As 2016 approaches, it is clear that 2015 will be a late, unlamented year — the year American politics were dominated by mogul- turned-troll Donald Trump and world politics fell under the shadow of the Islamic State. But among the year’s more notable developments, both depressing and encouraging, has been the rise of a debate on political correctness in American culture.
It’s not just conservatives and libertarians. Liberals such as New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait and New York Times contributor Judith Shulevitz have voiced alarm about the rise of a dangerous intolerance on college campuses that brooks no dissent on issues related to race, gender, and other identities. Toward the end of the year, these concerns were brought into sharp focus by a wave of campus protests whose primary target seemed to be political heresy.
There were the Yale students caught on camera cursing and screaming at a mild-manner college administrator over a faculty member’s email questioning the school’s injunction against Halloween costumes perceived as insensitive to other cultures. (Subsequent reports also revealed people attending a forum on free speech were spat on by protesters.) There were the anti-racism protesters at Missouri State University seeking to keep out members of the media and shoving a news photographer (who happened to be Asian American).
While some progressive commentators argued that the student protests were being unfairly maligned and were directed at social inequities, not “wrong” ideas, evidence to the contrary kept coming in. The demands of a self-styled student “uprising” at Amherst College in Massachusetts included official condemnation, and possibly sanctioning and re-education, of students who put up posters deemed “racially insensitive.”
At Claremont McKenna College in California, a dean was forced to resign after responding to a Latina student’s article about the challenges of being a minority student on campus with an email that called for better service for students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” This wording was seen as insensitive, and the dean’s repeated apologies did not stop the calls for her head. Meanwhile, at the campus protest against racism, an Asian-American woman was bullied into silence after she described being on the receiving end of a racist comment from an African-American student.
On many campuses, the protesters’ rhetoric has disturbing echoes of Soviet purges and the Cultural Revolution in Communist China, with demands for public repentance for various forms of thought-crime.
Left-wing defenses of the campus revolutionaries by commentators such as feminist pundit Lindy West are not exactly reassuring. They tend to deride critics of “P.C.” for being white males — which not only reduces ideas to identities but erases female and non-white critics such as Shulevitz or Columbia University professor John McWhorter. They also argue that speech which makes (some) women, minorities, gays, or transgender people feel emotionally unsafe amount to “silencing” those groups. In other words, freedom of speech for the marginalized requires silencing wrong ideas.
The bad news is that this mindset exists beyond college campuses; it dominates large chunks of the media and much progressive activism. The good news is that progressive authoritarianism, with its speech-policing in the name of “safe spaces” and its insistence on defining people by labels, is now on the defensive. The satirical television show “South Park” has devoted its widely acclaimed last season to skewering the P.C. cult.
If 2015 is the year political correctness jumped the shark, perhaps it won’t have been such a bad year after all.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.