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Political Correctness in Tertiary Education

Leo Vaccaro

University is not just all about textbooks, tutorials and lectures. It also involves experiential learning outside the classroom. A big part of that, especially in present times, is engagement with politics. If this is expressly something you’d like to avoid, then I’d recommend living on the Moon where politics is irrelevant, because you are quite literally living in a vacuum. Unfortunately, every person is indeed affected by politics, thus being politically aware is important.

What 2014 taught us is that you cannot go to social events and dress-up parties with your face smeared with shoe polish to imitate tennis champions, Serena and Venus Williams without having punitive action taken against you.

It seems that political insensitivity and ignorance towards notions of racism is far from being rooted out of even those spaces where it should be challenged the most: tertiary education.

Poekie Briedenhann took another poke at the beast when earlier this month she posted a photo on Instagram where she appeared to have been painted black (or a very dark shade of purple). However, in another photo Briedenhann was clearly painted purple for a space themed residence party.

The question here is not whether Briedenhann should be found guilty of rehashing the Blackface incident, but rather whether she would have posted the photo at all had she known that it may appear so in that particular photo.

The answer to this has argument for both sides, but short answer is that the Open Stellenbosch movement has retracted their initial apology to Briedenhann and her friend. OS feel that, before posting the photo, she should have known of the prior incident of Blackface and taken cognisance of the fact the photo might be construed differently.

The disciplinary actions taken against Briedenhann were a result either of racist undertones or ignorance that bred racist undertones.

Perhaps another more current example is the post made comparing the injury sustained by a Tuks student protesting the language policy reform, and the tragic Hector Pieterson photo in the 1976 Soweto Uprising protests. This image speaks to far greater issues, and is certainly borne out of insensitivity, ignorance, and racist undertones.

The creator(s) of the image are making alarming comparisons. The reform on the language policy in Tuks is in no way similar to the nature of the Soweto Uprising. On the one hand we have systematic oppression on the basis of race, and on the other we see that a university is trying to reconsider the current language policy based on the considerations of the needs of society and its context.

While it may seem fairly obvious to most people that this kind of insensitivity should not be tolerated, others may see it as legitimate, and stand for the promotion for freedom of expression, for better or for worse.

Even more recently, some of the comments on the violent outbreak at the Varsity Cup match between UFS Shimlas and the NMMU Madibaz have clearly transgressed into the realm of hate speech.

Comments such as “why are you making this about race? The issue was sports related,” and “sport is supposed to unite SA. I can’t believe these protesters!”. As before, the issue that is the focus here is that things like this are being said.

It should hardly be difficult for someone to know that yes, it is clearly about race. Even if you cannot see in the video (link below) that it is clearly about race, there should be some common sense where you know that protests at a university sporting event, by students, probably has something to do with race, oppression, and being unheard.

For students at Rhodes, a more commonly (and frequently) encountered experience of political incorrectness and ignorance is that which is expressed on the Rhodes SRC and Rhodes University Facebook pages. Here (and on social media in general) can be the site of some of the most highly problematic statements and expressions.

The conclusion that can be drawn here is not that we should purposefully limit our freedom by saying less as to avoid political incorrectness, but that political correctness should be a something that comes naturally. In other words, we should be aware enough of our surroundings as to know what is okay and what crosses the line.

It should get to the point where political correctness is not something that needs to be taught, but becomes an automatic mindset. It’s a good thing we have people who believe people can change and through gaining a political awareness this can happen, but for now we should not always be patient with transgressors. Especially if their expressions amounts to nothing more than racism, discrimination, and hate speech.

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