'PC Policing' by Student Activists Is a Red Herring

While the media demonizes student activists, it’s the regressive hierarchy of universities that poses the real threat to freedom of speech.
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While the media demonizes student activists, it’s the regressive hierarchy of universities that poses the real threat to freedom of speech.
Jonathan Butler

Grad student Jonathan Butler addresses student-activists at the University of Missouri–Columbia on November 9, 2015. (Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

For no particular reason, 2015 was the year in which far too many liberal pundits decided to spend their limited credibility attacking liberal students who have sought trigger warnings, safe spaces, less offensive speech, or control over media access. This paranoia over hypersensitive students supposedly destroying the foundations of liberal learning graced the cover of the Atlantic and repeatedly found a home in the New York Times. A Vox piece on a liberal professor terrified by his politically correct students received hundreds of thousands of shares. Jonathan Chait wrote three times about the dangers of political correctness, once accusing “language police of perverting liberalism,” then, after an incident in Mizzou, demanding to know “Can We Start Taking Political Correctness Seriously Now?” Chait even enlisted President Obama as a source on his side, even though the president’s actual comments were far more nuanced about hate speech versus free speech. These articles, and many more, sparked widespread conversations on social media and all across the Web.

It turns out that complaining about “PC running amok” is a great way to go viral.

Any attempt to analyze a given incident of “politically correct” action or repression must look not at what’s being demanded, but where power actually lies.

While journalists lament the supposed scourge of political correctness among student activists, too many people who really control universities are attacking academic freedom, tenure, and free speech on campus.

Scott Walker and his lackeys have declared war on tenure in the University of Wisconsin system. Kansas legislators tried to ban professors from identifying themselves as academics in op-eds and or letters to the editor. When Steven Salaita settled his lawsuit with the University of Illinois, he made a good decision for his family, but it also means that the university is getting away with booting out a tenured professor over a Twitter flap. St. Mary’s, a small school in Minnesota, fired a popular professor for using phallus props in his production of Medea. Most recently, Wheaton College, in suburban West Chicago, has begun termination procedures against Larycia Hawkins because she posted on Facebook that she stands “in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” According to the provost, the idea that two of the three Abrahamic religions might venerate the same deity violates Wheaton’s "doctrinal convictions."

In light of troubling incidents like these, don’t well-placed liberal pundits have anything better to do than rant about PC orthodoxy among undergraduates? I understand why cultural conservatives love these pieces. They feed the long-standing narrative that college campuses are all about cultural brainwashing. I even understand those who are annoyed by overzealous students focused on trivial microaggressions, especially if the students in question seem to be rather privileged. Yet these complaints, and the seductive narrative they offer, distract us from much more serious threats to free speech and academic freedom. Even when annoying, the threat presented of “PC running amok” is little more than a side-show.

Conflicts around language-use and representation always emerge out of attempts to shift hierarchy. Each incident follows the same general pattern. People with less power demand or request that people with more power moderate their speech or actions. The people with more power use “that’s just being PC” as a rhetorical hedge to reinforce their dominant position. By their very nature, then, efforts to shift language are generally subversive; the backlash, generally regressive. Any attempt to analyze a given incident of “politically correct” action or repression must therefore look not at what’s being demanded, but where power actually lies.

It turns out that agitation for less offensive speech and safe spaces become dangerous to free speech or academic freedom only when powerful, entrenched forces co-opt such movements for their own purposes.

Here are four examples of “PC run amok” incidents that might seem troubling on the surface, but in fact reveal the sturdiness of institutional power.

1. Students and a professor at Mizzou refused to allow access to a student reporter, despite being on publicly held property. The attempt to ban the press, in fact, ensured quick and massive national coverage of the attempted ban. This coverage exacerbated the students’ fears that they would be targeted if their faces were broadcast. Fear of targeting was exactly the reason they had tried to ban reporters initially.

2. Oberlin students accused their dining services of cultural appropriation because they made bánh mì sandwiches from ciabatta and overcooked the sushi rice. To my knowledge, the only consequences of these accusations have been ridicule in the press and on social media.

3. Some rich and famous comedians said they don’t want to perform at college campuses because kids these days are too sensitive. The comedians remain rich and famous. One recently got coffee with President Obama.

4. Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she defended the right of students and professors to date; in the piece, Kipnis also dismissed an act of sexual harassment by Professor Peter Ludlow against an undergraduate as mere “melodrama.” Ludlow has since been found guilty, and has resigned. Two students filed Title IX charges against Kipnis, claiming that her essay was an act of “retaliation.” As a result (and as Kipnis herself has publicized), she had to go through an opaque and stressful process. She was, of course, quickly cleared. Moreover, her experience has propelled her to celebrity-status in the anti-PC crowd.

I think Kipnis shouldn’t have been cast into what she called a “Kangaroo Court,”  but rather should have been granted the transparency we all deserve. I think freedom of the press is one of most important Constitutional protections and the Mizzou protesters were in the wrong, even if their fear of being targeted makes sense. The food service claims feel awfully privileged, given food access and safety issues in less wealthy institutions. Finally, I think Jerry Seinfeld is sometimes very funny.

In all of these cases, though, the overzealous protesting voices come from the less powerful. If we go out of our way to quash such overzealous students, we run the risk of silencing those who are “appropriately” zealous (again, the question: Who’s the arbiter?).

There are people protesting gross negligence, discrimination, and oppression. Their protests function as speech acts, even when they are calling for someone to change their behavior. Yes, banning press access at Mizzou was a problem, but fighting racism in Missouri, a fight that drew in members of the football team (who do possess real economic power) and cast down a university president, cannot be dismissed as PC run amok merely because of the media incident toward the end.

We need a better rhetoric surrounding language, threats to academic freedom, and the need for free speech. Here are four suggestions the next time you hear someone complain that PC is running amok.

1. If the story is about an entertainer, point out, as Arthur Chu does, that comedians censor themselves all the time. When's the last comedian who attacked capitalism while speaking to the Walmart shareholders? Isn't kowtowing to rich corporate masters more of a threat than being less offensive around college students?

2. If the story is about students (or professors) trying to restrict press freedom, point out that more than 100 Missouri lawmakers are calling for the firing of the Mizzou professor who, unwisely, threatened press access to a public space. Aren’t legislators trying to fire a professor more dangerous for freedom of speech than a professor barring access to a student journalist?

3. If students criticize a professor, look back to the Salaita case, where student complaints were exploited by the administration and trustees in order to validate a decision they had already made. The problem lies in the administration.

4. If someone accuses liberals of being “thought police,” point out that at Wheaton College, policing of thought is literally written into the bylaws. That Atlantic cover piece lamented the “coddling of the American mind” as a real threat to education. At schools like Wheaton, “coddling” is by design and comes with the threat of job loss. Where are the liberal pundits on this?

Power matters. The disruptive power of student protests can overreach and cause trouble, from minor headaches to serious blacklisting. At worst, though, the softer powers that protest from below pale in comparison to the hard power of hiring, firing, and formal censure. In 2016, let’s keep the realities of hierarchy constantly in mind.