Homophobia, political correctness and intellectual dishonesty: Answering The Ethicist
Having been to college and completed anonymous evaluations of professors, as well as having been evaluated anonymously as a lab instructor, I found your column of January 20 interesting. Columbia University during the 1970s did not have a “speech code,” and I would be very surprised if that has changed since. One of our core values is free and unfettered speech, as we saw when Iranian president Ahmadinejad was invited to campus. The situation you describe, therefore, would not have arisen at Columbia. Because your writer’s college in Georgia (the U.S. state, not the former component of the late unlamented Soviet Union) did not follow your advice, it made the proverbial mountain out of a molehill. The trust between students, professors and administrators, so vital to the academic enterprise, has been shattered. The “guilty” student was required to write a politically correct essay on how his actions can affect the gay community, and to write an insincere, and therefore worthless, letter of apology to the professor. Since the evaluation was not for consumption outside the university, the effect on the outside gay community is minimal if any. The student may very well feel that he did nothing wrong for which an apology is warranted. Since you do not tell us exactly what was written we cannot evaluate the egregiousness of the slur. At any rate, any essay and letter satisfactory to the administrators would be dishonest, and intellectual dishonesty is an academic sin far greater than any putative harm from an anonymous (and therefore cowardly) homophobic slur. The student must then compound the dishonesty by enrolling in a program meant to teach tolerance for what he may consider an abomination not to be tolerated. Perhaps the students should boycott the evaluation process unless and until the punishment is rescinded. Another possible countermove would be to assemble in front of the administration building decked out in T-shirts reading simply, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination,” which the administration would probably consider a homophobic slur and not a Divine command, and dare the administration to discipline them all for quoting the Bible!
You advise that in the future the guarantee of anonymity be explicitly limited to comments about the professors’ work and not extending to sexist or racist cracks. However, the line between the two is blurry. Consider the following evaluation of a lab instructor expected to set up the lab before class: Prof. X, being a woman, is too weak to lift the equipment and, being a feminist, is too embarrassed to ask a male student for help, making for awkward situations when that equipment is needed. Or, alternatively: Prof. X lifts the 25-kilogram apparatus as if it weighed nothing. Bull dyke! (The poor lady can’t win! :)) Male chauvinist pigs may not be kosher, but should they be punished for honestly expressing their opinions? We live in a country where the president of Harvard University, no less, was forced out for daring to suggest that there are biological differences between men and women that might affect their aptitude for math and science. I went to school at the height of the Cold War. We were taught that America was the land of the free, and that under Communism there was a party line and woe betide anybody who did not adhere to it. Forty years later, the Cold War is won but American academia has a party line with woeful consequences for anybody who declines to follow it. What is this country coming to?
Zev Stern, Ph.D.