A Real-Life PC Principal

(Kristian Hammerstad / The Atlantic)

You might be getting tired of this long, rich discussion by now, but reader emails keep pouring in. Below is a final big roundup of email—which has been, on the whole, supportive of the story from Haidt and Lukianoff:

When citizens in a democratic republic like ours are more concerned about whether their speech will cause offense than they are about expressing ideas, they become incapable of fulfilling their obligations as citizens.  They refuse to hear, much less repeat and promote, important ideas for fear that a listener may take offense. Yet, it is precisely these types of ideas—ideas that are outrageous and upsetting when first expressed—that help to keep the Republic alive and free through continuous change.

Let’s be clear. The goal of speech code has nothing to do with feelings.  The goal is power—power to silence dissent and to force conformity and compliance.

Another reader is at his wit’s end:

I am in a graduate program of social work at a fairly “prestigious” university and this PC stuff is killing our education.

Instead of learning skills and techniques to help people in need, we read thousands-upon-thousands of pages of material about “microagressions” and “microinsults,” often in “studies” that directly contradict each other. Instead of belonging to a community of generally like-minded, altruistic peers, we are all fragmented along every conceivable social fault line of identity politics, “social locations,” and “intersectionalities.” Instead of sharing what we know with each other, we often sit for hours in silence in classes so as not to risk offending anyone else in the slightest.

When I graduate, I fear that I will have no discernible, useful skills to use in the real world. What I will have is crippling debt. And an extensive vocabulary that I can use to label every slight and injury with staggering precision.

Another reader snarks, “Perhaps we should just give into these overly coddled college students by rewarding them with Participation Diplomas.” Reader S.G. presents a new angle:

Whether you oppose or support trigger warnings, I’ve rarely seen anyone address the impact they would have on classes where the curriculum is student submitted work.

Assuming trigger warnings are mandatory, what message does it send to young writers, painters, or musicians that they’ll need to provide advance notice of potentially troubling concepts in their work or risk academic punishment? Even if trigger warnings aren’t mandatory, it doesn’t seem much better to have a system where they’re “strongly encouraged” to the point not including them would be seen as a major social negative. We like to pretend the negative effects of peer pressure and social ostracizing are things we leave behind in high school. They’re not. They have weight.

Another reader, William Petersen, insists that the PC problem spans ideologies:

I have seen more “right leaning” local school boards dispense completely with history or science books that criticize the myth of American Exceptionalism, teach the Theory of Evolution, and/or try to re-write curriculum to fit certain Conservative or Christian presumptions of “what is appropriate” for young people, than I have liberal adjunct professors invoking trigger warnings to dampen right-leaning opinions in the lecture hall. The coddling, that Lukianoff and Haidt rightly criticize, is apolitical in many respects.

Another reader agrees:

Instructors do get some students from time to time who think they have the right not to have their sensibilities offended. This extreme orthodoxy emanates from both liberal AND conservative students.

This is not to suggest there is no such thing as “microagression,” but I think they are making a mountain out of a molehill. Some students are EXPLOITING this situation and creating an atmosphere of paranoia, sometimes because they simply don’t like the instructor, or worse, as a pre-emptive excuse for their own bad performance. I suspect some are just looking for an excuse to nail your ass with whatever tools are at their disposal. I have had these kinds of problems on four occasions— twice with black females, once with a gay male student, and once with two evangelicals in tandem.

I find the root of it is usually that they are disgruntled with their grades and want to punish YOU, so at bottom it’s really a kind of temper tantrum. They are spoiled brats and they know exactly what buttons to push. They can make your life a living hell and they know how to do it. This is the main reason I am retiring from academia.

But Greg Hom warns:

This trend to not allow speech is not confined to the academy by any means. When politicians try to disallow the words “global warming” or “climate change” in political discussion because it goes against their “beliefs,” they are contributing to this nonsense.

Another reader looks to literature and sees life imitating art:

In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novella 451 Fahrenheit, he worried about society developing institutionalized restrictions on discussing difficult concepts such as race relations, sexual perversion, and political differences because they might hurt people’s feelings. The whole PC movement described in this cover story is a mirror of the speech that the “Fire Captain” made to Montag before he burnt the house with the hidden library of banned books. And the multiple screens on walls and in miniature in Montag’s house which enabled his insecure wife to be in constant touch with her “cousins” was Bradbury’s prescient vision of our overwhelming obsession in 2015 with Facebook and Twitter.

Another looks to advertising:

There’s an interesting article by The Last Psychiatrist that long-windedly examines the idea that Dove Soap’s “Real Beauty” campaign was not specifically crafted to answer any real questions about how we perceive beauty but instead to set up Dove as a voice of authority in that sphere. If we were arguing about Dove’s opinion on beauty, the author posits, it could only benefit Dove no matter which way the argument was settled because by discussing it were were making the assumption that Dove’s opinion mattered at all. By creating an argument, Dove set itself up as an important voice on beauty, which helped it sell soap. It’s hard to argue this wasn’t effective.

In the case of campus PC, we see something similar but twisted into a new form. The administrations of the offending colleges could very easily settle the issue once and for all by simply rejecting the idea of microaggressions and by refusing to get involved in matters of free speech. “Discourse is important,” they could say, as everyone else does.

That the administration of these schools does not do so tells us something. They’ve set up a system where the students bring them complaints on a regular basis regarding the speech and actions of other students, and in those instances the school is expected to render a ruling on the particular instance of speech. It doesn’t matter what the issues are or how the school rules: the point is to condition the students into regarding the University as the authority on what speech and thoughts are acceptable.

This isn’t the University’s job, and the idea that we’ve allowed government-funded establishments to expand their power in this way should be objectionable to us.

Reader K.P. notes an example:

I went to a small private school, the University of Tulsa. The year after I graduated, they suspended (effectively expelled) a senior. His crime? His then-fiancé (a non-student) had written a rude Facebook post with some incendiary remarks about a faculty member and another student. The administration claimed the student didn’t act quickly enough to take down his fiancé’s post and brought the rod of discipline down on his head. He lost tens of thousands of dollars and probably had his career prospects damaged over somebody else’s impolite speech.

Another reader criticizes a part of the cover story that hasn’t been noted yet:

In discussing disinvitation of campus speakers, Haidt and Lukianoff fret that Condoleezza Rice and Christine Lagarde were disqualified from sharing their perspectives. Not only have both of these powerful figures had more than ample opportunities to share their perspectives in the past, but commencement speeches are not public forums from which they are being barred. Instead, speakers are personally invited to confer advice to graduating students, however trite. If a majority of students do not wish to receive someone’s advice, they are free not to. Why seek advice from the abhorrent?

Yes, in the examples given above, the speakers would likely have had an encouraging word for females aspiring to powerful positions, but so would many others who happen not to be complicit in outright misdeeds. Is Dick Cheney free to continue to spout his self-aggrandizing evil over the airwaves? Sure, but we certainly don’t have to provide an audience for him.

Another reader takes a step back:

Up till now, I had been reluctantly moving towards giving up on The Atlantic; that it had fallen totally in thrall to the worship of every imaginable liberal piety, to the exclusion of all other sensibilities. So understand how thrilling it was for me to read this vigorous and well-reasoned broadside directed against the campus thought police, which basically accused the conjurers of all things PC to be suffering from mental illness, and to be endangering students with same.

Another felt differently:

I think this story was the final nail in the coffin for me for The Atlantic. I reread this a few times. I looked for the word ‘tenure’ to appear in the article. I did a text search. The word never appeared.

Tenure has been disappearing in the name of cost-cutting. There are some schools where the concept barely exists. You have adjunct professors, some with Ph.Ds, who are essentially in paycheck-to-paycheck, quarter-to-quarter jobs. The universities who employ them are increasing non-academic staff but cutting tenured professors. Adjunct professors don’t require health insurance. If they’re unpopular, they’re easy to fire.

To me, this is the real decline of American Minds. It’s shocking to me how such a basic principle seemed to escape the authors.

One more reader:

While I’m not American, I am a recent grad and it was interesting to read this essay and compare it with my own uni experiences. Many of the same issues are currently playing out here in New Zealand, though perhaps not to the same degree of absurdity. Great article, well written, interesting, informative, well researched. I was so impressed I even turned off adblock for The Atlantic website.

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