'Mansplaining' the return of political correctness

Political correctness, that scourge of the '90s, seems to be getting a new foothold on American college campuses especially, Neil Macdonald writes. "Free speech zones" aren't necessarily what the name implies.

The scourge of the '90s, PC seems to be gaining a new foothold on college campuses

Political correctness gone awry? The Bank of Canada was forced to apologize and issue a new design for its $100 bill after its attempt at a neutral image was felt to show an Asian-looking woman scientist, focus groups said. (Canadian Press)

I've never seen the Vagina Monologues. Perhaps I'm incurious, but I just never had any interest in sitting through segments with titles like The little coochie snorcher that could.

But its popularity was encouraging; social conservative groups tried to ban the play for years, and I'm all for anything that any group wants to ban.

Censorship, though, has triumphed. The students of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts this year decided to cancel a performance of the play.

Oh, not because it glorifies female lust or masturbation or lesbianism. The young progressives at Holyoke decreed that it discriminates against women who don't have vaginas.

Now, when I hear something like that, I always try to imagine explaining it to my late father. Being a man of his time, I imagine he assumed that, generally, women tend to have vaginas.

But people of his (and my) generation were generally unschooled in the terms transgender, transsexual, transitioning or binary. The idea that genitals don't necessarily denote gender.

I am, I think, what's called cisgender, which means I am a male who was assigned maleness at birth and who has embraced it.

Anyway, the point is that the Vagina Monologues, so shocking when Eve Ensler wrote it in 1996, has become an entertaining relic. And its cancellation at Holyoke just seems like an attempt to find something new to protest.

Sorry, I know that sounds like old-man talk, but that's what it looks like.

Return to the '90s?

Political correctness, apparently, is making a comeback, like a sharp-tongued schoolmarm coming out of retirement. (Yes, that was a deliberate speech violation, but PC always seemed sort of schoolmarmish to me.)

New York magazine ran a long article on the subject recently, describing groupthink and ideological bullying by students (and faculty) at American universities.

Tina Spenst, a B.C. mom, complained in 2013 after she said a photo she posted of herself breastfeeding her daughter was blocked from Facebook. The social media's newly clarified policies on Tuesday state that such photos are now permissible. (Tina Spenst/Facebook) (Tina Spenst/Facebook)

It tells the story of a University of California professor who physically attacked an anti-abortion demonstrator who had the nerve to enter a "free-speech zone" created for discussion of the issue.

The professor ripped away her protest sign, committing assault and robbery, then later told police the protest sign was a "trigger" that provoked her into defending her "personal right to go to work and not be in harm."

She was widely supported and praised. And basically, the article asks: Have we returned to 1991, the year the PC wave first peaked.

What the article chronicles does sound like the late '80s and early '90s, when bellicose progressives tried to excise from language what they saw as sexism, racism, otherness, homophobia, or wording that recognized the existence of gender.

It was mostly confined to university life, but slopped over into government and the media, too.

CBC, for example, banned the word "spokesman" for a time.

"Fisherman" was out for a while, too, replaced by the truly silly "fisher," which also happened to be a furry little animal.

Chairmen and chairwomen became "chairs." All three are now used.


Eventually, the PC of the early '90s faded, partly because it annoyed audiences, and partly because university students do have to, well, grow up.

Cultural concerns yielded to economic concerns, first a rather serious recession, then the great big excessive party that followed.

Now, though, PC is back, but with new terminology.

Modern students are on the lookout for heteronormativity (for the unenlightened, that means the view that there are natural male-female roles); for anyone who might deny rape culture; and for micro-aggressions, which are little slights that belie racism or sexism in someone who tries to appear liberal and tolerant.

Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," speaks during a performance of her play on the Michigan legislature in 2012 after a Democratic legislator had been barred from using the word "vagina" during a debate over anti-abortion legislation. (The Associated Press)

Opening a door for a woman, or standing up when introduced to a woman is apparently micro-aggession. Disclosure: I've been guilty.

The real difference between then and now, though, is social media. Say something these days that offends, even unintentionally, and it can unleash a terrifying wave of internet "shaming."

As the New York magazine article argues, once that has begun, there is no defence.

Explaining yourself, or trying to put the remark in context, is characterized as "tone-policing," or "mansplaining," or "whitesplaining," or "straightsplaining," and just fuels the pillorying, which, of course, the internet allows the punishers to inflict anonymously.

Cultures of complaint

Employers or school officials, faced with tens of thousands of sneering tweets, can be forgiven for thinking the quickest way out is to sacrifice the sinner, even if the sinner hasn't really sinned.

Students who follow this crypto-salafist orthodoxy despise the concept of free, protected speech (except, obviously, their own).

On campuses, many still tend to follow the thinking of the feminist scholar and activist Catharine MacKinnon, who argues that free speech is just a weapon in the patriarchal arsenal.

In reality, this view is not very new at all. Back in the early 1990s, the head of student government at Stanford University declared "We don't put as many restrictions on free speech as we should."

Of course, there are others who think that way, too.

The Bush-era neoconservatives who clamped down on speech and stepped up surveillance in the name of security after 9/11 are one example.

The Canadian government, with the broad provisions in its Bill C-51 allowing it to order the removal of what it calls "terrorist propaganda" from the internet, is another. (Define terrorism? Canada's justice minister says the public should just "look it up.")

As the social critic and author Robert Hughes put it in his brilliant 1993 book The Culture of Complaint, "paleo-conservatives and free-speech therapists are both on the same wagon, the only difference being what they want to ban."

But re-reading Hughes's book I am confident of one thing: in another generation or two, language that now seems so inclusive and tolerant, words designed to create a "safe place" for discourse, will undoubtedly seem jarring, if not insulting. Language police will be insisting on new argot.

My grandchildren will no doubt someday stare agape at their parents for using the term "people of colour," and inform them that any reference to colour is divisive and ugly.

Or that "transgender" implies that there was ever any validity to "gender" in the first place.

The urge to control other people's speech is atavistic. It will never lessen, and my guess is the technology to enforce it will only grow more sophisticated.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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