Political correctness — the muzzling of supposedly offensive speech or expression by either social stigma or punitive sanctions — has been the subject of much concern in the past year, particularly on college campuses, where free exchange of ideas is essential.
But there also has been a counter-critique from the left, which claims that these concerns are not only exaggerated but often disingenuous, masking an attempt to silence frank discussions of difficult issues and to advance a right-wing agenda. The latest such charge comes from Yale University lecturer and veteran New York journalist Jim Sleeper in a New York Times op-ed.
But Sleeper fails to make his case — and unfairly maligns a group that advocates for free speech rights in academia.
Sleeper mentions last year’s notorious video showing a black female Yale student yelling at professor and residential adviser Nicholas Christakis, whose wife and co-adviser, instructor Erika Christakis, had criticized the school’s admonishment against Halloween costumes linked to another culture. The video was made by Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non profit that focuses on civil liberties in academia. The original version of Sleeper’s op-ed, corrected online but still intact in print, left the impression that Lukianoff identified the student and posted a photo of her parents’ home. In fact, that was done by a conservative website Lukianoff took to task.
Moreover, while the foundation has received funds from conservative sources, it is no right-wing shill, as Sleeper implies. With a fairness rare in today’s polarized climate, it has defended speech regardless of politics and protested suppression of nonpolitical speech challenging campus bureaucrats.
Sleeper also claims that accounts of the protests at Yale left out their positive aspects, such as “white students having their first frank conversations about race with minority classmates” and a forum on racial issues. (Actually, Lukianoff had praised that event.) Sleeper concludes, “Free speech and open inquiry are alive and well on campus.”
But are they? Sleeper’s account omits some salient facts: for instance, that some protesters spat on people attending a Yale forum on free speech where Lukianoff was a panelist, or that Nicholas and Erika Christakis had to step down as residential advisers and Erika Christakis also stopped teaching.
Events at other schools contradict Sleeper’s optimistic assertion. Around the time of the turmoil at Yale, protests at California’s Claremont McKenna College forced assistant vice president and dean of students Mary Spellman to resign because for a comment deemed racially insensitive. Her crime? In a letter to a student who had written about her struggles as a minority person on campus, Spellman expressed her desire to serve students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” When she tried to explain herself to students at two campus rallies, she was shouted down.
Also bullied into silence at one of the rallies: a female Asian student who had the temerity to say that “we should not distinguish people by their race” and that “black people can be racist.” One may wonder whether students who dissent from the “correct” viewpoint could speak freely at the Yale forum Sleeper praises.
Other examples abound. At Wesleyan University, the main student newspaper, The Argus, was about to be defunded after running a column critical of Black Lives Matter — until the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education interceded.
Sleeper argues the real danger to free inquiry in the academy comes from the business-model mindset of many deans, skittish about publicity that might hurt a school’s “brand.” Such pressures are real, but so is ideological zealotry. Denying it and attacking its critics only contribute to the problem.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.