American Scholar: On Political Correctness. Power, class, and the new campus religion. By William Deresiewicz
Let us eschew the familiar examples: the disinvited speakers, the Title IX tribunals, the safe zones stocked with Play-Doh, the crusades against banh mi. The flesh-eating bacterium of political correctness, which feeds preferentially on brain tissue, and which has become endemic on elite college campuses, reveals its true virulence not in the sorts of high-profile outbreaks that reach the national consciousness, but in the myriad of ordinary cases—the everyday business-as-usual at institutions around the country—that are rarely even talked about.
A clarification, before I continue (since deliberate misconstrual is itself a tactic of the phenomenon in question). By political correctness, I do not mean the term as it has come to be employed on the right—that is, the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets. I mean its older, intramural denotation: the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.
I recently spent a semester at Scripps, a selective women’s college in Southern California. I had one student, from a Chinese-American family, who informed me that the first thing she learned when she got to college was to keep quiet about her Christian faith and her non-feminist views about marriage. I had another student, a self-described “strong feminist,” who told me that she tends to keep quiet about everything, because she never knows when she might say something that you’re not supposed to. I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
I also heard that the director of the writing center, a specialist in disability studies, was informing people that they couldn’t use expressions like “that’s a crazy idea” because they stigmatize the mentally ill. I heard a young woman tell me that she had been criticized by a fellow student for wearing moccasins—an act, she was informed, of cultural appropriation. I heard an adjunct instructor describe how a routine pedagogical conflict over something he had said in class had turned, when the student in question claimed to have felt “triggered,” into, in his words, a bureaucratic “dumpster fire.” He was careful now, he added, to avoid saying anything, or teaching anything, that might conceivably lead to trouble.
I listened to students—young women, again, who considered themselves strong feminists—talk about how they were afraid to speak freely among their peers, and how despite its notoriety as a platform for cyberbullying, they were grateful for YikYak, the social media app, because it allowed them to say anonymously what they couldn’t say in their own name. Above all, I heard my students tell me that while they generally identified with the sentiments and norms that travel under the name of political correctness, they thought that it had simply gone too far—way too far. Everybody felt oppressed, as they put it, by the “PC police”—everybody, that is, except for those whom everybody else regarded as members of the PC police.