The PC Monster Has Political Correctness Gone off the Rails in America?
Few terms are as divisive in today's United States as "political correctness." A concept that was intended to create greater freedom in the country may instead have resulted in the opposite. It also helped strengthen the right wing.
It's a Friday afternoon in Oberlin, Ohio, around one month before the country heads to the polls to elect Donald Trump as its next president. The final classes and lectures of the week have just ended, and a young woman comes walking by in bare feet with a hula hoop gyrating around her waist while others are performing what seems to be a rhythmic dance to the African music that's playing. Two black students are rapping.
It's the kind of scene that could easily play out on a beach full of backpack tourists, but this is unfolding at one of the country's most expensive universities.
Many female students here have dyed their hair green or blue, they have piercings and their fashion sense seems inspired by "Girls" creator and millennial star Lena Dunham, who, of course, also studied here.
In such a setting, it seems almost inconceivable that this country could go on to elect Donald Trump as its president only a few weeks later. Yet pro-Trump country is just a few miles away. Oberlin is located in Ohio, one of the swing states that made Trump's election possible. Drive five miles down College Road toward town, and you start seeing blue "Trump Pence 2016" signs on people's lawns.
Places like Oberlin are the breeding grounds of the leftist elite Trump's people spoke so disparagingly of during the election campaign.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl "Trump 2016" on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding "safe spaces" where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this "fascist, racist candidate."
In the months prior to the election, "safe spaces" had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments -- a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer's views on feminism represented "microaggressions."
When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a "safe space" during the speech where, as one professor reported, "New Age music" was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also "get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals."
"Microaggressions" are the conceptual cousins of "safe spaces" -- small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also "trigger warnings" -- brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could "trigger" memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.
But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles' "Antigone." The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. "People should have the right to know and consent to what they're putting into their minds," he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.
The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings in addition to complaints about microaggressions all fall under the term "political correctness" in the United States.
Few other expressions are as ideologically charged and contested as this one. It is most widely used as an invective: Coming from the mouths of the right-wing, including Donald Trump and his millions of followers, the term is used to describe self-censorship. They consider it an expression of a victim culture, within which the hypersensitive "leftist mainstream" (also used as an epithet) seeks to isolate itself from every deviation from its own worldview. Opponents of political correctness consider it to be an overwrought fixation on the needs of minorities and one's individual identity, on skin color and gender.
Now, two months after the election, those looking for clues as to how Trump's victory became possible quickly arrive at the refusal of many Trump detractors -- including members of Hillary Clinton's own campaign team -- to confront the uncomfortable fact that there are legions of Trump fans all across the country. It's almost as if, in the face of Trump, liberal America collectively retreated to a "safe space." And when they finally resurfaced after the election, Trump had won.
There was a time when political correctness wasn't yet synonymous with hypersensitivity, feel-good oases or censorship. Originally, it was associated with the counterculture, not as a project of the academic elite and the establishment as it is today. Initially, it was an attempt to free the public debate from prejudices based on race, gender and background -- from the apparently casual yet hate-filled and disparaging comments that frequently caused suffering, particularly among minorities and the weaker members of society. It was intended as an effort to get the voices of these minorities heard in the first place.
One of the primary assumptions of political correctness is that thinking starts with language. Those who use disparaging language must think that way as well. Another assumption is that of constant progress. That people evolve over time, that discrimination and inequality diminish over the centuries, from the elimination of slavery to women's suffrage to same-sex marriage and the growing acceptance of transgender people. Progress was seen as the integration of the formerly suppressed and of minorities. At least in theory.
In the last decade, however, the obsession with minorities and their victimhood may have gone overboard. In a much-discussed opinion piece for the New York Times last month, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, argued that American liberalism in recent years has been seized by hysteria regarding race, gender and sexual identity. Lilla says it was a strategic error on the part of Hillary Clinton to focus her campaign so heavily on African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community and women. "The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups," he wrote.
Even as the white working class and lower class flocked to Trump in droves, students at Oberlin were busy organizing a protest against the food served at the Afrikan Heritage House. A few students had pointed out that the dishes there were at most Westernized interpretations of the original recipes, a state of affairs which showed a lack of respect toward African traditions. This offense, too, has a term: "cultural appropriation."
Meanwhile, Asian students complained that the cafeteria served bánh mì using inauthentic ingredients, prompting accusations of cultural imperialism.
The college took the complaints seriously, as it does with all grievances lodged by students. It has a reputation to protect -- and must also protect itself from the lawsuits that many of its students' parents can easily afford.
The cafeteria had to issue a public apology. But it shouldn't have been only the Vietnamese students who felt insulted -- it should have been everyone. After all, another term often used at Oberlin is "allyship." The theory basically goes like this: Someone who has spent his life as a heterosexual white male will never be able to understand how an incorrectly-made sandwich could trigger a trauma. Nor would he ever truly be able to comprehend the systemic microaggressions that a black woman might be exposed to. But he could make himself her "ally," by taking her experiences seriously and accepting them at face value, whether or not he is able to comprehend them personally.
For some professors, it has gone too far. One of those is Roger Copeland. On a recent Friday afternoon, he made his way to the Slow Train Café, the only place at Oberlin where everybody meets up during the day -- professors, students and activists. He has come to talk about everything he believes has destroyed his profession. He has recently accepted an early-retirement severence package and will be leaving the school in a few weeks. Professor Copeland has taught for over 40 years at Oberlin. He is a theater professor and he looks the part. He arrives wearing a Hawaiian shirt and speaks, even in normal discussion, as if he were reciting Shakespeare from the stage.
Copeland himself took to the streets in protest in the 1970s: against the Vietnam War, against Watergate -- the big things. On two occasions, he was arrested.
'Unsafe Learning Environment'
Today, though, it's personal pronouns that his students are squabbling over and Copeland has little understanding. He says students no longer want to be addressed as "he" or "she," but as "X" or "they" or newly created personal pronouns. At Oberlin, terms like "Latina" or "Latino" for people with Central or South American backgrounds have been replaced with the gender-neutral "Latinx."
Two years ago, Copeland asked a young student who was editing a video during rehearsals for a stage production if she would manage to finish editing the footage by the end of the week. He didn't get the immediate response and things were hectic. "Yes or no?" he called out in his exalted way. "Yes or no?"
The student, who Copeland says is an Asian-American lesbian woman, stormed out of the rehearsal, not that uncommon of an occurrence in theater. Later, the dean ordered Copeland to his office and accused him of having berated a student and of creating a "hostile and unsafe learning environment." There was that term again: "unsafe learning environment." The dean handed him a document and asked him to sign it. Copeland refused and provided the names of others who had been present and who could attest that he hadn't berated the student. The dean said it didn't matter. What mattered was that the "student felt unsafe."
The matter led to a formal Title IX investigation for sexual misconduct. Copeland hired a lawyer and the probe was dropped after a year. The whole thing cost Copeland thousands of dollars. Worse yet, he says, he lost his ideological compass.
What was going on? Where, if not here, did young men and women have the opportunity to mature into citizens, into people who could also confront unpleasant views?
Copeland self-identifies as a leftist. He's a man who has fought for social justice, for the rights of the weak, for freedom and for free speech. Now students were dismissing him as some old, reactionary grandpa who knew nothing about the vulnerabilities created by identity, skin color and gender, whether it be male, female, gay, lesbian or transgender, the full spectrum of LGBTQ, as people call it today -- or "cisgender."
Cisgender is a relatively new word and Copeland only recently became aware of it. He also learned that it is often used as an insult. It describes pretty much to a "T" what he is: a white, heterosexual man who is certain that he doesn't want to be a woman and isn't even a little bit bi-sexual.
Copeland isn't the only victim. Across the country, "social justice warriors," as they are disparagingly called, are leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, attacking professors, artists, authors and even DJs along the way.
- Part 1: Has Political Correctness Gone off the Rails in America?
- Part 2: 'Social Justice Warriors'