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.
I heard all this, and a good bit more, while teaching one class, for 12 students, during one semester, at one college. And I have no reason to believe that circumstances are substantially different at other elite private institutions, and plenty of reasons not to believe it: from conversations with individuals at many schools, from my broader experience in higher education, from what I’ve read not only in the mainstream media but also in the higher education press. The situation is undoubtedly better at some places than others, undoubtedly worse at the liberal arts colleges as a whole than at the universities as a whole, but broadly similar across the board.
So this is how I’ve come to understand the situation. Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
I should mention that when I was speaking about these issues last fall with a group of students at Whitman College, a selective school in Washington State, that idea, that elite private colleges are religious institutions, is the one that resonated with them most. I should also mention that I received an email recently from a student who had transferred from Oral Roberts, the evangelical Christian university in Tulsa, to Columbia, my alma mater. The latter, he found to his surprise, is also a religious school, only there, he said, the faith is the religion of success. The religion of success is not the same as political correctness, but as I will presently explain, the two go hand in hand.
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern. The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
Dogma, and the enforcement of dogma, makes for ideological consensus. Students seldom disagree with one another anymore in class, I’ve been told about school after school. The reason, at least at Whitman, said one of the students I talked to there, is mainly that they really don’t have any disagreements. Another added that when they take up an issue in class, it isn’t, let’s talk about issue X, but rather, let’s talk about why such-and-such position is the correct one to have on issue X. When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps. But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
That, by the way, is why liberal students (and liberals in general) are so bad at defending their own positions. They never have to, so they never learn to. That is also why it tends to be so easy for conservatives to goad them into incoherent anger. Nothing makes you more enraged than an argument you cannot answer. But the reason to listen to people who disagree with you is not so you can learn to refute them. The reason is that you may be wrong. In fact, you are wrong: about some things and probably about a lot of things. There is zero percent chance that any one of us is 100 percent correct. That, in turn, is why freedom of expression includes the right to hear as well as speak, and why disinviting campus speakers abridges the speech rights of students as well as of the speakers themselves.
Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.
Which brings us to another thing that comes with dogma: heresy. Heresy means those beliefs that undermine the orthodox consensus, so it must be eradicated: by education, by reeducation—if necessary, by censorship. It makes a perfect, dreary sense that there are speech codes, or the desire for speech codes, at selective private colleges. The irony is that conservatives don’t actually care if progressives disapprove of them, with the result that political correctness generally amounts to internecine warfare on the left: radical feminists excoriating other radical feminists for saying “vagina” instead of “front hole,” students denouncing the director of Boys Don’t Cry as a transphobic “cis white bitch” (as recently happened at Reed College), and so forth.
But the most effective form of censorship, of course, is self-censorship—which, in the intimate environment of a residential college, young adults are very quick to learn. One of the students at Whitman mentioned that he’s careful, when questioning consensus beliefs, to phrase his opinion in terms of “Explain to me why I’m wrong.” Other students— at Bard College, at the Claremont Colleges—have explained that any challenge to the hegemony of identity politics will get you branded as a racist (as in, “Don’t talk to that guy, he’s a racist”). Campus protesters, their frequent rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, are not the ones being silenced: they are, after all, not being silent. They are in the middle of the quad, speaking their minds. The ones being silenced are the ones like my students at Scripps, like the students at Whitman, like many students, no doubt, at many places, who are keeping their mouths shut. “The religion of humanity,” as David Bromwich recently wrote, “may turn out to be as dangerous as all the other religions.”
The assumption on selective campuses is not only that we are in full possession of the truth, but that we are in full possession of virtue. We don’t just know the good with perfect wisdom, we embody it with perfect innocence. But regimes of virtue tend to eat their children. Think of Salem. They tend to turn upon themselves, since everybody wants to be the holiest. Think of the French Revolution. The ante is forever being upped. The PC commissariat reminds me of the NRA. Everyone is terrified of challenging the NRA (everyone in a position to stop it, at least), so it gets whatever it demands. But then, because it can, it thinks up new demands. Guns in playgrounds, guns in bars.
So it is with political correctness. There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.
You were also always under surveillance by a cadre of what Jane Austen called, in a very different context, “voluntary spies,” and what my students called the PC police. Regimes of virtue produce informants (which really does wonders for social cohesion). They also produce authorities, often self-appointed authorities, like the writing director at Scripps who decreed that you aren’t supposed to use the word crazy. Whenever I hear that you aren’t supposed to say something, I want to know, where did this supposed descend from? Who decided, and who gave them the right to decide? And whenever I hear that a given group of students demands this or says that, I want to ask, whom exactly are we talking about: all of them, or just a few of them? Did the group choose its leaders, or did the leaders choose themselves?
Let me be clear. I recognize that both the culture of political correctness and the recent forms of campus agitation are responding to enormous, intractable national problems. There is systemic racism and individual bigotry in the United States, and colleges are not immune from either. There is systemic sexism and sexual assault in society at large, and campuses are no exception. The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings, the desire to eliminate micro-aggressions, the demand for the removal of offensive symbols and the suppression of offensive language: however foolish some of these might be as policy prescriptions (especially the first two), however absurd as they work themselves out on the ground, all originate in deeply legitimate concerns.
But so much of political correctness is not about justice or creating a safe environment; it is about power. And so much of what is taking place at colleges today reflects the way that relations of power have been reconfigured in contemporary higher education. Campus activists are taking advantage of the fact (and I suspect that a lot of them understand this intuitively, if not explicitly) that students have a lot more power than they used to. The change is the result not only of the rise of the customer-service mentality in academia, but also of the proletarianization of the faculty. Students have risen; instructors have fallen. Where once administrations worked in alliance with the faculty, were indeed largely composed of faculty, now they work against the faculty in alliance with students, a separate managerial stratum more interested in the satisfaction of its customers than the well-being of its employees.
In the inevitable power struggle between students and teachers, the former have gained the whip hand. The large majority of instructors today are adjuncts working term to term for a few thousand dollars a course, or contract employees with no long-term job security, or untenured professors whose careers can still be derailed. With the expansion of Title IX in 2011—the law is now being used, among other things, to police classroom content—even tenured faculty are sitting with a sword above their heads. Thanks not only to the shift to contingent employment but also to the chronic oversupply of PhDs (the academic reserve army, to adapt a phrase from Marx), academic labor is cheap and academic workers are vulnerable and frightened. In a conflict between a student and a faculty member, almost nothing is at stake for the student beyond the possibility of receiving a low grade (which, in the current environment, means something like a B+). But the teacher could be fired. That is why so many faculty members, like that adjunct instructor at Scripps, are teaching with their tails between their legs. They, too, are being silenced. Whether they know it or not, student activists (and students in general) are exploiting the insecurity of an increasingly immiserated workforce. So much for social justice.
The power of political correctness is wielded not only against the faculty, however, but also against other groups within the student body, ones who don’t belong to the ideologically privileged demographics or espouse the approved points of view: conservative students; religious students, particularly Christians; students who identify as Zionists, a category that includes a lot of Jewish students; “athletes,” meaning white male athletes; white students from red states; heterosexual cisgendered white men from anywhere at all, who represent, depending on the school, between a fifth and a third of all students. (I say this, by the way, as an atheist, a democratic socialist, a native northeasterner, a person who believes that colleges should not have sports teams in the first place—and in case it isn’t obvious by now, a card-carrying member of the liberal elite.) I haven’t heard too many people talk about creating safe spaces for Christians, or preventing micro-aggressions against conservatives, or banning hate speech against athletes, or disinviting socialists.
What I have heard, frequently, for as long as I have been involved in academia, are open expressions of contempt or prejudice or hostility against those suspect groups or members of those groups. If you are a white man, you are routinely regarded as guilty until proven innocent, the worst possible construction is put upon your words, and anything you say on a sensitive issue is received with suspicion at best. I attended a workshop on micro-aggressions at the University of Missouri last year. The problem with micro-aggressions, the leader said, is that they “create a space of hostility,” that they say, “you don’t belong; you are different in a way that’s not okay.” Those formulations precisely describe the environment that the groups I just enumerated often encounter at elite private colleges, except that unlike the typical micro-aggression, the offense is not inadvertent. It is quite deliberate. Racism may indeed be a system, but bigotry and prejudice are personal attitudes, and they are freely distributed (“cis white bitch”) across the political spectrum.
I am perfectly aware that men, whites, heterosexuals, and cisgendered people remain the dominant groups in society as a whole. But equality is not revenge. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are incomparably more powerful, and more entrenched, than their “reverse” counterparts, but that doesn’t make the latter anything less than reprehensible, especially when practiced against college students: individuals, in other words, who are scarcely more than adolescents, and who deserve the benefit of the doubt.
I was talking about trigger warnings with the writing director at Scripps. I told her that the only student I’d taught who was so uncomfortable with course material that he had to leave the room was a young Christian man (another Asian American, as it turns out), who excused himself before a class discussion of the sexually explicit lesbian novelist Jeanette Winterson. I was naïve enough to think that the director would be sympathetic to the student’s situation. Instead, she snorted with contempt. (For the record, I myself was none too happy with his move. But then, I don’t believe in trigger warnings in the first place.) Progressive faculty and students at selective private colleges will often say that they want to dismantle the hierarchies of power that persist in society at large. Their actions often suggest that in fact they would like to invert them. All groups are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Political correctness creates a mindset of us versus them. “Them” is white men, or straight cisgendered white men—a.k.a. “the patriarchy.” (The phrase “dead white men,” so beloved on the left, would have little force if its last two words were not already felt to constitute a pejorative.) “Us” is everybody else, the coalition of virtue (virtuous, of course, by virtue of an accident of birth). Which means that political correctness not only treats “them” as a monolith—erasing the differences among white people, like those between Jews and Mormons or English and Irish, thus effacing the specificity of their historical and sometimes also their present experiences—it effaces the specificity of everyone’s experience.
Political correctness expects us to plot our experience on the grid of identity, to interpret it in terms of our location at the intersection of a limited number of recognized categories. You are a lesbian Latina, therefore you must feel X. You are a white trans man, therefore you must think Y. But identity should not precede experience; it should proceed from it. And experience is much more granular, and composed of a vastly larger number of variables, than is dreamt of in the PC philosophy. I myself am a youngest child; I was raised in the suburbs; I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family—but more to the point, my consciousness and way of being in the world have been shaped by an infinite series of experiential particulars, a large proportion of which are not reducible to any category.
That, by the way, is one of the reasons to read literature, and to place it at the center of a college education: because it captures the complexity of lived experience, and of enacted identity, in a way that the categories of a politicized social science can never hope to match.
There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group.
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous.
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”
But it isn’t simply the admissions process. The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it.
And here we come to the connection between the religion of success and the religion of political correctness. Political correctness is a fig leaf for the competitive individualism of meritocratic neoliberalism, with its worship of success above all. It provides a moral cover beneath which undergraduates can prosecute their careerist projects undisturbed. Student existence may be understood as largely separated into two non-communicating realms: campus social life (including the classroom understood as a collective space), where the enforcement of political correctness is designed to create an emotionally unthreatening environment; and the individual pursuit of personal advancement, the real business going forward. The moral commitments of the first (which are often transient in any case) are safely isolated from the second.
What falls between the two is nothing less than the core purpose of a liberal education: inquiry into the fundamental human questions, undertaken through rational discourse. Rational discourse, meaning rational argument: not the us-talk of PC consensus, which isn’t argument, or the them-talk of vituperation (as practiced ubiquitously on social media), which isn’t rational. But inquiry into the fundamental human questions—in the words of Tolstoy, “What shall we do and how shall we live?”—threatens both of the current campus creeds: political correctness, by calling its certainties into question; the religion of success, by calling its values into question. Such inquiry raises the possibility that there are different ways to think and different things to live for.
Political correctness and rational discourse are incompatible ideals. Forget “civility,” the quality that college deans and presidents inevitably put forth as that which needs to “balance” free expression. The call for civility is nothing more than a management tool for nervous bureaucrats, a way of splitting every difference and puréeing them into a pablum of deanly mush. Free expression is an absolute; to balance it is to destroy it.
Fortunately, we already have a tried-and-tested rule for free expression, one specifically designed to foster rational discourse. It’s called the First Amendment, and First Amendment jurisprudence doesn’t recognize “offensive” speech or even hate speech as categories subject to legitimate restriction. For one thing, hate is not illegal, and neither is giving offense. For another, what’s hate to me may not be hate to you; what’s offensive to you may be my deeply held belief. The concepts are relative and subjective. When I gave a version of this essay as a talk at Bard, the first comment from the panel of student respondents came from a young Palestinian woman who argued that “conservative narratives” like Zionism should be censored, because “they require the otherization, if not the dehumanization, of another group of people.” It didn’t seem to have occurred to her that many Zionists would say the same about what they regard as the Palestinian position. Once you start to ban offensive speech, there is no logical place to stop—or rather, where you stop will be determined by the relative positions of competing groups within the community.
In other words, again, by power. To take the most conspicuous issue around which questions of free expression are being disputed on campus, the disinvitation of outside speakers always reflects the power of one group over another. When a speaker is invited to campus, it means that some set of people within the institution—some department, center, committee, or student organization—wants to hear what they have to say. When they are disinvited, shouted down, or otherwise prevented from speaking, it means another set has proved to be more powerful.
When the latter are accused of opposing free speech, they invariably respond, “How can we be opposed to free speech? We are exercising it right now!” But everyone is in favor of their own free speech (including, for instance, Vladimir Putin). The test of your commitment to free speech as a general principle is whether you are willing to tolerate the speech of others, especially those with whom you most disagree. If you are using your speech to try to silence speech, you are not in favor of free speech. You are only in favor of yourself.
I see no reason that the First Amendment shouldn’t be the guiding principle at private colleges and universities (at least the ones that profess to be secular), just as it is, perforce, at public institutions. But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself. (In today’s idiom, they can be real with one another. The one thing students at elite private colleges very rarely are is “real.”) It’s true that neighborhoods and public schools are much more segregated than they were a generation ago, but students at public colleges and universities are still considerably less likely to come from affluent white/Asian bubbles than are those at wealthy private ones.
True diversity means true disagreement. Political correctness exists at public institutions, but it doesn’t dominate them. A friend of mine who went to Columbia and Yale now teaches at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. “When you meet someone at Hunter,” she told me, “you can’t assume they see the world the same way you do.” That’s about as pithy an expression of the problem at selective private colleges as I can imagine. When you meet someone at Columbia or Yale or Scripps or Whitman or any of scores of other institutions, you absolutely can assume they see the world the same way you do. And anyone who threatens to disrupt that cozy situation must be disinvited, reeducated, or silenced. It’s no surprise that the large majority of high-profile PC absurdities take place at elite private schools like Emory or Oberlin or Northwestern.
That same safe assumption, about the points of view of everyone around you, does not pervade selective private campuses alone, of course. It is equally the case among the liberal elite: at the Manhattan dinner party, the Silicon Valley startup, the Seattle coffee shop, the Brookline PTA. (That it is also the case in other realms of society, non-liberal and/or non-elite, is true. It is also no excuse, especially not for people who consider themselves so enlightened.) This is not an accident. Selective private colleges are the training grounds of the liberal elite, and the training in question involves not only formal education for professional success, but also initiation into the folkways of the tribe.
Which means that fancy private colleges have a mission public institutions don’t. People arrive at public schools from a wide range of social locations, and they return to a range that is nearly as wide. The institutional mission is to get them through and into the job market, not to turn them into any particular kind of person. But selective private colleges (which also tend to be a lot smaller than public schools) are in the business of creating a community and, beyond that, a class. “However much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have,” as one of my students once put it, “its senior classes have far less.”
And this, I believe, is one of the sources of the new revolt among students of color at elite private colleges and universities. The expectation at those institutions has always been that the newcomers whom they deign to admit to the ranks of the blessed, be they Jews in the 1950s or African Americans today, will assimilate to the ways of the blessed. That they will become, as people say, “more white.” That bargain, as uncomfortable as it has always been, was more readily accepted in the past. For various reasons, it seems that it no longer is. Students of color are telling the whites who surround them, No, we aren’t like you, and what’s more, we don’t want to be like you. As very different as their outlook is from that of the white working class, their rejection of the liberal elite is not entirely dissimilar.
Selective private colleges need to decide what kind of places they want to be. Do they want to be socialization machines for the upper-middle class, ideological enforcers of progressive dogma? Or do they want to be educational institutions in the only sense that really matters: places of free, frank, and fearless inquiry? When we talk about political correctness and its many florid manifestations, so much in the news of late, we are talking not only about racial injustice and other forms of systemic oppression, or about the coddling of privileged youth, though both are certainly at play. We are also talking, or rather not talking, about the pathologies of the American class system. And those are also what we need to deal with.
Want more Deresiewicz? Try All Points, his blog about American culture, or these classic from the archives: “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.”
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