A misconceived agenda

December 8, 1995

Gavin Fairbairn believes abortion is wrong. The academy, he says, thinks he should stay silent

A couple of years ago a student told me how shocked he had been that I had "admitted" to my belief that abortion is morally wrong in all cases except those in which the woman's life is threatened. It is important to note that the idea that I had "admitted" my view of abortion, was my student's. I would not have thought of describing myself as having admitted anything, since to do so would imply that I considered myself guilty of some failure - either criminal or social or moral, and I consider my position on abortion to be perfectly respectable.

I do not intend to discuss the reasons for my view of abortion here. Rather I want to raise some questions about the way in which some views are under-discussed because they seem, somehow, to fall outside the range of views that are fashionable and that it is politically correct to hold.

The student attempted to persuade me to alter my position on abortion, by introducing the question about what we should do in cases where women are pregnant as the result of rape. When I said that I did not believe that rape gives any new grounds for making abortion available, he was horrified. How could I hold such a view? Or at any rate, how could I have the gall to admit as much in public?

Why was my student surprised at my stance? His reasoning, if he reasoned at all about my views, might have arisen from his awareness of what is thought to be politically correct. The notion of political correctness is usually used, sometimes in rather a dismissive way, to refer to the fact that certain forms of language are considered unacceptable (because in themselves they amount to a form of oppression). Referring, for example, to women, disabled people and racial minorities who are thought to be oppressed in some way by men, able-bodied people and racial (usually white) majorities.

If I am aware that a particular way of speaking would be offensive to others, I try where possible, to avoid it. However, I do so because I want to avoid offence and not because I want to curry favour with those who play different language games than mine, or because those who have appointed themselves as language police believe that to do otherwise would be politically incorrect. In the matter of words we use, it is increasingly difficult to avoid offending people; consider, for example, the question of whether one should refer to a "person with disabilities" or rather to a "disabled person"; though there are cogent reasons in favour of both of these terms, each is offensive to some people.

But the pervasive policing of political correctness has reached far beyond the confines of language. It is increasingly the case not only that there are things that it is commonly thought to be politically incorrect to say, but some that it is unwise to allow others to know one believes. And so my student might have expected that whatever my view on abortion in the case of rape, it is so obviously politically incorrect to be "pro-life" or "anti-abortion", that I would have had the good sense (perhaps the good taste) to keep my view to myself.

We live in a society in which freedom of speech is considered to be so important that famous authors have people jumping to their defence when they have, perhaps unwisely, written in a way that has caused offence to others. Given this it is both remarkable and regrettable that certain views have become so conventional, so much a part of the current orthodoxy of educated liberal minded folks, that to hold alternative views, however cogent one's reasons for doing so, is considered politically incorrect. Of course there are views against which anyone with a shred of moral decency and care for others will argue - views, for example, that devalue some groups of individuals for no reason other than that their colour, sexual orientation or religious beliefs, are different than one's own.

Higher education is about encouraging and enabling people to give reasons - in the form of arguments and evidence, for the things that they believe. It is not about encouraging them to hide their true beliefs simply because they are unfashionable or unlikely to be easily accepted or even tolerated by others. That is why I believe that faced with questions of the kind I discussed at the beginning of this article, it was appropriate to share my views with my students openly and in the expectation that my reasons would be examined and given proper attention, in just the same way as I believe that I should consider carefully the views that my students put forward - even when they are unpalatable. To do anything else would be to help to create an environment in academe in which students learn that they should seek to look right rather than to speak honestly. And to do this would be to lend support to a growing lack of principled action in society in which an increasing number of people spend their lives saying one thing, believing another and doing something quite different altogether.

Gavin Fairbairn is senior lecturer in education at North East Wales Institute of Higher Education.

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