Does Political Correctness Erase Cultural Substance?
Does it ever seem to you that a politically correct student can do no wrong? That question crossed my mind when I read about a recent incident at the University of Manchester.
According to The Guardian, the University of Manchester recently refurbished its students’ union. Part of the décor involved a mural of the poem “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. Citing the racist tones in some of Kipling’s other work, students took matters into their own hands and painted over the mural, replacing the poem with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and posting the following photos of their work on Facebook.
The student leading this act of defiance insisted that the action made “‘a statement on the reclamation of history by those who have been oppressed by the likes of Kipling for so many centuries….’”
But others, while acknowledging Kipling’s colonialist views, suggest that such actions by the students were more reactionary than necessary, and throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Guardian cites Professor emeritus Janet Montefiore from the University of Kent as one of these:
“‘Of course he [Kipling] was a racist. Of course he was an imperialist, but that’s not all he was and it seems to me a pity to say so,’ she said. Montefiore argued that Kipling was ‘a magical storyteller’ and that his perspective was part of history. ‘You don’t want to pretend that it all didn’t happen,’ she said.
‘Dickens said dreadful things about black people in the Jamaica rebellion. Does that mean you don’t read Dickens?’
She added: ‘If is not a racist poem. It’s a poem of good advice.’”
I find that last point quite interesting, particularly as I came to realize the potency of the “If” poem earlier this year while reading a biography of Stanley Dale. Dale, a man who traveled the interiors of Indonesia and was eventually killed by cannibalistic tribesmen, grew up as an abused and maligned child who cowered in fear over almost everything. This attitude changed, however, when he read “If” as a child in school. The poem gave him confidence to shoot for a successful and daring life.
In looking at the poem (shown below), it’s easy to see how such a thing could happen. Kipling goes through many of life’s difficult situations – doubt, false reports, hatred, impossible dreams – and then lays out a game plan for individuals to overcome these problems and be successful individuals.
Angelou’s poem also speaks of triumph, overcoming past injustices, and success in life. The difference between her poem and the Kipling one which it replaced in the University of Manchester student union, however, is huge: It fails to give a game plan by which the oppressed can overcome past injustices. It seems to suggest instead that an individual can achieve success simply by repeating a mantra (“I rise/I rise/I rise”).
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Unfortunately, that message is one which today’s culture embraces wholeheartedly. If one virtue signals enough, or repeats the term “#BlackLivesMatter” like a prayer, then success is sure to come, regardless of the arguments one makes or the actions one takes. In other words, a politically correct student can do no wrong.
This is the message we have conveyed to the next generation, namely, that ranting and raving and repeating appropriate mantras will give us the outcomes we desire.
But will they? If we continue to give into students and allow them to subsist on superficiality, removing substance simply because it offends them, are they really likely to make much of their lives?