By Chris Sick
Every election season begins a little sooner than the last. Election Day 2016 is well over a year away, but it’s seemingly never too early for candidates to begin the race to the bottom with mindless invective and ugly populism. Living cartoon Donald Trump became an example (again), when he labeled Mexican immigrants “thieves and rapists” while announcing his candidacy. So far his comments have cost him his television show and numerous profitable partnerships.
Even before the political season began in earnest, it seemed that not a month goes by without some controversy stemming from political correctness blows up. Earlier this year, Jerry Seinfeld complained that college campuses are becoming too PC for comedians, echoing Chris Rock late last year. And the year kicked off with an intense debate in media circles following an article by New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait labeling political correctness undemocratic.
But nowhere is the problem in sharper relief than on college campuses, where the political right sees the academic left as rapidly approaching a level of thought policing on the order of fascist regimes. Which renders this topic particularly interesting to me, good liberal that I am, as I enter my final year as a nontraditional (read: old) undergraduate at an Ivy League university famed for its protests.
Understanding this issue is important to me, and understanding why it is might help eventually unknot the issue a bit. See, I don’t write these columns with the idea of winning some argument, even when I’m picking fights with media figures who play this game for a well-paid living. The subjects that make up these monthly installments are largely chosen because they interest me, and in the work of researching and deciding my sometimes controversial stance, I get to learn a thing inside and out.
Academics who teach or administrate will tell you that college is not about getting a job, and that the least valuable takeaway is the paper. Instead, the university tradition is meant to inspire critical thinking and intellectual rigor in those who undertake it.
Such beliefs seem inherently at odds with a political correctness that demands trigger warnings for potentially upsetting texts, investigates professors for controversial or offensive positions, or disregards tenure over media outrage. The common refrain, coming both from media figures like Chait and those critiquing PC within academia, is that such outcomes have a chilling effect, and stifle freedom of expression.
Given that these stories are frequently sourced with blind quotes from unnamed professors too afraid of losing their positions to go on record, I decided to play at being a real reporter and reach out to academics I know for their perspective on the issue. I was surprised by how many professors and administrators I know who have strong feelings on the issue, but turned out to have little appetite for offering their opinions for publication at all, much less going on record.
Ultimately, a few provided me with some interesting reading that suggested that political correctness on campus is the perfect controversy – there’s something there for everyone to hate. Left-leaning commentators, from academics to reporters to comedians and artists, bemoan its effects, and in many cases point to the corporatization of universities as the likely culprit. Those on the right see the culture of calling-out or shouting-down offensive opinions as the logically extreme outcome of identity politics.
In short, while there are defenders of political correctness, there also are enough opponents across the ideological divide, pointing to tangible examples and citing different structural causes, to suggest something, somewhere, has gone awry. Even if you’re a good (far-left) liberal like myself, it’s difficult to get behind an outrage culture that seems to target its allies more frequently than its opposition.
And to go on the attack through tweets and status updates – mediums not prized for offering the space for a nuanced back-and-forth, so much as how they award vicious critique with viral status. I’m not blaming the Internet for everything, but if you’ve spent any time on it whatsoever you can’t help but be aware of its tendency to bring out the worst in an argument.
I say that as someone who didn’t learn critical thinking and rhetorical skills at my fancy-pants university, but rather from arguing with smart people on the Internet. And from that, learning when to shut the fuck up and listen, so that I might learn something new. As I said before, I’m not interested in arguing to “win,” as much as I’m always on the lookout to learn.
It’s something I think is in short supply. And it’s also the last conclusion I wanted to reach. Many writers tackling these issues conclude with an earnest plea for a kinder, gentler discourse. But what’s frequently missing from these calls is the recognition that we’re occupying an unusual historical moment.
Pluralism, for most of the 20th century, meant different denominations of Christianity. Even being an American was (often still is) synonymous with being white, male, and straight. But within just a few years, the U.S. will be majority-minority. For the first time we’ll be forced to try pluralism for real.
And it’s going to be messy and it’s going to upset a lot of people who are used to being kept very comfortable. We should have less call-outs, sure, and there’s widespread support for that across ideological divides.
But more than anything, we – as a culture – need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with being unsettled. With being faced with a dynamic pluralism that demands – sometimes angrily – respect for different identities and doesn’t take any shit off those who won’t give it. And we’re going to have to fight and figure out how to make that all work, well beyond the confines of campuses.