, was there to observe his class.

The friend respected the observer, who had been born in Algeria and had done human rights work in various countries requiring tact, insight, and courage. The friend, however, was taken aback when she castigated him. “You should not have let the class leave without making it clear that torture under all circumstances is wrong.” The friend replied that he did not think it was the job of a liberal arts teacher to tell students the “truth,” but she maintained, “Torture is against international law and is wrong, and it is your duty as a teacher to tell the students that.”

When the friend told me about what happened, he was still upset by it, even though it was days later. I said that this sounds like a form of political correctness, but usually, I continued, political correctness seems to be about identity politics. He smiled and said, “To try to convince me that what I had done was not right, she said that surely I would have corrected any student who said what that college president had said, ‘Women don’t have the innate abilities to be good scientists.’” This made me think more about political correctness.

In talking with the friend, I had used “political correctness” as an epithet. The PC term is always a denigration. No one ever says “I have adopted my opinion because it is the politically correct one” or says unironically, “I agree with you because what you said is so politically correct.” But the term does not have a simple, single meaning.

For me, the classroom observer was inappropriate because of her dogmatism. She was positive of the only correct conclusion to the debate and therefore, felt that this certitude had to be communicated to the students. She was in essence saying that any reasoned debate had to lead to this conclusion and that outcome should be made clear.

The problem with the observer’s stance, however, is that there is only a small step from it to saying that there is no point to a reasoned debate on a topic. If the conclusion is so obvious, then there is really no need to discuss the topic at all. Instead, just present the patent outcome. Indeed, the topic should apparently not be discussed at all if there is any chance that some will come to the “wrong” conclusion. In this view, “political correctness” is an assertion that seeks to cut off debate because the topic is outside the bounds of any reasoned discussion. (To be continued.)

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