Civil Liberties

CUNY Tells Profs Not to Say 'Mr.' or 'Ms.' Because That's Offensive and Illegal-ish (It's Not)

This is political correctness right here, folks.


The Matrix

The City University of New York, a public institution bound by the First Amendment to grant the members of its community broad free speech rights, has issued a decree on the manner in which professors will now be expected to greet each other, as well as their students. More on that later.

But first: of all the bad responses to Jonathan Chait's recent New York magazine feature about the pernicious policing of language on the far left, none was as flatly wrong as Vox's, which claimed that "the truth about political correctness' is that it doesn't actually exist."

If political correctness doesn't exist, as Vox's Amanda Taub claims, then nothing is real and I'm living inside the Matrix. That's because I encounter and write about instances of political correctness run amok on a near-daily basis. These are not the kinds of trivial incidents Taub describes, mind you:

Political correctness isn't a "creed" at all. Rather it's a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we're willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. Worse, the charge of "political correctness" is often used by those in a position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people — to say that their concerns don't deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.

Taub's definition of political correctness implies that the perpetually offended are "often" correct to feel that way. Fine. Are they justified in having their sensitivity codified and enforced as well? Because that's what has happened on college campuses across the country, where students and professors are not merely chastised for saying the wrong thing, but formally sanctioned. Professors have been fired and students have been suspended for thought-crime and word-crime—for saying something that didn't quite clear the unreasonably high offendedness bar of the modern leftist. This has created a culture of feelings-protection on campuses under which students increasingly feel entitled to emotional comfort; in response, administrators keep introducing rules to give them more of it.

On that note, let's dig into a prime example of something that supposedly doesn't exist.

CUNY's Graduate Center now believes the use of gendered salutations like "Mr." and "Mrs." might offend some students. What's more, administrators think federal non-discrimination law requires the university to prevent its faculty from inadvertently giving offense. Therefore, professors have been instructed to wipe the contentious words from their memories and cease using them in any and all forms of communication. According to The College Fix:

"Effective Spring 2015, the (graduate center's) policy is to eliminate the use of gendered salutations and references in correspondence to students, prospective students, and third parties," Louise Lennihan, interim provost, states to employees in a recent memo. "Accordingly, Mr. and Ms. should be omitted from salutations."

Lennihan instructs staffers to interpret the new policy "as broadly as possible," that it applies to "all types of correspondence, such as: all parts of any letter including address and salutation, mailing labels, bills or invoices, and any other forms or reports," states the memo, a copy of which was provided to The College Fix by school spokeswoman Tanya Domi.

School spokeswoman Domi told The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the new policy, that it aims to work "within a regulatory framework to comply with Title IX legal principles."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Ari Cohn explains why this thinking is absurd:

But Ari Cohn, free speech lawyer and advocate at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took issue with the spokeswoman's suggestion that Title IX requires or even encourages a policy similar to the one the graduate center has implemented.

"Title IX prohibits discrimination—nothing more," he said in an email to The College Fix. "Unfortunately, this problematic justification is emblematic of a pattern that FIRE is increasingly concerned by: Title IX is being turned into a Swiss army knife that can be used by colleges and universities to justify (and provide political cover for) virtually any academic or institutional policy even tangentially related to sex or gender."

It's wrong to tell professors at a public university how they should talk to their students—wrong in the legal, moral, and practical senses. But CUNY is doing it anyway, and the reason is something that doesn't actually exist. According to Vox.

For some better reactions to the Chait piece, read Elizabeth Nolan Brown's roundup here. I'm a fan of Freddie de Boer's response, in particular.