The PC Revolution is Eating Its Own, But What Sort of Shit Comes Next?

Political correctness is dying. The university must now embrace unfettered intellectual debate and dialogue as the way forward.


There are many signs that the high tide of political correctness on college campuses is cresting. The scandal surrounding the treatment of Northwestern's Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor of journalism who got into hot water for writing about her sexual activity in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has erupted into a full-scale what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-today's-puritanical-and-easily-offended students fury. Offended students filed a Title IX complaint against Kipnis, charging that her work created a "chilling effect." Investigators found the complaint without merit, a decision widely hailed by anti-PC observers. Even writers at Jezebel, who are often quick to side with PC elements, look at the situation as an example of "feminism devouring itself."

First codified in its current usage in the late 1980s and early '90s, PC refers not simply to outspoken discourse that views everything through the prisms of race, class, gender, and other totalist frameworks but to the attempt to shut down all disagreement as beyond the pale, beneath contempt, and in fact a prima facie case that marginalized voices are constantly being attacked. In this sense, PC is not new (or solely a province of left-wing thinking) but it is kind of brilliant: The very fact that you disagree with me proves that my perspective and all I claim to represent is being oppressed and the only righteous action is to shut down your speech.

So how do we know we may be approaching peak PC? For starters, liberals have begun attacking the phenomenon. Consder Jonathan Chait's New York Magazine story, "Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say," from earlier this year. Chait unspooled a litany of recent instances where some sort of campus expression was shut down, including the age-old tradition of protesting graduation speakers and newer forms of restraint:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach "trigger warnings" to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate "microaggressions," or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student's decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase — one example of many "perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies." A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.

This sort of acknowledgement by liberals and even many on the harder left may be a long time coming, but it's out there and now creeping into popular culture. Chris Rock doesn't play colleges anymore because of the general offense taken at the mildest jokes and Jerry Seinfeld voices similar misgivings. Bill Maher, an atheist vegan who figuratively skullfucks conservative Republicans on a weekly basis, is protested at Berkeley and articles likening college students to "human veal" are popping up all over the place like support groups for readers traumatized by the auto accidents in The Great Gatsby.

In response to Chait's article, Vox's Amanda Taub wrote a piece essentially saying there is no such thing as PC but if there is, it's really coming from the stuffed-shirts and Dean Wormers of the world who already hold all the power:

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.

This gets things exactly wrong. The silencing of debate on campuses isn't being done by free-speech absolutists and libertarians. Rather, it's being done by folks such as student groups at Maryland and Michigan who attempted to ban showings of American Sniper on the grounds that it was hate speech against Muslims living in America. It isn't hate speech simply to diminish other people's concerns or to say, for instance, that trigger warnings are stupid and unworkable (even Taub admits the latter point). That's just disagreement, which is supposed to be one of the things universities revel in. With disagreement comes engagement and debate and with that comes, one hopes, newer and better understanding of truth (not with a capital T, mind you, but some incremental progress toward keener understanding of the human condition). The essential move in PC is shutting down discussion, not airing unpopular or marginal points of view.

So how do we know that peak PC might be upon us and that it's all downhill from here?

As I noted at the top, the Kipnis case has caused a large rethink among many on the broadly defined left. And then there's Vox itself just earlier this week, getting on the PC-Has-Gone-Too-Far Bandwagon by publishing the pseudonymous story "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal professors students terrify me":

Things have changed since I started teaching. The vibe is different. I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me — particularly the liberal ones.

Not, like, in a person-by-person sense, but students in general. The student-teacher dynamic has been reenvisioned along a line that's simultaneously consumerist and hyper-protective, giving each and every student the ability to claim Grievous Harm in nearly any circumstance, after any affront, and a teacher's formal ability to respond to these claims is limited at best….

I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to "offensive" texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students' ire and sealed his fate.

On one level, the author's complaint about "the folly of oversimplified identity politics" and the way students bug him is truly low-level workplace bitching. His parade of horribles—he once saw an adjunct not get contract renewed!—is pretty weak sauce for outrage, even if you try to imagine it being uttered by Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner. I've taught at the college level and have many friends who are academics (tenure track and adjunct) and there's no question that students are often really annoying jackasses. Which is almost perfectly balanced by the ways in which faculty are jackasses. Although it's not completely determined by commercial transactions, college is and always will be a customer experience for students and overall that has empowered them to call shots that are generally good. Similarly, the anonymous prof's world-weary complaint that "things have changed since I started teaching" could be uttered at any point in the past 500 years and be utterly true (I recommend reading Leslie Fiedler's What Was Literature? to get a sense of just unsettled the American university's mission, identity, and purpose has been for the past 100 years).

The most interesting and important thing about this latest Vox piece is simply that it exists and that it articulates yet one more critique of a campus atmosphere that is more stultifying than a mid-century girdle. Campuses are in fact more sensitive and inclusive than they were when I graduated from college 30 years ago. In many and mostly good ways, American society writ large is more mindful that people have different experiences and that the good society allows for airing of grievances and celebrations of diverse ways of thinking, of loving, and of living. Some of that change came from marginalized groups demanding to be taken seriously and forcing universities to give them the space and opportunity to do that. When that sort of openness transmogrifies into launching Title IX complaints against professors for publishing in The Chronicle of Higher Education or demands that Oscar-winning movies be banned from campus or shouting down as ineffectual speakers as David Horowitz, well, something has gone horribly—and obviously—wrong.

The revolution always eats its own. And after 25 or so years in which speech codes, behavior codes, and a constant stream of complaints about everything from the books being studied to the speakers being brought to campus to the need for less gluten in cafeterias, the PC revolution has run out of chow.

The only question left—and it's not a small one—is what kind of shit comes next. Will faculty start to lobby for the sort of commitment to free speech that was the hallmark of '60s campus crusades (read Greg Lukianoff's Freedom from Speech on this)? A belief in allowing all sorts of freewheeling debate and dissent ultimately was tagged  as a form of repressive tolerance that maintained the status quo by giving malcontents the right to blow off steam. But now that liberal and left-wing faculty are feeling the sting of PC, they may finally be willing to rethink their positions. Will students, the vast majority of whom probably could care less about any of this sort of thing, start evacuating campuses that are known to be ultra-PC? Will they start bypassing college altogether, except maybe for technical degrees that are relatively immune from many ideological battles?

Alan Kors, the libertarian University of Pennsylvania historian (and Reason contributor) was once upon a time was involved in one of the first great battles in the PC wars (google "water buffalo case" kids). He talks about how one of the major problems is that faculty no longer really run universities. For a variety of good and bad reasons, they ceded governance of higher education to bean counters, fundraisers, and residence-life staff who have very little interest in intellectual discussion and a lot more in regimenting lifestyle and thinking. In believing this, the co-founder of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is joined by Camille Paglia, who remains outspoken in her contempt not just most scholars but students too (kill an hour listening to her here; you won't be sorry).

Colleges and universities becoming places where free inquiry is not simply tolerated but a foundational principle? Where faculty are expected to produce new knowledge and engage in sharp, unsettling, and sometimes incredibly nasty debates while inching toward some inherently provisional but nonetheless meaningful understanding of truth? Where students are exposed not to epistemic closure and endless jeremiads about the latest and greatest microaggression (soon to be replaced, I'm sure, by even smaller and difficult to see nanoaggressions)?

Yeah, it could happen. Take a listen to Kors, talking in 2012, to see if that might be a university you'd want to attend or to which you'd send your kid: