Academic life can be insular and claustrophobic, and when I want to escape into a world unlike the one I know too well, I read mainstream journalism about academe.
Gone are the demands of e-mails to settle small administrative issues or to reschedule student conferences, the asbestos abatement in the office next door, the lesson planning, the thrilling moments of seeing students learn. Instead, in journalism about academia, shadowy cabals rule every gesture, and an Orwellian darkness encroaches. Of course, like any enormous incorporation of people with differing goals, academe has its cliques, its pettiness, its paranoia and its very real problems.
Yet journalism has little interest in day-to-day university life or in the complexity of dynamic, systemic problems. Plus, when any aspect of university life appears in the news, a necessary but forgotten asterisk is often absent: colleges and universities can be very different from one another, with seeming trends much more limited than they appear. As an undergraduate, I attended a commuter college with one dorm and one fraternity; as a graduate student, I attended the flagship campus of a Midwestern state university, then an urban campus considered by a surprisingly high number of students as their university of last resort, despite the high quality of education they received. Now I teach at an Ivy League university, with cultural norms both similar to and different from those of my undergraduate and graduate experiences. The most prominent similarity, in my experience, is the expense and challenge of parking.
I recently escaped into the wild fantasy of Jonathan Chait’s essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” in which he attempts to diagnose and critique language-use rules among leftists and liberals. His summary, from a follow-up post: “The story describes a set of social norms and protocols within communities of the left that make meaningful disagreement impossible on issues related to race and gender. I decided to reclaim the widely misused term political correctness rather than invent my own.” Much in his essay is wrong, starting with his understanding of political correctness.
Is Political Correctness Real?
Chait writes that he “reclaims” political correctness, but what he reclaims is unclear. He summarizes the history of P.C. thus: “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.” Chait’s capsule history isn’t so much an elision as a fiction. There aren’t any straightforward, uncontested histories of political correctness as a term, used inside and outside academe, nor of it going into “remission.” At any given moment, it has seemed much more like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
In Chait’s essay, political correctness is whatever he needs it to be; he knows it when he sees it. Most often it’s a widespread “academic movement,” organized by “pro-P.C. activists," but elsewhere it “is a style of politics” and even a zombie, having died: “The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement,” he begins one section, “was the 1992 presidential election.” Remarkably, Chait never cites or quotes anyone acting in the name of political correctness, nor does he demarcate the parameters. He writes, “In a short period of time, the P.C. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular.” Towering presence, psychic space: Chait has hyperbolized what may have begun as an inside joke, transforming it into an internal psychic repression.
Yet for a movement so broad, it’s oddly shadowy. In telling the story of University of Michigan student Omar Mahmood, whose apartment was vandalized after he wrote a satire of offense taking on campus, Chait writes, “Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim.” The passive voice gives away the game: Who saw Mahmood as perpetrator, and how does Chait know that view was widespread? Track passive voice and the pronouns that float unmoored from actors, and you may start to see Chait’s essay as conspiracy theory. Chait compounds the sense of conspiracy with an Orwell allusion standard to overheated-but-undercooked op-eds: “The subsequent vandalism of [Mahmood’s] apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.” “Served to confirm” to whom?
When Evidence Isn’t
How does Chait demonstrate the re-emergence of what he sees as thought policing? If we accept his evidence at face value, it seems compelling. But his anecdotes simply don’t demonstrate what he intends them to do. Sift his evidence, and you end up with almost nothing.
For example, look at how he treats the protests against talks by Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California-Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). ...[O]thers at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam....”
Chait euphemizes how both Maher and Ali have spoken of Islam. Maher doesn’t simply degrade Islam as he does other religions, he explicitly denounces the entirety of the religion as brutal. And context matters: Maher was invited as a commencement speaker; for Muslim students in the audience, the invitation to Maher suggests that critical thinking -- the kind Maher studiously avoids in his comments on Islam -- is unimportant. Ali’s situation was similar; she was being awarded an honorary degree that was rescinded when people drew attention to her 2007 comment that the entirety of Islam should be defeated, as well as her comments that Islam is a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and that there is no moderate Islam. Somehow, “staunch critic” doesn’t do justice to her actual language.
These comments are offensive, but not just to Muslims: they are offensive to anyone who values critical thinking, one of the explicit central values of universities. Had Maher and Ali been invited by groups independent of the university administration, the criticism would have been less notable and vocal. And, as Chait’s essay doesn’t mention, Maher still spoke at commencement with broad support on campus, and Ali was invited to speak at Brandeis.
Chait’s other omissions and elisions reveal how paltry his evidence is. He writes, “Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students.” According to Chait’s summary, the university itself -- presumably represented by higher-ups in the administration -- prevented the performance. But that’s not even remotely true; after long talks with Native American groups on campus, the groups producing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson decided to cancel the show. What happened next, in the parlance of clickbait headlines, will astound you: the groups who canceled the show put together a new show called Does This Offend You?, in which they performed controversial songs from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and other musicals. And they did so with enthusiastic support from the Stanford American Indian Organization, the group that originally brought forward their concerns with the original show. Either Chait omitted the aftermath because it wasn’t convenient to his narrative, or he ignored it. As he’s phrased it, his argument is cherry-picking and misleading.
Elsewhere, he distorts contexts and terminology, treating university debates as cutesy oddities. He writes, “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I -- one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’” His summary is both true and fundamentally misleading. Whether you agree or not that the lowercase i was an insult -- for what it’s worth, I do agree -- to treat it outside of its context amounts to a falsehood. At the time of the sit-in, UCLA was dealing with serious charges of systemic denigration of faculty of color; students of color were responding to what they saw as similar mistreatment -- condescension and hostility from students and faculty. And, contra Chait’s claim of repression and silencing, the students were asking to be heard. Acknowledging that complexity, though, runs counter to his thesis.
He doesn’t just minimize context in the sit-in anecdote; Chait has little respect for trigger warnings or the growing concern over microaggressions, mainly because he doesn’t seem to understand them. He introduces trigger warnings by writing, “At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach ‘trigger warnings’ to texts that may upset students.” One of Chait’s readers unfamiliar with academia might assume that trigger warnings are becoming more broadly accepted, but that simply isn’t the case; facing criticism of a broad policy recommending, not requiring, greater use of trigger warnings, Oberlin College tabled the proposal. And many inside and outside academia have brought more attention to trigger warnings not by endorsing them but by debating their usefulness; the official position of the American Association of University Professors, for example, is that trigger warnings are a “threat” to academic freedom. But Chait doesn’t tell his readers that.
Worse still, Chait doesn’t seem to know what trigger warnings are. He writes, “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma -- an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” I don’t use or support trigger warnings, but at least I know what they are. Take, for example, historian Angus Johnston’s trigger warning:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
That warning describes not avoidance, but “controlled exposure.” Also, a search of the Institute of Medicine’s Web site turned up no discussion of or position on trigger warnings in classrooms, and their analyses of how to handle trauma concern clinical standards and settings, not those of the classroom.
Chait’s cursory treatment of microaggressions is similarly inaccurate. (Trigger warning: bad generalization ahead.) He writes, “There is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.” Though there is debate about what microaggressions are and how much impact they have, to call them “small social slights” erases the context. African-American students are still underrepresented at many colleges and universities, and students of color report feeling racially isolated and even misled by university recruiting materials, an isolation exacerbated by microaggressions that highlight it. That isolation isn’t simply the same isolation that all students feel on moving to a new place; some research suggests that microaggressions can impact academic performance negatively.
The diminishing of microaggressions to “small social slights” is deeply ironic, given Chait’s tendency to use hyperbolic cliché; in addition to examples I’ve already noted (the ivory towering presence), his version of political correctness “has bludgeoned” even its supporters. Chait wrote for the student newspaper while at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. In a campus controversy about a display by videographer Carol Jacobsen, Chait “was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit.” The nature of the passive-voice attack is unclear. Did people disagree with the argument? Did they criticize Chait himself? Was his apartment door vandalized as Omar Mahmood’s was? Given the common use of “attack” to describe any verbal disagreement (paging George Lakoff), I’m inclined to assume until further notice, in Chait’s case, that “attacked” is hyperbolic.
Position, Culture and Subculture
I’m familiar with right-wing denunciations of academe, so much so that I tend to ignore them. The weather is the weather. But when a self-described liberal adopts a right-wing critique but treats his as distinct, I take notice. Position matters. “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind,” Chait writes. I quote that here because it’s also true of me: I am white and male, which is worth bearing in mind. Also, I’ve been a student or teacher in universities every year except one since 1996. I mention that because it’s just as meaningful, which is to say meaningless, as one of Chait’s anecdotes:
Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma -- or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy -- merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness -- “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’ "
I don’t want to diminish the anonymous professor’s feelings, but it’s appalling that Chait treats that interview as evidence. I’m also at a prestigious university, though I’m a lecturer unprotected by the tenure track. Maybe I’m attending the wrong meetings and missing out on fearful powwows, but the fear she describes isn’t something I’ve come across.
And it’s not that I’m ideologically or behaviorally pure: I’ve misspoken and said ignorant things and probably will in the future. When called on those things, I’ve rethought my position, and I’ve apologized. In each case, I’ve learned something. Maybe that anonymous professor’s anecdote is entirely accurate in describing how she feels, but it’s also possible that she’s not noticing a new upsurge but is more attentive to an old trend. Ultimately, what she says is nothing more than an unverifiable, context-free anecdote.
Just one counterexample to the culture Chait creates for his readers: in a first-year writing seminar, I taught Denis Johnson’s remarkable novella Train Dreams. Set in the early 20th century, the story begins with a group of white laborers attempting to throw an Asian laborer from a bridge for allegedly stealing from company stores. The third-person narration, which borrows the main character’s diction and syntax, repeatedly refers to the Asian laborer as a “Chinaman.” During in-class discussions, the students used the word “Chinaman” as they spoke. They didn’t recognize it as a slur, nor were they discussing it as a particular use of language. Notably, when I drew attention to their use (too late, I confess, even though Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski echoed in my head: “Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature”), the Chinese-American and international students from China said they hadn’t known it was a slur. I apologized for my slow response, but the students seemed to think it didn’t matter.
I don’t tell that story because I think students are oblivious to language use or that language use isn’t at times angrily contested on campuses; obviously, language use is often contested. But to describe arguments about language use as a movement that’s created an overwhelming culture of fear falls apart when you examine the evidence and Chait’s approach against context.
Back to positionality: we should always be mindful of that. My position -- as a white male, as a lecturer, as a colleague -- matters, not because the university is the bastion of a movement of political correctness, but because all cultures and subcultures have social norms and restrictions on speech and ideas, norms and restrictions that often vary depending on race and gender, as well as one’s position within a given institution. Plus, institutions have histories we have to attend to and, in some cases, rectify. Every publication Chait has ever worked for, every organization he’s ever been part of, formal or informal, has restricted acceptable discourse; over time, those restrictions have changed. What Chait sees as an “outbreak” of political correctness (P.C. was, earlier, in “remission,” so there’s that illness metaphor again; paging Susan Sontag) is actually one among many long, ongoing debates about how we can and should use language. Some of these debates occur inside the university; but they also occur well beyond the university, and daily, and always have.
Ultimately, Chait’s distorted portrait of the university isn’t meaningless or separate from his depiction of liberalism and the left; it’s important to his distortion of American history, one that’s widespread. To close his essay, he writes, “The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” In his invocation of glory and “the ultimate power of reason,” the prose purples. To be honest, I wish I agreed that reason triumphed. But if Chait thinks the historical record of liberalism is one in which reason stands champion, I’d advise him to do some reading. Maybe he should return to school.