Then called “Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions,” the Facebook page whose current alias is “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions,” was born on Monday, April 15. The original tagline asked students to anonymously submit their “racist, sexist, and homophobic” thoughts, and students obliged. The moderators of the page have, at the time of writing, posted over 500 “confessions.”
Many students expressed suspicion, echoed by University of Chicacgo faculty and administrators, that “Politically Incorrect” is something other than a bastion of free expression. The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) held a meeting for concerned students, and Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Karen Warren Coleman released an email statement to all students condemning hate speech.
The page contains memorable themes, but for the most part the content is a frantic, messy cloud of insecurity, anger, and pain. Those who have answered the tagline’s call have done so in a collage of angry rants, bystander curiosities, tentative questions, and provocations. Non-anonymous responses to posts and quarrels between named commenters also run an astonishing range of confusion. In short, it is a circus.
The moderators, in response, seem quite concerned that people have misread their message. They have responded numerous times to complaints on the page, assuring readers that their intent was not to promote any specific kind of speech but to open up conversation.
That’s not exactly true, and here’s why: the page doesn’t ask for conversations or questions. It asks for “political incorrectness,” though no one seems to know what that means. Correctness involves “conforming to a belief that language and practices could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race).” Political incorrectness then refers to something or someone who refuses to cater to “political sensibilities.” It is the disregard or intentional rejection of political correctness. Political incorrectness is about cutting straight to a possibly gritty truth.
Bizarrely, the moderators—and many users of the page—use “political incorrectness” as shorthand for racism, sexism, homophobia, and more. These phenomena are not politically incorrect, because they are not only incorrect if you express them at certain times or to a certain audience.
But “politically incorrect” has another useful meaning. For example, a question that relies upon slurs or stereotypes to ask, “Is this racist?” or “Is this sexist?” could be labeled politically incorrect: it expresses prejudice and forgoes a certain degree of concern about sensitivity with the goal of greater freedom of discussion. But it also acknowledges that racism and sexism exist and are deplorable. A statement that asserts racist assumptions as truth, on the other hand, is not politically incorrect. It is racist. I agree that there is certainly a place for the former in our conversation, given that we ought to be willing to educate one another, as Maroon writer Jake Smith aptly noted in his April 23 article titled“A Better Internet Connection.” However I refuse—as do many others—to carve out a place for the latter.
I am not suggesting that the solution is to ignore bigotry. Rather, the solution is to engage with bigotry without commending it as bravery. Prejudice must be faced, and quarreled with directly, but “Politically Incorrect Maroon Confessions” in its very title squanders this goal, given that its central term is a rhetorical device to mask prejudice with heroism. This idolization is why “politically incorrect” is confusing, conflicting, and ultimately damaging.
Better is possible, and has already been made possible. Another Facebook group has formed called “UChicago Open Discourse.” That page, whether it turns out to be effective or not, is already a better place to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of online debate about heated topics. Unlike its predecessor, it does not solicit or reward a certain kind of speaker or a certain kind of tone. If you’re looking for free speech, you know where to go.