The Core of PC: Be Kind

There’s a lovely and thoughtful op-ed about “Sex at Wesleyan” written by an alumna with whom I must be roughly contemporary (I graduated in ’95). She articulates this:

As much as you may read about the angry cries of “social justice warriors” in current news, today’s students discuss sexual assault in a completely new way. Their primary concern is sexual ethics. Debates about what is consensual and what is not, what type of sex is fair and what is immoral, are essential to life at Wesleyan, I learned during visits to the campus a few semesters ago. “There’s a difference between illegal and unethical,” Chloe, a neuroscience major, told me, firmly. “Life is not about doing whatever you can do. It’s about not doing what is traumatic to another person.”

What few older people see in today’s “P.C.” students is their overwhelming urge to be kind to each other. They may have spent their middle and high school years being bullied, or bullying others; for kids in their low-to-mid-teens, the internet is a bullying machine. But by college, their sense of morality has blossomed. And many adolescents want to sort the world categorically into good and bad, at once eager to draw boundaries and empathize with whatever others might possibly feel.

PC can go awry. It often does. We humans are fallible creature. This viral “excommunicate me from the church of social justice” article from Autostraddle makes some good points about how we flawed creatures in fact function. Social justice easily becomes a new orthodoxy in which the goal is to seek opportunities to tell others how impure they are. Call outs rarely work (but often demonstrate to those watching that they are not alone). Call ins often work, but many alleged performative call ins are in fact public displays of purity (there is no “call in” on a public Facebook thread or on Twitter).

The amount of energy I spend demonstrating purity in order to stay in the good graces of fast-moving activist community is enormous. Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles. At times, I have found myself performing activism more than doing activism. I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me. Ultimately, the quest for political purity is a treacherous distraction for well-intentioned activists.

This is all also true for me.

But we need to tease out these flawed human social dynamics and work on them (and because they are what they are, I cis-male white guy cannot really do much work on them) without losing the core ideas behind the set of behaviors now demonized as “merely PC run amok.” Be kind to others. Recognize that words and images have power and try to use better ones that do the least damage. Listen to others. Listen especially to people who are rarely listened to. 

Lee’s Autostraddle essay on excommunication gets this – it’s about the “church” they propose has emerged. Not about the work.

Back to work.

PC Run Amok: Take 98

The American right-wing has a cultural theory, or at least a cudgel: America is being destroyed by political correctness. College professors and liberal students, especially those of color, are to blame. 

It’s not a new theory, but in this age of multi-million (billion, for Fox?) dollar media companies and the magnifying effect of social media, it has intensified in its consequences.  On the one hand, Donald Trump ran for president against PC, which is pretty high stakes I guess, but I’m more focused on the academic context. There are well funded conservative anti-academia sites promoting comments, often social media off-the-cuff stuff, sometimes formal writing, and sometimes gross distortions, by professors that will inflame their readers. There are editors at Daily Caller, Fox, Breitbart, trolling those anti-academia sites for a professor-of-the-day to target. And then there are the consumers, who have learned that they can start calling and threatening and being loud, and get professors suspended or fired in some cases. In other cases, they can issue threats and harassment campaigns, and drive academics out of their homes, into spirals of anxiety, and otherwise perform Gamergate-like campaigns on academics (mostly women and PoC).

So here’s my question: What are the centrist writers who have spent years criticizing PC run amok going to do about it?

I wrote a bit for Pacific Standard about this problem.

Mostly, when centrist writers acknowledge the threat from the right, the approach is to suggest the left talk less about racism, identity, the need for safety, for the left to make visible their openness to diversity. To argue that when the left says, “safe space,” it opens up room for the right to say, “safe space.” There’s a lot of “both sides are equally bad” talk.

But although attacks on free speech are, in abstract principle, equally bad, on a practical basis, power matters. I’d like to see a shift to the practicalities in terms of how we spend our media power.

I always think back to Melissa Click, the professor at Missouri. She behaved badly to a student journalist. It was bad, and it received massive scolding coverage from across the media landscape.

Then the legislators got her fired. To me, state legislators interfering in hiring/firing decisions in public universities is WAY MORE SERIOUS A THREAT than a single professor behaving badly.

We need to focus whatever command we have of the attention economy on the more serious threats, rather than feed Tucker Carlson his lines with our own “PC run amok” confirmations.

Adventures in Academic Freedom

Four stories.

1) ALEC is meeting with legislators and talking about pulling funding from public colleges and universities if they don’t include more conservative views.

The academic freedom PC Run Amok people don’t seem to care. Note, this is a standard idea among conservatives, as evidenced by this Ben Carson interview.  If you aren’t terrified by this, you aren’t really concerned about academic freedom.

2) Donald Moynihan, a prof at University of Wisconsin, writes for the New York Times about these real threats. He’s not focused on ALEC, but on Wisconsin lawmakers who want to censor university professors, and the threat of guns on education.

If you truly believe that a university should be a place where people are empowered to pursue a fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas and evidence that benefit us all, I have a simple request: Look at the bigger picture beyond a few elite private institutions. For those of us who teach where most American students are educated, actual triggers are a more relevant danger than trigger warnings. Safe spaces are less threatening than shutting down teaching and research spaces.

Policy makers who accuse students of weakening campus speech should lead by example. Free speech on campus has survived and will survive challenges from students and other members of civil society. Its fate is much less certain when the government decides to censor discomforting views.

3) Meanwhile, the UK is worried about PC Run Amok.  Sigh.

4) Finally, conservative academics are mostly pretty happy, rather than the besieged minority that they are alleged to be.

I should first mention that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, conservative faculty are just as happy as their liberal counterparts, if not more so. In fact, in 2014, two-thirds of conservative faculty on a nationwide survey responded “Definitely yes,” the most positive on a five-point scale, to the question “If you were to begin your career again, would you still want to be a college professor?” Nationally, an average of 58 percent of all faculty members said they would, while 56 percent of liberal faculty responded in such a positive way — 10 points lower than right-leaning faculty. 

Interestingly, tenure does not play a role in levels of satisfaction, either. Tenured and nontenured conservative faculty members are both highly satisfied, at 65 percent and 61 percent respectively. The numbers look different for faculty members who identify as liberal: of those, 62 percent of tenured faculty would remain a professor compared to only 49 percent of those who aren’t tenured — a nontrivial difference.

RESOURCES: Campus Speech after Trump

I’m beginning to collect pieces on campus speech issues for a future essay.

  • Johns Hopkins suspends an adjunct for racist jokes. Does so using a process that does not seem to have been clear to anyone. Prof says he was just joking around.
  • UCLA prof gets mad at someone on Facebook and says she’ll do less for disabled students as a result. I have a query in. Right to be a jerk on Facebook is protected by academic freedom. 

The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”
In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier. It is not typical. The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.

  • Robby Soave, education reporter for Reason who spends most of his time taunting liberal students (way to fight for freedom, Robby!), cheers on Bernie Sanders for attacking “political correctness.” 
    • I find the claim – DON’T POLICE SPEECH TOUGHEN UP – matched with Soave’s – DON’T SAY RACIST – ironic. 
    • My problem with libertarianism, generally, is that it creates principles devoid from attention to the realities of power. So a CEO’s speech needs just as much protection as a homeless non-white college student. Specifically, the great threats to academic freedom come from adjunctification, the corporate takeover of college, the defunding of public college, and more. Many libertarians realize this and craft a practice based on principles but responding to threats. At some point I’ll go look through a few hundred Soave columns, but today is not that day.


Black Lives Matter Pin = Jail. Speech Threats Still Top Down

Ever since “political correctness” jumped into mainstream public discourse as first a threat against higher education, then against free speech everywhere, and – with Trump’s campaign – a threat against the very security of our nation, I’ve been making one argument: Power matters.

  • Mostly, it’s not a problem when marginalized people ask for others to use less pejorative language.
  • Mostly, it’s not a problem when people ask to be warned before confronted with traumatic or upsetting words and images.
  • When it is problematic, or even just annoying, it only becomes a speech issue when coupled with a power dynamic that enforces language edicts.
  • Such power is most likely to reside among conservative (political and cultural) forces in our society.
Example: Professor Melissa Click at Mizzou was way out of line confronting a reporter. But power resides in the conservative legislature that attacked her and got her fired.
Example: The Dixie Chicks get blacklisted for saying they are ashamed of President Bush, but conservative country folks (or rockers like Ted Nugent) seem to be doing fine, no matter how much obscenity they fling at Obama.

Attorney Andrea Burton was defending a client in court this past Friday, when JudgeRobert Milich of the Youngstown Municipal Court noticed her wearing a Black Lives Matter pin the size of a nickel. He asked her to remove the pin but she refused, resulting in Milich instructing the bailiffs to take Burton into custody for contempt.According to a news report from WKNB First News, Burton was forced to leave her client behind.

That’s what censorship looks like – the power of the state being used to limit freedom of speech.

Coddling By Design – Wheaton College

Last year was the year in which white liberal pundits ranted about PC Run Amok. Hua Hsu covered it very well in his piece for The New Yorker, “The Year of the Imaginary Student.” It’s a piece worth reading in its entirety. (Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, has also written two good essays critiquing this discourse)

It was a rich year for even the casual observer of campus life. There were tales of students seeking “trigger warnings” before being exposed to potentially upsetting class materials. There was a new interest in “microaggressions,” or hurtful, everyday slights rarely uttered with the intention to offend. There was the Northwestern professor whose editorial against “sexual paranoia” resulted in students filing a Title IX suit against her, and the University of Missouri students who sought to bar journalists from a public plaza, which they claimed to be a “safe space” protected from the media. There were the students at Yale who demanded that a residential adviser be reprimanded after she prevailed upon them to be more open-minded about offensive Halloween costumes. And there was the item in the Oberlin school paper about sketchy Asian food, a piece that the New York Times described as evidence of the new “culture war.” Every week seemed to bring additional evidence for the emerging archetype of the hypersensitive college student, spotlighted at the beginning of the school year by the Atlantic, in a cover story about the “Coddling of the American Mind,” and just last weekend, in a Times Op-Ed about the “culture of victimhood.”

This phrase, the “coddling of the American Mind,” which The Atlantic gave such top billing to (a good financial decision. It got huge clicks), serves both older liberals, conservative on the non-political sense, who believe they are the arbiters of what kinds of dissent are good or bad, and actual conservatives who want to attack the whole notion of liberal learning as some kind of commie plot. But beyond the wisdom of giving fuel to the other side in the culture war, the attack on “coddling” has always struck me as aimed at the wrong target. Haidt and Lukianoff, authors of the Atlantic piece, write:

But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically.

So “coddling” is bad for students, they say, and it’s happening almost at epidemic rates on presumed liberal college campuses.

Here’s my rebuttal: If coddling is a problem, if we care about the need for young minds to be exposed to diverse, divergent, even offensive ideas, it’s not happening at, say, Oberlin and Wesleyan.

It’s happening at Wheaton College, where a professor is being fired for suggesting that Muslims and Christians might believe in the same god.

We can talk about the case of Larycia Hawkins along many lines, appropriately focusing on her freedom and her rights (few, legally, in this case), her bravery, and more. But just for a moment I’d like to cast the “coddling” rubric at Wheaton, a school that, by design, says that students may not encounter a single professor who deviates significantly from strict theological principles.

In fact, American evangelical colleges are built around the idea that student must be coddled, that the world is a corrupting Satanic space, that American culture is deviant, and college should be a protected enclave. Wheaton’s mandatory allegiance to its profession of faith is what real coddling looks like.

Wheaton is a lovely university. Its students are bright and its teachers dedicated. I know many Wheaton graduates. They tend to be smart, ecumenically minded, fascinating people, who in fact managed to avoid being coddled.

But for all I concede that many universities trend towards liberal cultural values, I know countless conservative professors with great careers, great comfort in their institutions, and the protected ability to speak freely about their beliefs.

At Wheaton, you will not find a single professor or student who can dissent from the profession of faith in public, as they’ll be expelled.

Now that’s coddling.