A quick follow-up to my two earlier posts on political correctness and speech codes on campus. Several respondents to those posts expressed uncertainty about what, exactly, those who complain about political correctness are complaining about. An article in this morning’s Hartford Courant, my hometown paper, illuminates an exemplary case.

Ten days ago a politically conservative 30-year-old Wesleyan University student (and Iraq war veteran) named Bryan Stascavage contributed an op-ed piece, titled “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think,” to the student paper, the Wesleyan Argus. In it he questioned the effectiveness, and to some extent the intentions, of those rallying for justice under the BLM banner, asking: “is the movement itself actually achieving anything positive? Does it have the potential for positive change?”

The op-ed asserted that the protests have impugned the great majority of police who perform their jobs creditably, and argued that BLM may have made their job more difficult and dangerous, citing “a big spike in murders” in Baltimore after the riots; “good officers,” Stascavage wrote, “go to work every day even more worried that they won’t come home.” While he acknowledged that the looters, rioters and police killers he castigates are not Black Lives Matter protestors, he called it “plausible that Black Lives Matter has created the conditions for these individuals to exploit for their own personal gain.”

One can certainly view the op-ed’s arguments as tendentious and reject its assumptions, procedures and conclusions. But the response of at least some Wesleyan students goes well beyond that. Together with some faculty members, one hundred sixty-seven students there, charging that the Argus “neglects to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color,” petitioned for the paper to be de-funded – essentially closed down – and for the its staff to “undergo social justice and diversity training.”

The editors of the paper, while insisting on the paper’s right to publish opinion pieces, quickly issued a collective mea culpa, “acknowledg[ing] the frustration, anger, pain, and fear that members of the student body felt in response to the op-ed,” and publicly apologized “for causing members of the community such deep pain, and not publishing the article with a dissenting opinion.”

Such deep pain? Fear? It’s important to note that this was not a murderous incitement in Der Stürmer, but merely an op-ed in a college newspaper that attempted to take a dissenting view of an ongoing social issue. The terms of the editors’ apology, and their felt need to make it in the first place, goes to the heart of the argument made in The Atlantic essay I cited in the earlier post (“The Coddling of the American Mind”), whose authors shed light on what they view as the misguided use of therapeutic tools and concepts, and especially the lens of trauma, to shape norms of speech and the exchange of ideas on campus.

So far, it appears that the University is responding appropriately. Amid the brouhaha, Wesleyan’s president and other top administrators wrote an op-ed of their own, asserting that while “debates can raise intense emotions,... that doesn't mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable.” They noted that “as members of a university community, we always have the right to respond with our own opinions, but there is no right not to be offended.”  Censorship “diminishes true diversity of thinking,” they concluded; “vigorous debate enlivens and instructs."





Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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