Political Correctness

Toward the end of the comments on my post about Donald Trump, both Tom Blackburn and Jean Hughes Raber—excellent correspondents both!—express fatigue and bafflement at the concept of political correctness, with Jean insisting that “I don’t know what it is.” So...here we go!

I wholly understand that it’s easy to tire of a phrase like “political correctness” once it becomes a mere cudgel in the culture wars. But I have little doubt that it exists. While I’m not a campus regular, I’m no stranger either, having occasionally taught in English departments, and with some very close friends who are tenured academics.

I view political correctness as whatever impulse and/or set of commitments lies behind such absurdities as the ones mentioned in my earlier post about “Coddled Collegians.” Remember the college group that canceled a “Hump Day” event because the central humorous attraction, the petting of a live camel  (based on a popular GEICO ad in which a talking camel sashays through an office), was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent? 

Such anecdotes are silly, but they do reflect something serious, or at least I think they do. The m.o. on today’s campuses, at least among the humanities, features the elevation of group identity politics, with a special focus on oppression, and the use of academic discourses to apply an analysis of systemic power relations to individual interactions and (especially) utterances. The goal seems to be to cleanse public discourse, and even campus itself, of anything ideologically adverse. I mentioned the disinvitations of Condi Rice, Christine Lagarde, George Will and others as campus speakers. When I was at college, we eagerly invited speakers whose ideologies we were hostile to (Antonin Scalia, Cal Thomas, etc), and then debated them. Christine Lagarde is the head of an organization whose workings are central to the global economy. The student group whose protests led her to withdraw blamed her for “the strengthening of imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” That doesn’t sound like an attitude of eagerness for inquiry.  

Last December the President of Smith College sent out an email, in support of students protesting the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that included this sentence:  “We are united in our insistence that all lives matter.” She was roundly condemned for this by students and faculty alike. Now, the validity and function of the utterance “all lives matter,” in the wake of events that impinged upon, and destroyed, black lives—well, that’s a fruitful topic for discussion. What followed was not discussion, however, but apology. Her statement was, in effect, viewed as sin, and she was appropriately repentant. 

People seem to be spending a good deal of time waiting for other people to transgress, so that they can pounce. When I was visiting writer at an elite liberal arts college I published a fictional narrative with a black man as the protagonist (I am white). I was assailed by a progressive political scientist (also white) for my “audacity” in presuming to inhabit the point of view of the African-American underclass; he cheerfully skewered the story as an act of cultural and political appropriation. These tropes are common. Today it is my sense that the “white privilege” discourse is often being used in a similarly unhelpful way. Again, discussing white privilege as a concept—taking it on as a subject within an academic discipline—is fine, is necessary.  But using it to dismiss someone’s standing to speak is not fine.

The authors in “The Coddling of the American Mind” describe a pair of matched, hypersensitive attitudes that—if they really do prevail on campus—are dismaying: a quick instinct for excoriating judgments on one side, and a kind of cringing timidity on the other. My professor friends tell me that their own politics—classic Enlightenment/ New Deal/ traditional Democratic liberalism, whatever you want to call it—are viewed as hopelessly benighted...and that any attempt to question any aspect of the dominant campus discourse on race, gender, etc., risks being branded reactionary.

Is this true? Consider the following anecdote. Before I blogged about “The Coddling of the American Mind,” I joined an email exchange with three close friends of mine—all academics—who were going back and forth on the essay, and the issue of campus speech, in a rewarding way. One is a college administrator, and when I mentioned that I intended to post something on my blog, he immediately and with palpable worry emailed me and insisted that I neither mention him nor his college, nor make public any of his remarks on this issue.

I was disappointed by his hasty retreat, and he knew it. But, he said in his email, “it’s the culture we live in.” Quod erat demonstrandum!

The last thing I’ll note is that there are, of course, way worse things than whatever it is I’m trying to describe. The real America beyond the campus remains afflicted by poverty, inequality, crime, racial bias in housing and jobs, and a whole host of other problems that do not receive enough attention. Meanwhile, on campus, every utterance is scrutinized for the slightest conceivable offense. I guess I’m not always convinced that the latter is a meaningful step toward addressing the former.

So I hope that keeps the conversation rolling!

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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