A way we “need” to think?

The elephant in the room

This week on Tuesday, I was browsing through Facebook statuses when I came across one about an ethnic studies class. A student in the class, who identified himself as Asian, was lamenting that the class focused entirely on African American history. The course was taught by an African American professor. A majority of the students in it were Asian. “Asian is an ethnicity too,” the status ended.

The responses to the complaint were more subdued and civil than I have come to expect on a college campus. Besides one who tried to demand that African Americans have had it so bad that everything else pales in comparison, everyone else involved in the conversation were respectfully bringing up points about the perceived slight and the multi- and cross-disciplinary reasons for the class to be organized in such a way.

However, I still cannot help but wonder, what if “Asian” in the original posting were changed to “White?” What if the student wanted information on all races and ethnicities? Independent of the subject matter of this instance in particular, there would be nothing wrong with a desire to learn about such a topic.

But the reaction would be far more brutal than this. One can easily imagine the masses ready to pounce on a perceived racist. Rebecca Traister, in the New Republic, called these people “armies of unpaid but widely read commentators, ready to launch hashtag campaigns and circulate change.org petitions in response to the slightest of identity-politics missteps.” Anyone familiar with the culture or militant ideology of such “reformers” will understand and appreciate her description.

From a purely academic point of view though, there is nothing wrong with any of this. Simply expressing an unpopular or contrarian viewpoint need not earn the vitriol and spite of people, as if you maimed small children. But that is the kind of environment we have created.

Three weeks ago, in New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait published a long column bemoaning and chastising the movements that promulgate these attitudes. He focused much of the piece on college campuses, the “patient zero” for much of this in the United States. Drawing examples from all over the country, Chait succinctly and brilliantly attacks the political correctness culture, raising the best response and criticism from those who want to believe they cannot be criticized. It is one of the best journalistic pieces on freedom of thought in a long time.

Much of Chait’s criticism falls on American liberals. The moniker, though, hardly describes the people that use it. He describes how, successfully, the conservative right in the U.S. has made liberal a “feared buzzword with radical connotations.” But he reclaims the word, attributing its original meaning “[wanting] to make society more economically and socially egalitarian…[but still cherishing] individuals rights, freedom of expression and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace.”

Liberals in the United States have lost the creative and accepting personality that the “political marketplace” demands. Chait attributes this transformation directly to the political correctness movement, one that aims to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies.

Chait, again, takes many of his examples from the college setting, including a veteran of the Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” who now laments the breadth of free speech. In the end, though, he applies the consequences of this new reality to the rest of the country. “The P.C. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out.” Political correctness is a self-defeating movement.

This issue recently reared its head on this campus. Last month, this paper published two columns questioning the veracity of rape culture. The gist of the argument was that the cultural features, which many consider rape culture are in fact indelible from culture as a whole. Regardless of whether one considers the argument correct, the response illustrated the kind of dystopian response Chait envisions. True, the letter published in this paper the week after the initial publication engaged with the article and criticized the author civilly. In comparison, the shares of the article across social media and the in-person conversations I heard or had were rather different. Rather than engaging with the arguments, students simply demanded an alternate reality. They demanded that the argument in the article be false from the outset. Rather than educating or engaging with the other side, the loudest critics simply yelled. Rather than try and accomplish their goal of helping the oppressed, those on the outskirts of society, the critics simply demanded their way.

Chait is right: Illiberal political correctness pervades culture. At the outset of any conversation that even approaches a marginalized or “oppressed” group, there are the same massive armies waiting to criticize those that attempt to broach issues or people they see as “untouchable.” “Gotcha” moments, thus, become ubiquitous. Maybe, though, there is solace. Political correctness is self-defeating. It oppresses the voices of those who are aiding its rise. All we need is to pull away from our downward spiral. Unfortunately, the universities are just staying the course.

Andrew Breland, senior, writes a weekly Opinion column. Contact him at awb69@case.edu.