With so much discussion about the partisanship in political correctness, it is easy to lose sight of the project’s initial goal. One student seeks to bring that objective to the forefront again.
A typical liberal university, my college prided itself on its openness and inclusion. Any incidents the school believed marginalized any groups were denounced in an infamous Bias Related Report which was an email sent out as rapidly and frequently as these event occurred, or, approximately, once a week. These messages were typically sent with a short description and very little explanation aside from the facts.
Midway through my first semester, I received a schoolwide notification from the college administration that did draw some unusual attention. This Bias Related Report read:
“Bias Alert: Approximately 12pm Saturday night, fruit in the shape of a penis was left outside a student’s door. The proper authorities have been notified, and the school is investigating the situation.”
I’ll let that sit for a second.
Fruit in the shape of a penis was left at someone’s door. Penis fruit. PENIS FRUIT. Maybe this makes sense to you, but if you are anything like the majority of the student body and myself, you may have read the sentence and laughed. Because, for goodness sake, it’s penis fruit!
This email was pivotal to my experience at school. In its absurdity it got straight to the issue that so many people take with the notion of political correctness. In my school’s attempt to be politically correct and inclusive, they had taken something so seemingly trivial and made it into a schoolwide crisis. It enlarged the issue in such a way as to make it seem absurd and funny, and in turn, it made a mockery of the whole idea of a Bias Related Report.
Fruit in the shape of a penis was left at someone’s door. Penis fruit.
It did so by morally condemning an innocuous act and distorting it as somehow harmful or offensive, without feeling the need to explain the why. It was an assertion of political correctness, a type which often arises from the Moral Left, that comes without a context. In other spaces, these edicts can be equated to terms like “that’s offensive,” “that’s racist,” or “that’s sexist,” which can shut down conversation before it can even begin. With these phrases, there is no need to even come up with a cogent argument for why something is inappropriate, and it means that those that do not simply “get it” must constantly tread carefully in their speech, lest they misstep and get slapped with a condemnation.
Within that frustration, a figure like Donald Trump begins to make sense. Instead of trying to tiptoe through race, class, and gender mindfields, he walks right through them. He recognizes political correctness has been a tool propagated by those that want to silence speech, or at least that’s how he might explain it. Of course, many conservatives recognize he goes a little too far, but at the same time, he shuts down discussion of political correctness in the same kinds of absolutes that political correctness has shut down conservative speech. He calls it out for being wrong without extrapolating on why. He condemns political correctness outright, in the way that adjectives like racist, offensive, or sexist shuts down so much of conservative dialogue and policies.
Donald Trump would have loved penis fruit.
Near the end of the semester, I solved the mystery of the Bias Related Report. Someone left the fruit at the doorstep of a transgender student. He had begun transitioning shortly after enrolling in school, and the fruit had been left outside of his dorm room to make him feel different and unwelcome. For this student that had to assert, daily, his gender and identity in a world where many people may simply choose not to recognize or may even condemn him for it, penis fruit was one more offense in a string of offensives. With this knowledge, penis fruit wasn’t funny. It became apparent just how upsetting it was.
Donald Trump would have loved penis fruit.
But the email never included any context and thus never allowed for the more nuanced understanding that was needed when discussing what is offensive or what could be perceived as politically incorrect. If it had, maybe it could have sparked a debate on campus about how the school’s own policies, such as binary bathrooms, made students feel marginalized. However, without this important element, the school had simply morally condemned an action, which out of context meant very little. It had said this is wrong while not explaining how that conclusion had been drawn. And in doing so, it had, unknowingly, made a mockery of something that was truly a painful experience for someone.
The natural critique of this assessment is often that it is too difficult for a person, especially one who already feels unwelcome, to explain why something is offensive. For the student in question, emailing the entire school to ask that offensive messages not be left outside his dorm room seems unreasonably. Not only that, but this kind of expectation shifts the burden of resolving this problem from the community to the individual already experiencing the harm.
But that doesn’t mean the school couldn’t have provided some sort of background in which to account the offense of this action. Without that context, the ol’ adage that everything is offensive becomes true, because within a certain moment, yes, everything could be. And that also does not mean, that individuals who are not directly experiencing the harm of an act cannot likewise stand up for those that may be offended by it.
In this sense, penis fruit was a pivotal moment for me, because it illustrated the importance of helping others understand why the project behind political correctness is a noble one. It has the goal of creating a world where everyone feels like they can be equally heard and be part of a community. Nevertheless, reaching that goal means more than just telling someone “that’s sexist,” “that’s racist,” or “that’s offensive.” It means engaging with people who think differently from you, when you can and think it’s useful. Yes, there will be malicious and hateful people in the world that are not useful to speak with, but I would like to believe that most people at SIPA do not intend to be terrible. In that sense, I think it is a disservice to not try to be constructive and provide understanding when we are able, because if we do not give people a space to grow, than they will always just think penis fruit is funny.