A Run-in With Political Correctness, or On A Writer’s Responsibility

A good friend asked me for my thoughts on a recent article that he read in The Washington Times. I was hesitant at first. The Washington Times (never to be confused with the Washington Post) is not known for being deeply analytical, and the topic is clearly something pretty controversial. I don’t like to engage in arguments over issues that I believe are mishandled, but in the spirit of friendship, I decided to oblige him. I imagine his response — if indeed he responds — will be less in the spirit of friendship and more the spirit of argument, but I’m told that this is at the heart of good discourse, so I welcome his perspective. I mean, after all the time I’ve spent preparing this, he owes me an article, right? Or at least a fancy dinner and a scotch.

You know what? I think I’m okay with either option.

* * * * *

At the request of a friend, I recently read an article about an interaction between Cailin Jeffers, an English student at Northern Arizona University (NAU), and Dr. Anne Scott, her English professor. According to the article shared by my friend, Jeffers was penalized one point out of fifty for using the word “mankind” instead of “humankind,” per a set of class rules mentioned in the article but not included for a reader to consider. Jeffers contacted Campus Reform, which is a national conservative student network and erstwhile watchdog group run by the very conservative Leadership Institute, whose distinguished alumni include Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, Jeff Gannon, and Ralph Reed. Her reasons for contacting Campus Reform are not mentioned, but seem pretty clear upon very little further investigation.

To start, the story presented by the article is simplistic and selective, creating a one-sided view in favor of Jeffers. Her objections are clearly stated — “I thought this was absurd, and I wasn’t sure if she was serious.” — and the professor’s objection is reduced to the idea that “mankind” is sexist and that Jeffers should “make an effort to look beyond [her] present positions and ideologies, as is the focus of the class.”

Jeffers’ decision to use “mankind” in the essay in question was a provocation against an expectation she disliked

According to the original article on Campus Reform’s website, which is much more comprehensive, before the essay in question came up, the entire class was explicitly taught to use certain gender-neutral language, and was given an explanation for why. Jeffers’ decision to use “mankind” in the essay in question was a provocation against an expectation she disliked, and the grade she received was a natural consequence of not following a class guideline. In Dr. Scott’s personal response to Jeffers, also available through Campus Reform, the professor also points out that the Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association (APA) both have guidelines for gender inclusive language.

Dr. Scott, according to her webpage in NAU’s faculty directory, is interested specifically in multi-ethnic literature and gender studies among other areas, which is to say that she has a specific perspective that she likely teaches in her courses. One can reasonably assume that Dr. Scott’s courses will challenge deeply-held assumptions, especially those that have overtones of historical male dominance. Her reviews on (the admittedly not-so-scientific) RateMyProfessor.com indicate over and over that she is a tough grader and challenges students, but does so in an effort to improve students’ writing. One student writes, “She is an incredibly thoughtful person, and her classes are meticulously designed. Should you be against challenging yourself to think outside your box and grow, her classes are not for you.” By marking her paper down by a point, Dr. Scott was clearly forcing Jeffers to look at the question of word choice and gender inclusivity at a very low cost: one point out of fifty, or two percent of her grade. Had Jeffers done everything else correctly — which she did not, losing twenty percent on various other mistakes — her grade would have been a ninety-eight percent. The lesson would have been learned about following guidelines, thinking about words and assumptions, and her grade hardly  would have been affected.

The impression that I get is that Jeffers knew the professor she had and the guidelines of the class, and appears to have manufactured a problem to share with a conservative action group for publicity and self-satisfaction. It worked. On Friday, she was interviewed by Tucker Carlson about the incident, and offered some speculation about Dr. Scott’s opinions about burkas after some issue-manufacturing on the part of Carlson, even thought Islam shows up nowhere else in this story.

Issues are generated from a puff of smoke and individuals are happy to exchange their mental autonomy for the comfort of a group and a pat on the back.

The event outlined in the article was nothing but a student disagreeing with her professor’s guidelines and the general suggestions of the MLA and APA alike. Jeffers’ decision to contact Campus Reform instead of writing and disseminating a defense of the use of “mankind” tells a more enlightening story of our time; a person is frustrated and wants a bigger group to come to support their frustration instead of mounting a defense on their own. The large group takes up whatever mantle they’re handed and teaches the individual that they don’t have to be intellectually self-reliant, so long as they are politically expedient. Thanks to quick-click articles with misleading information, issues are generated from a puff of smoke and individuals are happy to exchange their mental autonomy for the comfort of a group and a pat on the back. Jeffers had an opportunity to make an impassioned defense of a word she supposedly felt strongly about, but instead she called a political group and offered it to them on an altar of self-satisfaction. To their credit, Campus Reform’s treatment of the incident is actually nowhere near as biased as the articles on better-known conservative sites (listed below), so I don’t see an issue of language here, but the issue of pandering to people who won’t bother doing even the slightest bit of research on a topic about which they feel strongly. Pandering is politics, and the issues being bought and sold at the price of one’s integrity are not.

So where should we stand on “mankind” versus “humankind?” This is the more interesting question that is — as most things are — more about individual responsibility than politics. The fact of the matter is that language moves and changes. The forces that change language are artistic, social, political, and personal, and have been since humanity (see what I did there?) learned to speak. Words that do not stand up to the rhythm and beauty of the English language will disappear from a skillful writer’s lexicon. Unskilled writers may continue to use them, but these writings will sink beneath the shifting sands of time and wasted words. “Mankind” has a long and poetic history, as Tucker Carlson tried to point out, albeit more bluntly, and I will be surprised if it disappears overnight. “Humankind” and “humanity,” however, do not sound crass or unpoetic and will certainly have champions and literary giants to propagate them as time goes on. Dr. Scott is on the side of “humankind” and “humanity,” and I understand why and agree with her perspective that people’s assumptions should be challenged, a position she eloquently made clear in all of her correspondence with her students. Jeffers is on the side of “mankind,” for reasons that she didn’t bother to articulate. As for her speakers on the right, the only reasoning they’ve offered is a low sustained whine about change that is really rooted in the refusal to empathize and recognize that language changes. Rejection of change is resistance, not argument. Perhaps a true defense of “mankind” (or a rejection of “humankind” and “humanity”) is an argument my friend can give.

Further, if the issue isn’t about words, but rather offense, then here are some thoughts. Some words certainly offend people, and this offense is a complex result of history, personal experience, and the media with which people do or do not choose to inundate themselves. Offense is real: just look at the people reacting to Dr. Scott’s grading choice. Should it be legislated and looked over? People who use offensive words purposefully to make others uncomfortable are acting immorally, and cannot be considered arbiters of rightness, wrongness, or really anything in particular. People who use offensive words from ignorance deserve to be informed, so that they can choose to do what’s right or what’s wrong. But the notion that insidious forces or government officials are tyrannically changing language for the worse is more than wrong; it is a moot point. Language is in the hands of individuals, not groups. A good writer will write words that do the work that needs to be done. A good speaker will choose words wisely and employ them eloquently. Jeffers made an individual choice to use language in which she presumably held a strong belief with the understanding of the class expections, and so I’m comfortable with her professor giving her an expected grade. Jeffers was the one who made the decision to turn her experience into politics. Because I’ve seen no convincing argument come from her, I see no reason to give her even a moment’s consideration.

To hold onto a conclusion after its premises have been dismantled is at best misguided or illogical, and at worst fanatical.

In the past, my previously-mentioned friend has accused me of not seeing the big picture in an argument, and I can hear him saying it now. I can imagine being accused of picking apart an article and an incident without adequately considering the larger question of “political correctness.” This is not an accident. Without individual instances, a big issue is merely political showmanship; it is an ex post facto conclusion imposed upon separate individual events. If each small instance of a larger issue is invalid, then the larger issue is also invalid. To hold onto a conclusion after its premises have been dismantled is at best misguided or illogical, and at worst fanatical. And every “big picture issue” is a conclusion, and not an argument. The argument is in the premises. And those premises should lead to one another without too much reliance upon a writer’s cleverness or an orator’s sleight-of-speech. “Political correctness” is an invention, cobbled together from a group of unrelated fears and objections, and, as an apparition, deserves no specific response.

The incident at NAU was a case of one student disobeying her professor’s guidelines and crying foul to a conservative organization in order to make a political point on their behalf. No one’s rights were trampled here. The student did not fail, and her grade was mostly affected by “insufficient analysis,” according to the grade breakdown published by Campus Reform. Dr. Scott gave students adequate warning and Jeffers chose to test this warning. She should happily accept the consequence.

Language changes. And while words should not be in a constant state of evolution, a language that doesn’t move is dead. I would be interested in a defense of “mankind” against “humankind” that doesn’t invoke the bogeyman of tyrannical progressivism, which is a most useful fiction for any who struggle to make their own arguments. If the word stands up to scrutiny, use it. If you are uncomfortable, do not. If you are incapable of fully scrutinizing a thing, then don’t grumble when you are dismissed to the children’s table. One of a writer’s main responsibilities is word choice, and, if anything, Jeffers and her whole class have been given an excellent lesson that no word should be left unconsidered if you plan on using it.

* * * * *

Here is a cross-section of some sites that wrote about this. This is what happens when individual choices are politicized:

Arizona college student fights for ‘mankind,’ penalized for refusing gender-neutral term (The Washington Times, the article I first read)

Student has grade docked for using ‘mankind’ in English paper (Campus Reform, the most comprehensive article and the one it seems all the other sources rewrote)

Student Has Grade Docked for Using ‘Mankind” in English Paper (Fox Nation, the most accurate rewriting of the Campus Reform article, including the word ‘docked’)

Professor Lowers Student’s Grade For Using The Word ‘Mankind’ In Essay (The Daily Caller)

Professor Penalizes Student: “Mankind” Does Not Mean “All People” To All People’ (The Daily Wire, this one is mostly just block quotes from Campus Reform interspersed with righteous indignation)

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