Chait is complaining about “political correctness”. Fine, complain away; there are even lines I would draw that partly coincide with the lines he draws. He begins with an anecdote about angry students who littered a conservative columnist’s hallway with defaced copies of a ‘satirical’ column, and threw eggs at his door.
Don’t throw eggs at people’s doors, OK?
There are things you shouldn’t do, like damaging property or sending death threats or harassing people to interfere with their lives in destructive ways. Sometimes people on the left do cross those lines; I’m happy to join Chait in deploring those acts.
But don’t call it “P.C.” That’s a term that raises my hackles straight from the onset: it’s the disparaging phrase used solely against liberals, judging them not by their actions but their purpose. Vandalism and harassment are not ideologically-specific tools, used only by the left; let’s deplore the tactics no matter who employs them, but as soon as you attach the P.C. label, I know right away that you are trying to target liberals only.
I knew immmediately what specific recent events he was going to complain about. It wasn’t going to be about the Florida students who picketed a talk I gave several years ago, or the administrators who lobbied to have me ejected; those were conservative and anti-choice people, no one would call them “P.C.”, and besides, I’m just a relatively unknown college professor. It wasn’t going to be about a wealthy donor to St. John’s College getting a liberal faculty member’s contract denied; that’s definitely not politically correct, to fire liberals, but that’s perfectly OK. It’s not about teachers who proselytize in the classroom, because while they’ll moan that they’re being persecuted for being not-P.C., they’re also part of the dominant religion. Complaining about religious intrusions into secular institutions is very P.C., and therefore bad, while not being politically correct is supposed to be good.
So, no, I predicted he wouldn’t say anything that would reflect badly on conservatives, and would instead go after those strident activist liberals, instead.
After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned. Some of its expressions have a familiar tint, like the protesting of even mildly controversial speakers on college campuses. You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California–Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Also last year, Rutgers protesters scared away Condoleezza Rice; others at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam; and those at Haverford successfully protested former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.
Bill Maher has criticized Islam badly, and also has a lot of other ugly baggage under his belt, such as his casual contempt for women, and his bizarre alt-med conspiracy theory nonsense. To imply that it’s simply an effort to suppress criticism of Islam is a bit dishonest. When he was given the Richard Dawkins Foundation award, there was a great deal of discussion and anger about it — he’s not really pro-science — and none of it was about the fact that he opposed a major world religion. I have serious objections to Maher, and it’s not because I want to protect Islam.
But wait…what did the students at Berkeley do? They put together a petition.
What’s wrong with that, Jonathan Chait? Are students expected to simply acquiesce and not express discontent at any administration decision? Nobody should be required to respect Bill Maher (or me, or Bill Donohue, or even, most horribly, Jonathan Chait). Students are allowed to protest peaceably. I would encourage them to protest.
Look at the other examples Chait cites. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a “women’s-rights champion” and “staunch critic of Islam”. Well, gosh, from that description, I’d be horrified at any rejection, too: the people leading the charge must have been MRAs and Islamists. But no. Ali has a very complicated reputation: she’s against Islam, but she’s suggested that Christian priests be sent to Islamic countries to convert them. She’s a feminist on a very narrow dimension; this is someone associated with a strongly right-wing, no-nothing conservative think tank. Why shouldn’t students be encouraged to protest against such people, and any others who they feel poorly reflect their values?
As for Condoleezza Rice, Chait says nothing to justify her status as a highly paid speaker. I guess as someone who was in favor of the Iraq War, he’s not going to have any ready objections. But I do. She’s over-priced as a speaker, with a history that makes her a war criminal, or at the very least, a collaborator with war criminals. I am so freaking happy to see students rising out of passivity, drawing a line, and refusing to endorse such people.
Again, what is wrong with those “P.C.” students who protested, petitioned the administration to refuse to pay for a monstrous person like that to speak on campus, and succeeded in some instances in turning her away? That’s what free speech is about!
Did they egg her door, perhaps? I’d oppose that. But organizing and petitioning and protesting are exactly what I’d like to see done by my students, at least.
At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions,” or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.
I teach genetics and developmental biology, and I’ve always warned my students before I show slides of deformed fetuses. It’s a courtesy, it allows them a chance to avert their eyes before a giant picture of a dead damaged fetus is flashed on the screen, and it makes it clear that this is about the information, not about shocking people. Making students squirm uncomfortably in their seats is not setting the right environment for them to learn — I’m not playing a game of “Aha! Gotcha! Look at the blood!”.
So I think it is entirely reasonable and appropriate that students get advanced warning that emotionally difficult material is coming up. It’s clear to me that it’s a signal, not to run away and hide, but to prepare oneself to examine a concept carefully. That the material might be psychological or sociological does not mean it is OK to spring it on students without preparation; somehow it has become acceptable that civilians who haven’t been up to their forearms in guts ought to be given the courtesy of a warning before throwing gross and graphic images at them, but it is unacceptable molly-coddling to show similar courtesy to a rape victim before slamming them with a story of a traumatic situation.
Again, what does Chait want people to do? Be brazen and rude and shocking even in situations in which we are trying to encourage cooperation and learning?
As for that story about the proper capitalization of “indigenous” — for shame, Jonathan Chait. Perhaps it suits your intent to make it seem that those students were protesting something so trivial, but was really just one small piece of a whole pattern of behavior.
“A hostile campus climate has been the norm for Students of Color in this class throughout the quarter as our epistemological and methodological commitments have been repeatedly questioned by our classmates and our instructor,” the group’s letter reads. The statement accuses “the professor” (it does not identify Rust by name) of correcting “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies” and “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate,” it continues.
You know, if I, as an atheist, used my biology classroom to belittle my students’ religions (beyond obvious contradictions with the content of the course), if I created a “hostile class climate” for Christian and Muslim students, they yes, they ought to complain. They ought to march in and have a sit-in and tell me I can’t use my bully pulpit to disparage their beliefs…and they’d be right to do so, and I’d actually be perversely pleased to see that kind of gumption. (Of course, I don’t use the classroom to criticize religion — that’s entirely extra-curricular).
What the hell is Chait complaining about? I don’t know.
As for the Vagina Monologues story, I think it’s a good thing that there has been an emerging awareness that there is an oppressed group that doesn’t fit neatly into the absolutist, simplistic gender compartments we took for granted for so long. And why shouldn’t students discuss the plays they perform and evaluate their merits and think about new ideas? Is every college now expected to show the Vagina Monologues every year? Is it mandatory?
As is usual with the examples Chait gives, the story is also much more complicated than he makes it out to be. The students argued about what play to put on — oh be still my beating heart, that students would actually dissent and debate rather than passively accept the status quo — and even the creator of the play has no problem with new choices.
In an interview with arts advocate and writer Howard Sherman, Ensler said her play was never meant to speak for all women and that she supports the creation of new plays. Women with and without vaginas need a voice, she said.
Nowhere does Chait explain why this kind of discussion and change is a bad thing. There’s a general statement about why P.C. is so horrible…
Political correctness makes debate irrelevant and frequently impossible.
But all of his examples are of people debating vigorously! It seems to me that it isn’t that it’s become difficult to debate the issues, but that people who hold views that make him uncomfortable are actively, and apparently effectively, arguing against him. There is a legitimate argument to be made against certain tactics — dishonesty, faked evidence, intimidation and harassment — which crush debate, but that’s not what the people he’s complaining about are doing, and he seems to freely equate bad tactics with subjects that bewilder him.
I’m thinking that what he needs to do is follow up with an essay that isn’t about the broad brush application of a label, but with some constructive description of what his ideal solution would be. My impression from this essay is that in his perfect world, everyone who is more liberal than he is would be simply shamed into silence.