When I went to college in the late 1970s, a few of my professors still referred to female students as “girls.” Many of us spoke of Asian people as “Orientals.” And a physical education instructor taught me to shoot a basketball with a flick of the wrist that we called the “faggy wave.”
But I also engaged in lengthy debates -- inside and outside the classroom -- over abortion and affirmative action. Everyone understood that these were hotly contested questions in American society. So we assumed that they should be vigorously debated at American colleges, too.
It’s rare to hear outright slurs against women or minorities on campus today, which is a very good thing. But we also don’t encounter a full range of opinion about controversial public issues, especially those dealing with race and gender. And that’s because of political correctness, which comes in two very different forms that we too often confuse with each other.
Political correctness one (PC-1) aims to change our language for describing human difference, so it doesn’t demean others. When a professor calls his female students “girls,” he’s implicitly questioning their membership in the adult community. It’s a matter of basic decency to use another term.
It’s also a way of helping all of us to communicate across our differences. If you want to have a substantive conversation with an Asian person, calling her “Oriental” isn’t a good way to start. It’s better to follow a few simple PC-1 rules, which signal the mutual respect that real dialogue requires.
By contrast, political correctness two (PC-2) inhibits that dialogue by imposing liberal political orthodoxies. It’s not just about using the right words, so that everyone feels included and respected. It tries to promulgate a set of right answers, thereby constraining our discussion of important questions.
Consider affirmative action, which remains the great undebated issue in American higher education. According to a 2006 survey by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, which they reported in Professors and Their Politics (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 43 percent of American professors oppose race-based affirmative action in college admissions. But you almost never hear them speaking out against it, because -- yes -- it has become politically incorrect to do so.
On abortion, meanwhile, a 2005 study reported that 84 percent of professors were “strongly or somewhat” pro-choice. But that means about one out of seven professors was opposed to abortion rights. And you wouldn’t know that from listening to our dialogues on campus, where most pro-life faculty members keep quiet.
Likewise, our students have learned to bite their tongues if they dissent from PC-2. Every semester, conservative students “come out” to me in their essays and exams. When I urge them to share their views in class, their reply is always the same: we’ll be ridiculed or shouted down.
In a 2010 survey asking college students whether it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on college campuses,” only 40 percent of freshmen “strongly” agreed. And just 30 percent of seniors did so, suggesting that students feel more constrained by PC-2 the longer they are in college.
Of course, PC-1 imposes constraints of its own. So what? It should be politically incorrect to call grown women “girls” or Asians “Orientals.” Listening to Donald Trump and his followers, you might think that these new terms represent a totalitarian threat to American liberties. But it’s hard to see how Trump -- or anyone else -- is harmed when we ask them to use a more respectful vocabulary for describing their fellow citizens.
The real harm arises when we try to enforce the revised terminology with official sanctions and penalties. In their zeal to promote PC-1, too many of our colleges and universities have enacted speech codes that bar insulting or offensive language regarding race, gender, sexuality and more.
Every court that has examined these codes has found them unconstitutional. Speech codes make slur-spouting bigots into First Amendment martyrs. And they reinforce the real danger to free speech on campus, which is ideological rather than linguistic.
If a college bans racist statements, critics of affirmative action will be less likely to speak their minds lest they stand accused of racism themselves. If it bars sexist comments, anti-abortion voices will be constrained. And if homophobic speech is prohibited, faculty members and students who oppose same-sex marriage will be discouraged from sharing their point of view. That can’t be good for our colleges or even for the liberal causes that so many of us hold dear, which can only benefit from a full and complete debate.
Terms like “Oriental” and “faggy wave” inhibit that debate, and I’m ashamed that I ever used them. But I’m also ashamed that many of our colleges and universities have created new restrictions on opinion that stifle discussion as much as the old slurs did. The question is whether we can find the language -- and the courage -- to engage in a real debate about the issues that divide us. Politically correct words can help promote conversation. Politically correct pieties will kill it.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, which will be published in August by Oxford University Press.
The U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights has published a letter to high school and college officials on gender equity in career and technical education programs. The letter states that it is providing guidance on existing law and offers examples of how schools and colleges may need to reconsider policies. For example, it says that if a community college construction technology program requires applicants to have studied construction technology in high school, that could raise issues because so few female high school students take such courses. The college would then need to study whether the requirement was truly necessary and not just assume that it was because of past practice.
Ohio State University has dropped plans to have its mascot, Brutus Buckeye (right), march in a gay pride parade in Columbus this weekend, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Officials cited safety concerns in the wake of Sunday's attack on a gay club in Orlando, Fla. However, Ohio State students and its president plan to participate in some events this weekend related to gay pride celebrations.
On social media, many criticized the university's decision:
@OhioState cowers in wake of lone wolf terrorist in Orlando & prevents @Brutus_Buckeye from walking in Columbus Pride parade. That's weak.
After starting out in engineering, women are less likely than men to stay in the profession. But rather than a toxic curriculum or classroom environment, the problem may come from the group dynamics found in teamwork and summer internships, according to a new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
When MIT researchers analyzed more than 40 engineering students’ twice-monthly diaries, they found that female students often felt marginalized during group activities. In these situations, men are more likely to work on challenging problems, while women are more likely to be assigned menial tasks. For example, one of the students wrote about a group project in her design class: “Two girls in a group had been working on the robot we were building in that class for hours, and the guys in their group came in and within minutes had sentenced them to doing menial tasks while the guys went and had all the fun in the machine shop.”
The publication, called The Koala, was defunded after running a story that mocked trigger warnings and safe spaces. But by selectively defunding certain viewpoints, the student government violated the First Amendment, the ACLU wrote in a statement.
“Trauma is real,” David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, said in the statement, “but censorship is not the cure, because it inevitably blows back on those it purports to protect.”
The lawsuit argues that the student government’s actions violated freedom of speech by denying The Koala funding due to its views, while it violated freedom of the press by refusing to fund The Koala while continuing to fund other publications.
UC San Diego doesn't comment on lawsuits, a spokeswoman told The San Diego Union Tribune. Back in November, after the controversial story was published, the university denounced The Koala in a statement on its website.