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.

Ideologically Charged

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.

Narcissistically Unaware?

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.


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DPoynter 01/06/2017
The political correctness described here is not so very different from what I saw on campus in the early 1990's. Nonetheless, these are very small enclaves of relatively privileged students who upon leaving university will enter a workforce and live in a society that largely finds the idea 'microaggressions' as laughable. This political correctness extremism is still only a small matter, rarely encountered outside of academia. The same cannot be said of the tacit endorsement of prejudice and religious intolerance of Donald Trump's voters. One danger this small group of 'Social Justice Warriors' poses in that their critique of society can go to such extremes that some will fall into the trap of embracing the 'anti-imperial' disinformation the Russian State Media. Some of those talking their language, include Russia Today hosts such as Thom Hartmann or The Nation's Stephen Cohen (a top Putin apologist). The wider mistake, however, is that by staking out such an extreme stance the absurdity of the continued racial stratification within the United States is allowed to go mostly unchallenged and unnoticed by white students. Even as a native of Chicago, it is not widely acknowledged that blacks in the city and suburbs were subjected to an intense racial discrimination that continues to affect every generation to this very day. We, white Americans, generally have indifference to the past and more importantly feel no responsibility to bring any remedy to the wrongs committed by prior generations. These feels of antipathy or outright denial by white America were in plain sight this past year in the comment section whenever Spiegel would publish a commentary broaching the topic regardless of whether it related to the 2016 presidential election.
turnipseed 01/06/2017
2. American political correctness
As a retired academic I can attest to the fact that even in the 1960's and 1970's political correctness made university life very illiberal and very unpleasant for conservatives of all sorts.
jasmine_clark 01/06/2017
this article is so interesting... i was horrified by the examples given here of the overreaction by the social justice warriors who can't stand to hear anyone say anything that makes them uncomfortable. SJW's seem to believe that they have a right to never, ever feel uncomfortable for any reason. they don't realize that being uncomfortable is a part of life. not everyone is going to cater to your feelings. not everyone is going to treat your feelings as more important than anyone else's. you can't go around always accusing everyone of being racist, sexist, offensive, etc to constantly make yourself look like the victim so that you can get sympathy from others. it's pathetic. people are not "hateful bigots" just because they say something that upsets you or you disagree with. lots of people in america are so sick and tired of people who do this. we're sick of everything always being offensive, everyone having to apologize over the simplest things, and there are so many rules about what you can and can't say without being offensive. it's crazy!! trump really is a hateful bigot and a bully, but because social justice warriors in america have worked so hard to censor and punish many innocent people, trump appeared to be a breath of fresh air compared to the SJW censorship and "microaggressions." because we in america are so used to SJW's and their political correctness, many people in america welcomed trump as a refreshing relief from all that and were unable to see him for the arrogant, aggressive bully that he is. i'm afraid america is jumping from one extreme to the other. so i have mixed feelings. i have never supported trump at all, but i am very happy to see SJW's heads exploding because of his win. for once in their lives they aren't getting what they want, and that's a good thing. they act like spoiled children.
RightSaid 01/06/2017
This article narrates the extremes of what the right are calling political correctness, while giving fairly short shrift to the older and more practical form of political correctness. I know from experience that the sort of episodes described here are not common on American school campuses - or at least not any more common than other forms of silliness such as spelling out people's names in the lawn using toothbrushes. I also note some issues are being attributed to those who are politically correct when in fact the sally came from the right. For instance, the issue of which bathrooms transgendered people could use became an issue when conservative legislators attempted to impose the coercive weight of law in deciding the issue, despite the fact that no actual case pr pattern of misconduct was before them. Without that provocation, the issue would have remained a matter of displaying personal pique in individual circumstances rather than a social war (as the writer would apparently have it).
gerald_berke 01/06/2017
5. pc
it was driven off the rails by excessive name calling, homophone, racist, basket of deplorablres (which is totally true but, well, Hillary has no character)
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