The PC Monster Has Political Correctness Gone off the Rails in America?
Part 2: 'Social Justice Warriors'
At a bar at the University of North Carolina, a student named Liz Hawryluk complained to the DJ on a Saturday night in 2014 when he played Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." The song was a major summer hit, played at nightclubs around the world, but Hawryluk demanded the DJ immediately stop playing it.
The song includes the line, "Good girl I know you want it." Allegedly words a rapist would speak.
When the DJ refused and the girl continued insisting, she was asked to leave the bar. She then wrote about her experience on Facebook, arguing that line in the song is a "trigger" for victims of sexual assault that can reawaken their trauma. After her post got shared a number of times, the bar publicly apologized and fired the DJ.
In 2015, feminist film researcher Laura Kipnis, a professor at Chicago's Northwestern University, became the subject of an investigation after she published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about sexual paranoia in academia. The subject of the article had been a new ban on sex or relationships between students and professors at the university. Kipnis also criticized what she described as obsessive discussion among female students about traumas and sensitivity. She described it as a fallback to traditional behavioral patterns -- the vulnerable woman, the helpless victim and the man as the perpetrator.
But the supposedly defenseless female students struck back -- first on Facebook and later in the form of a protest. Two students then lodged a complaint against Kipnis for alleged sexual misconduct, arguing that Kipnis' essay had a "chilling effect" on female students who wanted to file sexual harassment complaints. Kipnis had to hire a lawyer and the charges were dropped after a 72-day investigation. In a later article, she described the proceedings as an absurd drama reminiscent of a Kafka novel.
Roger Copeland spent a long time contemplating where these vulnerabilities and sensitivities might have come from. "The relationship my students have with the world is constantly mediated. They only have access to it through their iPhone screens and through the social networks they have joined. What we would call the virtual is the real for them."
It's only when they are in the lecture halls, when someone like Copeland is speaking to them, that this filtered reality is suddenly suspended. This suspension can evoke a defensive reaction in those who are only used to receiving select news from a politically correct world in which everything has been furnished with warning labels and freed of any microaggressions. Internet activist Eli Pariser calls the serving of information to users using algorithms that predict what they think the reader will want to see the "filter bubble."
Socio-cultural advancement has become something of a fetish for many students -- and many have lost sight of everything else in the process.
Professor Marc Blecher, who teaches political science at Oberlin and enjoys lecturing on Marxism, had warned at a meeting one month prior to the election, likewise at the Slow Train Café, that the millennial students of today's generation may talk a lot about social transformation, but they have lost sight of one truly decisive issue: class.
With their focus on skin color, gender and sexual orientation and the microaggressions associated with them, he argued, students were overlooking what Trump was able to recognize: Most people in the United States aren't unhappy or angry because of their gender, their personal pronoun or the lack of a trigger warning in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" (due to misogyny). They're angry because they aren't able to pay their rents, and they have the feeling that nobody cares -- that the liberal-progressive public is more concerned about whether the bathrooms used by transsexuals should be those of their biological or perceived gender. Shouldn't the discussion be about the fight for wealth redistribution rather than definitions and identities?
Sidestepping such issues often underscores just how helpless many of these students have become, Blecher says. Still, he doesn't want create any misunderstandings. "They are not spoiled sons and daughters. Oberlin's brand is social progressivism. The school wants to admit students from financially weaker families, students from Hispanic or African-American families, some are kids from the streets. Some have spent the last five years trying to get in and then their guidance counselor at high school gets them into a place like Oberlin. They were the most promising students we could find. And you know what? They arrive here and it is hell for them!"
Academic expectations are high, which he says makes the students feel like they don't belong here -- and, in a way, they don't. "At its core, Oberlin is a highly exclusive place that wants to be inclusive. It's an unavoidable contradiction. So some lash out." And how do they do that? They look for a discourse, for a language. What they find is language like "microaggressions," "safe space" and "intersectionality," meaning the traits that some minorities have in common. "Their frustration keeps growing to the point that they start attacking the food in the cafeteria!"
The interesting thing, says Blecher, is that the students' feelings of outrage are correct -- they are just misplaced. "What's really keeping them down are class dynamics and racial segregation. But we don't talk about that."
The Limits of Freedom
In places where microaggressions lurk and trigger warnings become necessary, certain things can simply no longer be discussed. The children of the 1968 student protest generation took for granted the freedoms that their parents fought to obtain, holding them to be self-evident. The grandchildren of the 1968 generation now want to retract some of those freedoms. Free speech -- once the highest achievement the leftist student generation had fought for -- is now largely and paradoxically being invoked by populists and the right-wing.
When Donald Trump calls Mexicans who cross the borders rapists, when he cracks jokes about women, and when, at gatherings in his honor, people lift their arms in Hitler greetings and fans of his top adviser Steve Bannon tweet "Sieg Heil" -- that all falls under "freedom of speech."
The roles have been completely reversed. Whereas today's leftist student movement is willing to sacrifice the freedom of speech -- fought for by their political predecessors - on the altar of trigger warnings and "safe spaces," this right is now being defended by the very same right-wing whose political antecedents sought to prevent it back in the day.
This new right can be seen every day on Fox News. The cable network interprets freedom of speech to mean the right to insult. And that freedom of expression also provides a license to spread untruths. That's also a problem with Trump's new America: One part of the population is growing increasingly sensitive and no longer wants to read "Antigone," while the other is growing increasingly brazen, calling Mexicans rapists and seeing all Muslims as terrorists. In Donald Trump, they will soon have a president who emboldens them.
Their narrative holds that they would love to say what is actually on their minds, but the "social justice warriors," the guardians of political correctness, led by the "liberal media," won't let them. They too feel they are victims -- at least they act like it, complaining that you can't say anything in this country anymore. Indeed, they feel much as the leftist students did in the early 1960s. The only difference being that there really were things that you couldn't say back then.
'We Were Young and Inexperienced'
Bettina Aptheker was one of the leaders of the free speech movement back then, some 52 years ago. On the morning of Oct. 2, 1964, she climbed on top of a police car in front of UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall and gave a speech. Aptheker was 20 at the time. In her speech, she quoted former slave Frederick Douglass, who said: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." It was one of the events that launched a movement -- initially in the West, and then worldwide -- for social transformation, for women's rights, civil rights, then for gay rights and later for transgender rights, a movement that is directly connected to today's students at Oberlin College. Ultimately, though, they created the opposite of what they had sought. Aptheker and her fellow campaigners ultimately created a monster, the PC Monster.
Bettina Aptheker calls herself an absolutist. But even she is no longer certain that the right to free speech can be absolute in these insult-filled times. She's still in academia today, working as a professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. One morning at the end of September, she was teaching a class called "Feminism and Social Justice." The vocabulary used by students today more or less has its origins in feminist terminology. "When Trump taps Clinton on the back during a television debate," Aptheker says, "it is a classic microaggression."
Her parents were among the most prominent and outspoken communists in the United States and became targets of persecution during the McCarthy era. Aptheker was also a member of the Communist Party, something, she says, that made her familiar with the straitjacket of political correctness. Today she is 72 years old and has lived together with another woman for 40 years, from a previous marriage she has two children. She points to photos standing on her bookshelf -- pictures of families comprised almost exclusively of women. Her daughter is also an outed lesbian and comes for Christmas with her children and her partner. It is all evidence of a social transformation that nobody would have thought possible half a century ago.
"We were young and inexperienced back then. We thought everyone should be able to say anything, cost what it may." But now Aptheker ponders the second half of that sentence. One example of the price paid back then, she says, was that a bunch of American neo-Nazis turned up on campus at Berkeley in full regalia -- with swastika armbands and signs reading, "Burn Aptheker." As a student, she didn't like it, but she thought it was tolerable, something covered by freedom of speech.
Today Aptheker says she even deliberates over Halloween costumes. Costumes triggered a national debate last year after the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale University sent out an email warning students to avoid wearing "culturally unaware and insensitive" costumes that might offend minority students: So please, no feathered headdresses, turbans or 'war paint' and no wearing of blackface or redface.
A Paradigm Shift
Perhaps such limitations on freedom make some sense. Aptheker says she's no longer certain today whether we should accept a situation where the weaker in society are insulted in the name of protecting free speech. She's learned a lot about microaggression through feminist teachings.
When she took to the barricades at Berkeley a half-century ago, the issues at hand were more pressing, like ensuring that African-Americans could vote. In the face of such a challenge, the "5,000 microaggressions blacks faced daily in the South" took a back seat.
But are the issues being raised by students today not equally important?
Ismail Muhammad is waiting at the corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, the very place at the university's southern entrance where Aptheker once stood on top of the police car. The handsome 27-year-old African-American wearing Nike basketball shoes is a Ph.D. student and an expert in modern American literature. Muhammad gained a certain amount of prominence when, in the middle of the outrage over trigger warnings and safe spaces, he made a quiet and determined case for why a rejection of such concerns was ignorant and myopic. He believes absolute free speech is no longer sustainable -- not in times of shitstorms on the social networks, character assassination on the Internet and bald-faced lies and parallel worlds on the television news stations. He argues that the movement for social transformation that has been ongoing from the 1960s to the present has actually been nothing more than the continuation and the further evolution of the thinking of the 1968 generation of student protesters.
Today's "social justice warriors" are now, for the first time, seriously calling into question the daily discrimination that has been a regular part of life for hundreds of years. That, Muhammad says, is the first paradigm shift to have happened since the 1960s, a new level.
Muhammad believes that the Baby Boomers, who were raised with the values of the 1968 movement, but also their successors, Generation X, are just as unable to comprehend these concerns as Bettina Aptheker's opponents were during the 1960s.
The fact that this phase is happening right during a time when the country has elected a president who stands for racism and sexism, could provide the movement with strength and legitimacy. It might also lead them to shed their self-image of victimhood. Perhaps, as Professor Blecher at Oberlin proposed, they will instead focus on class and poverty. If people had done that 20 years ago, we probably wouldn't be sitting here now facing a President Trump in just a couple of weeks.
On the day after the vote, Oberlin College held a symposium called, "Making Sense of the 2016 Election." A few days later, 2,400 students, staff and former employees called for Oberlin to be made a "Sanctuary Campus," a kind of "safe space" for the illegal immigrants that the incoming Trump administration has said it wants to deport.
A few days after that, news of the vote breakdown in Oberlin came in: 4,575 votes for Hillary Clinton against 412 for Donald Trump. They now want to find those Trump voters. And confront them.
- Part 1: Has Political Correctness Gone off the Rails in America?
- Part 2: 'Social Justice Warriors'