• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Title

On Political Correctness as the New Campus "Religion"

Maybe all schools are religious schools. It's just a matter of what's being worshipped.

March 13, 2017
 
 

 

 

On a Wednesday night, after student demonstrators congregated outside of administration offices, they marched into the downtown, tearing down lampposts, tipping a news van, and hurling rocks and fireworks at police who fought back with pepper spray. They chanted the school’s name, claiming their actions on behalf of the school itself.

Some students worried about the damage to the school’s image, one telling the New York Times, “This definitely looks bad for our school, but we’re finding a way to express our anger.”

Other students were visibly upset, one girl walked the streets with her friend, crying. “I’m here because I just need to be with the rest of my school right now. This is devastating for us.”

Damage was estimated at close to $200,000. This was the fourth campus riot in the recent years, following ones in 1998, 2001, and 2008.

Was this the uproar at UC Davis over the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos? Or was it at Middlebury, where students shut down an appearance by Charles Murray, and later swarmed his car as he tried to leave campus, a professor getting injured in the mêlée?

Or maybe it’s a fresh example of the creeping tyranny of campus political correctness.

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Apparently working independently, William Deresiewcz and Andrew Sullivan have come to believe that political correctness (Sullivan identifies it as “intersectionality”) is the “new campus religion.”  

Deresiewicz characterizes the religion as a particular strain of “political correctness,” drawing a distinction between acceptable PC, “adhering to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets,” and the bad PC, “the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.”[1]

Reflecting on the events at Middlebury while cribbing Orwell, Sullivan calls “intersectionality” “a smelly little orthodoxy,” that “manifests itself…almost as a religion.” Sullivan believes intersectionality is the “latest academic craze sweeping the American academy” and declares it reflective of the “current atmosphere on most academic campuses.”[2]

Deresiewicz argues that the new campus religion of political correctness is more confined to the elite liberal arts schools, as he witnessed during a recent semester-long stint at Southern California’s all-women Scripps College, where he was told of religious students being afraid of admitting they go to church, or a student who believes herself a “strong feminist,” but keeps quiet for fear of stepping into a rhetorical bear trap that will leave her ostracized. Even the faculty and administration think things have gone too far. An adjunct instructor told Deresiewicz of how a “routine pedagogical conflict” in class had turned into a “bureaucratic dumpster fire.” When Deresiewicz told a Scripps administrator about a “young Christian man, who excused himself before a class discussion of the sexually explicit lesbian novelist Jeanette Winterson,” he expected the administrator to be sympathetic. Instead, she “snorted with contempt.”

Deresiewicz and Sullivan identify political correctness/intersectionality as religious because, in Deresiewicz’s words, “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.”

If this is going to be our bar for higher education institutions as religious schools, then I wonder if just about every college and university in the country a religious school.

Isn’t it just a matter of defining what is worshipped?

Like maybe…sports?

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Those rioting students highlighted at the top of the piece were at Penn St. University, and they were reacting to the 2011 firing of coach Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.  Students later also protested (without violence) the removal of a 7-foot tall statue of Paterno that had sat outside the football stadium. In 2016, former players called for the restoration of the statue, declaring, “We remain saddened that the Penn State Administration and Board of Trustees thrust our program and coach into an undeserved media frenzy in 2011.”

Demanding the return of an important idol to its proper place. Sounds like a religion to me.

Of course Penn St. is not the only campus where sports could be said to be a “religion,” and for sure it’s not the only place where the faithful manifest their belief in violence. The University of Kentucky has seen students riot four times since 2012 over the basketball team, twice over wins, twice over losses, the riots totaling over 100 arrests. 

At Duke, students camp outside for seats inside Cameron Stadium for basketball. At Clemson there is a tradition for the young women to wear the appropriate “tailgate dress” in orange and/or purple.

Alabama football has numerous rituals, “The Elephant Stomp” where the band plays in front of the library an hour before the game. After an Alabama victory, the fans exit the stadium into the streets singing “Rammer Jammer”[3] into the evening. 

But what of the student at Alabama who doesn’t care about football? Do they feel comfortable expressing such sentiments? Or do they stay quiet for fear of peer disapproval? Where is the space for young women at Clemson who don’t want to put on a short orange dress and boots and tailgate? Are these places also hostile to those who believe differently?[4]

How worried are we about the creeping footbalism infecting campuses?

Many of us, me included, lament the outsized role big time college athletics plays on college campuses, but for all the worries, I do not detect the kind of moral panic that seems to accompany the discussion about campus political correctness.

Why are we so worried about this new religion when others pass by without remark?

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When I started at the University of Illinois in 1988, the campus religion was…beer, with everyone seemingly worshipping at the Holy Tabernacle of The Keg. I was not particularly suited to this culture. I’d not been much of a partier in high school, and definitely didn’t like the taste of beer upon arriving at college. As an introvert, I valued my alone time. I wondered if it was a good place for me, but not having much alternative, I tried to fit in.

And fit in I did. I learned to drink, joined a fraternity, even going so far as to drink an entire case of beer in a single day, a house ritual to honor the anniversary of our fraternity's founding. Oh, who am I kidding, I drank a case of beer for three consecutive founders’ days.

But even then, I often didn’t enjoy the sensation of being drunk, and was sometimes disturbed by the idiocy I witnessed in others and displayed in my own behavior.

At the time, like a lot of young people, I wanted to fit in, and some of that fitting in was a performance, a trial at seeing what kind of person I might become.

It is interesting what campus issues we decide to elevate to the level of moral panic, and when. I grew up being regaled with my parents’ stories of their seemingly polite college “mixers” from the early 60’s that were actually fueled by grain alcohol punch so potent that you couldn’t get a lighter near for risk of self-immolation.[5]

In 1994, Harvard released its seminal College Alcohol Study which found that 44% of college students fit the definition of binge drinking. I would’ve been one of them. As it turns out, I’ve grown into something of a teetotaler. If you see me have a third beer, it’s a rare occasion indeed. Despite its long legacy as part of college culture, binge drinking became a defect apparently particular to my generation, perhaps a reflection of our nihilistic slackerdom, it was theorized, as we tried to fill our empty souls with copious amounts of alcohol.

More recently we had the panic over “hooking-up.” But many sociologists will tell you that students are no more likely to be hooking up than previous generations, casual sex long having been part of college and youth culture. The biggest difference is not a shift in behavior, but a change in culture that allows for casual sex to be destigmatized. 

With today’s campus “PC culture,” perhaps we are seeing not a problem – at least from a liberal perspective[6] – but the fruits of progress, similar to how we now understand “hooking up.” After all, it wasn’t all that long ago when political correctness wasn’t a thing because elite campuses were the near-exclusive provinces of white, upper class males. As women and minority students found their way into these spaces, at first they were required to stay silent, but as numbers and allies increased, they could begin to challenge their own marginalization.

We should expect things to get messy as our culture shifts. Many of these pundits cling to an image of higher education institutions as idealized citadels of reasoned debate where the “best” ideas come to the fore, but has this ever been true?

It certainly wasn’t true in an era when large swaths of the population were excluded from the debate. 

Some will say there is a distinction to be made, that shouting down speakers or chilling the free exchange of ideas is a threat to the very core of an academic institution. But is this any bigger threat than a student body who riots over a sporting event, or drinks too much, or has the wrong kind of sex?

Maybe we’re not actually looking at a “new campus religion” in political correctness, or a much older campus religion in sports. Perhaps it is simply another way of observing that every campus comes complete with its own culture, both of the world and apart from it, and when you are young and searching for your place in the world, it can be difficult to navigate that culture if you are not native or feel a little bit different. Those difficulties in navigation may cause one to believe that a particular campus culture is monolithic and they are somehow ill-suited or even unwelcome.[7]

For some, it is the inverse, the larger world in which you must live feels like a hostile and unwelcoming place, and here, suddenly you are in a smaller space that seems to be filled with like-minded people, and you get a little drunk with a power you’ve never experienced.

Young people feeling alienated and angry and acting intemperately. How novel.

This is not to say we should ignore these things. We should be vigilant about protecting free speech rights and we should strive to make campuses welcoming places for people with all different beliefs, just as we should attempt to mitigate the very real negative effects of binge drinking.

But we should also strive to understand the patterns of history, the conditions of youth, the complications of culture. The campus radicals of the 60’s grew into perfectly acceptable bourgeois capitalists. The vast majority of college binge drinkers have not become alcoholics.

And while the marriage rate for millennials is expected to decline, this is an economic issue, not a cultural one. The marriage rate for women with college degrees who did all that terrible hooking up is on the increase. 

Liberal pundits such as Frank Bruni, who takes his own turn at wringing his hands over Murray and Middlebury, says that colleges owe students “turbulence,” but if that’s the case, shouldn’t we expect for students to provide some turbulence to colleges in return?

It seems strange to declare that protesting students have a desire to be “swaddled in Bubble Wrap,” when the very nature of the protest is contentious and upsetting and so fraught as to call down criticism from the paper of record. Bruni on the one hand declares protests as “vital,” but then wants to declare a particular kind of protest out of bounds.

Who is it that’s in need of Bubble Wrap in this scenario?[8]

When our campuses do not reflect our ideals, rather than situating blame with “entitled” students or “radical” faculty, we should instead consider the underlying conditions that give rise to these conflicts.

Our students have been steeped in a culture of scarcity where there is not enough of anything to go around. Not enough money, not enough access to success. This gives rise to an entirely explicable anxiety and even tribalism, as individuals seek protection among the particular campus in-group (whether they’re particularly aligned with it or not). At one campus this may mean parrotting a particular political position you're not sure you believe. At another it may mean puttin on that adorable dress and cheering for the football team, even if you’d rather be home with a book.

Every moment positing a future of creeping illiberalism and it myriad dangers to the republic, fails to grapple with the much more meaningful truths of the world this generation is going to inherit.

Let’s attack the real problems, college costs, and the availability of productive and stable employment for all, including those without post-secondary education.

Do this and I bet we can get back to our moral panics about all that old-fashioned college drinkin’ and screwin’.

 

 

 

 

[1] Interesting that Deresiewicz feels a need to draw a distinction so as not to be identified with the conservative critiques of PC from the 1980’s. Is he being politically correct?

[2] Emphasis mine. I may question how Sullivan, a person who famously spends all his time in two locations, Washington D.C. and Fire Island, understands the pulse of most American campuses, but one would not be a pundit if one did not enjoy a good sweeping theory. Like a lot of the punditry, elite private higher education is the only education with which he has any familiarity, so they stand in for all schools, regardless of the much more complicated reality.

[3] Hey Auburn!

Hey Auburn!

Hey Auburn!

We just beat the hell out of you!

Rammer Jammer, Yellowhammer,

give 'em hell, Alabama!

[4] An “Open Letter to Clemson Community” by a Clemson senior published this weekend suggests that Clemson is not one of the colleges where political correctness has established dominance. 

[5] Lest we forget, Animal House was set in 1962.

[6] I grant that conservatives of a particular stripe may view all of my examples with ongoing concern. I’m addressing the liberal internecine conflict here.

[7] For all the concern over binge drinking and hooking up, the research showed that there was far more diversity of behavior and opinion on campuses than the panic suggested. The Harvard College Alcohol Study showed that on any given weekend night, a majority of college undergraduates are not drinking at all, let alone to excess.

[8] Journalist Jay Caspian Kang enumerates some of the more glaring logical gaps in Bruni’s and other “liberal” critics responses. 

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