Political Correctness: Throwing salt into a sea of institutional inequalities

Art by Navita Wijeratne

ANU as a student body possesses the quality of political correctness in abundance. A wonderful asset to the community. Contrary to the rhetoric of every disgruntled bigot ever, political correctness is not designed to silence your ‘unique’ viewpoint nor is it a conspiracy theory. It is simply a matter of not being a dickhead. There most certainly need to be adjustments about how we have open conversations around sensitive issues without being condescending and unhelpful. However, for the most part, political correctness is having the decency to not say something that would reasonably be expected to upset somebody. The presence of mechanisms designed to encourage behaviour typically perceived as ‘politically correct’ at ANU is pretty undeniable. Be it the encouragement of sharing pronouns, the prevalence of content warnings or the general sense on campus that we must interrogate our own biases and change our actions accordingly to promote a positive university environment. It is also pretty undeniable that these are good things.

Nevertheless, despite my experience at ANU being dominated by discussions of offence and a great deal of self-education about my own internal biases, privileges and capability of being well… a dickhead, I must admit this has not really translated into much. At a personal level, I remain largely unchanged in my political alignments and with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness to do anything about the issues I care about. In a broader sense, I observe a conscientious and engaged student community that genuinely cares about promoting a safe, welcoming and accepting university experience. Yet again, this seems to have translated into absolutely nothing. ANU remains plagued by its inability to grapple with its terrifying SASH statistics – to the extent that it’s pretty uncontroversial to state that an on-campus lifestyle is an objectively risky decision for female students. University life in general remains a playground for the rich and privately educated, where little effort is made to even this playing field. Our futures are dictated not by hard-work, dedication, or any conception of merit, but by our ability to make friends with the right rich and privately educated individuals.

Perhaps most upsettingly, even where there is a sense of safety and security there is the crushing realisation that this is confined to the boundaries of campus. Move beyond and we are faced with a federal government believing women are lucky to not be shot for protesting for their rights and endorsing candidates openly decrying the rights of trans people. A government that is in a long-term relationship with Australia’s coal industry and is complicit to a point of permission in the continued horror of the Indigenous experience with the justice system. The displays of incompetency mixed with downright bigotry and hatred go on and on and on. It does leave one questioning what the point of any of this is.

The abject failure of ingrained political correctness in campus culture to be far, wide and reaching in its impacts does not diminish its necessity. We must at least hold the expectation that we are all owed dignity and sense of acceptance from those around us. Nevertheless, continuing down this route as though it is the only way forward is frankly a waste of time. The persistent insufficiency of political correctness or language and offence-based approaches to dealing with racism, sexism, homophobia etc lies in everybody’s favourite and long persisting nemesis, neo-liberalism. The defining feature of this pesky modern-day social paradigm is individualism and its absolute dominance. Every modern human issue is currently centred around the self and their individual capability in forming a solution.

A common discussion surrounding climate change policy is the implementation of neo-liberal framing devices designed to take responsibility off governments and major corporations and put it onto the average citizen. Essentially, in convincing people the planet can be saved from its impending doom by their noble recycling efforts, it becomes their responsibility to do so and not that of a government literally subsidising fossil fuel. Indeed, it was British Petroleum that came up with the notion of the ‘carbon footprint’ and the process of tracking it. Bearing in mind that this oil giant is the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world, with 18,700 gas and service stations worldwide. What better way to distract from a status as one of the world’s biggest polluters than to imply that climate change is a product of you leaving the lights on in the hallway at night?

It seems that our approach to social justice is no different, whether it be an attempt to eliminate usage of slurs or trying to convince your residence to get a compost bin. Both take a systemic issue and attempt to place individuals at the centre of the solution. Not only this, but an emphasis on individual actions provides ample opportunity for complacency. This allows  many to believe that in simply not being an awful person, they are champions of social justice and are free from any continued responsibility in working towards a better future. This is not to say we  should give up and start throwing slurs at randoms in the street because we are unable to make any meaningful impact. However, we must step outside of reliance on an activist narrative that fails to grapple with the source of issues in the first place. Solutions lie in systemic change rather than implying that the sum of all our politeness is somehow enough to combat the sheer scale of a myriad of social inequalities. If the systems within which our lives are governed remain guided by values no longer reflective of society, good intentions and shows of support are essentially a harmless but admittedly pointless after-thought.

As long as working towards social justice is seen as the responsibility of the self, we fail to move beyond the paradigm of thinking that places so many in positions of disadvantage in the first place. Institutional reforms and power delegation to positive actors such as the work of the ANUSA departments, or ensuring that we actively engage with student platforms and voices are the way forward. Not placing a microscopic lens on everyone’s inevitable inability to remove their own prejudices and shortcomings. Political correctness needs to be reframed as the starting point for achieving social justice, not the primary means of its acquisition.