As the school year gets underway and we get further into the presidential election season, whenever a commentator complains about college campuses or a politician needs a boogeyman to attack, we can be pretty sure that the words “politically correct” will get tossed around.
Call for more diversity in casting movies and television shows? You’ll get labeled politically correct. Describe how the rhetoric of white nationalism incites violence? You’ll be told you’re being “PC.” The phrase has long been a free pass for avoiding serious issues, and nothing seems easier for self-proclaimed individualists than joining in with others who reject PC conformism.
Donald Trump realized the power of being anti-PC somewhere between his guest appearances on the Howard Stern radio show and his run for the presidency: No matter what he said or did, he could earn credit for rejecting the politically correct. It’s always a response available to a president who uses his Twitter feed as a weapon against the marginalized.
In my new book, “Safe Enough Spaces,” I chart the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” 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. By the 1990s, though, accusations of political correctness became a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy.
Setting the stage for this was philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987). He 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. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses, plagued by “moral relativism,” into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. That prejudice, which students believe is just moral common sense, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth. 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. With his surprise best seller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to best-selling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to sexualized rock music and for their deafness to the higher pleasures of philosophical contemplation.
By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it. Many who whine 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 to 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 mis-gendering? 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 and assuming the status of the victimized are 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. Students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both call-out culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees.
Conversations about race, the economy, bias, sexual assault, climate change, or the winner-take-all economy all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get called out for their supposed racism or 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. But they 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 refutation of the PC charge.
Debates on campuses can get nasty, but they are productive when they endure; compared with what one sees on the national political stage, college communities have the ability to tolerate conflict. Hopefully, there are other places in America today where arguments about important issues are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.
So when the predictable sanctimonious criticism of political correctness is repeated in the coming months, let’s try to overcome this conformity of complaint and cultivate instead the ability to be open to a multiplicity of perspectives. On campus or on the campaign trail, we will certainly learn more that way.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses,” and “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.”