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Political Correctness: Are the Kids on Campus Alright?

Michael S. Roth

Over the last month, I’ve been talking with reporters, podcasters, and pundits about the quality of campus culture in the US today. I was surprised when one reporter asked, almost plaintively, “President Roth, are the kids alright?” He had been reading various reports of free speech crises, illiberal liberals, coddled minds, and assaults on excellence.

Where does all the worry come from? No doubt, disturbing things happen on campuses, and older folks can react with eye rolls or, when commentators fear a trend, alarmed criticism. A template of sorts was created by Allan Bloom in the 1980s and Richard Bernstein in the following decade. Bloom and Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy. The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. With his surprise bestseller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Well before Bloom’s book, among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. The Closing of the American Mind seemed to open the floodgates, and by the 1990s, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse. It was especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. In the last twenty-five years, it has become common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and recently we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost thirty years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Today the label “politically correct” is used to mock those with whom one disagrees, or merely to deflect criticism about one’s own position. If you are doing something other people find objectionable, especially if it’s on moral grounds, labeling your critics “politically correct” is meant to return one to the side of the angels (or at least the victims).

Many who complain bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself.

But how do you tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized is among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and about sexual assault, about jobs and about the shrinking middle class . . . all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage—for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Are the kids on campus alright? Well, some of them are just fine, and others are struggling with a combination of their own personal issues along with those presented by a world riven by inequality and faced by dangers (from climate change to resurgent ethno-nationalism) that should concern us all. The folks on campuses across the land are wonderfully diverse, and it will be through acknowledging their differences that we can provide them all with a more empowering education. I ask that we stay engaged with difference, and I do hope it reminds those who care about higher education to find the courage to build intellectual communities with different forms of diversity that lead to learning that is bold and rigorous, practical and aspirational.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and a historian, curator, and teacher. His previous books include Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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