As we bring PC Week to a close, I’d like to address why I thought it worthwhile to broach this issue that is so contentious on college campuses. In wondering how to close things out, I found myself pondering the “correct” in political correctness. Can we pursue the “correct” without the “political”?
PC by definition is subjective: one person’s offhand joke or inconvenient statistic is another person’s hate speech. It is also a matter of degree. One reader comment this week, now deleted, went far beyond the merely incorrect and into the realm of vile. We should all work towards eradicating discrimination and not standing in the way of others’ happiness, but serious issues are often clouded by PC pettiness and authoritarianism.
To cite a few recent examples, Harvey Mudd College had to cancel a mad scientist-themed party because the term “mad scientist” supposedly trivializes mental illness (personally I think objecting to a mad-scientist party trivializes mental illness); then there’s the identity-politics-run-amok notion of inventing new sexual orientations more accurately akin to personality traits; and physically preventing your fellow students from attending a campus lecture because you disagree with the speaker’s ideas (see this video for example, skipping to the 3:50 mark if you want to cut to the chase). Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had to cancel its kimono parties, and it’s a surprise protesters allowed the institution to continue displaying Monet’s “La Japonaise.” Finally, this year Mount Holyoke College canceled its annual production of the play “The Vagina Monologues” because it was now deemed insensitive to women who have penises.
The photo above is from the Berkeley campus in 1964. Critics of PC often invoke the free speech movement of the ’60s, saying it was the fight to be able to say anything, but I take an increasingly ironic view of that. Those students weren’t protesting for the right to say anything, they were protesting for the right to say radical things. They won, and the PC campus culture of today is the result of trading one orthodoxy for another. Of course radical speech has snowballed with the snowflake generation, to the point that a recent widely circulated article at Vox.com bore the headline, “I’m a liberal professor and my students terrify me.”
My own run-ins with PC campus culture were memorable. In my senior year at Fullerton in 1993, all the atheletes had to attend a new gender equity seminar. The women on the fencing team all went to one seminar, while the men went to another. It was held a lecture hall that seated 150, and we were packed with tough jocks from things like the wrestling and rugby teams. One thing stands out in my mind, and that’s when the speaker, a police officer, said we were going to do a role-playing scenario and selected a loud and cocky guy from the crowd. In a drawn-out scene, he gradually had the student submit to his commands until eventually the student was on his knees with hands tied behind his back. The climax of the scene was when the officer stuck his crotch in the student’s face and said emphatically, “Now suck my dick.” The officer concluded the scenario with something like, “Now you know what it’s like to be a girl.” The sledgehammer rhetoric and starting point that we were all rapists in embryo merely because we played a sport were troubling to me at the time. But today such seminars are becoming mandatory for all students, not just athletes, with plenty of controversy.
After spending the summer studying French at Berkeley, I lasted one semester in the master’s program in Comparative Literature at San Francisco State. It didn’t take me long to figure out I wasn’t cut out for academia (not to mention the slim job prospects). Comp Lit is one of the more radical departments in the humanities, and in the classroom I felt that certain assertions and interpretations offered by professors and classmates were to be accepted without question. In one meeting with a female professor to discuss my term paper, I excitedly announced that I had just discovered the work of a fascinating scholar, Camille Paglia, who had recently written “Sexual Personae: Art And Decadence From Nefertiti To Emily Dickinson.” Paglia devoted extensive chapters to the literature of 19th century dandyism, one of my chief interests. But my professor became visibly uncomfortable at the mention of her name, informed me that no one took Paglia’s work seriously, and that it would reflect poorly upon me to use her as a source. Paglia is a lesbian and self-identifying feminist from a working-class Catholic background, but her views fell outside the feminist orthodoxy. She wasn’t politically correct. This kind of silencing of different viewpoints preciesly by people who otherwise champion embracing different viewpoints irked me for its hypocrisy.
However, being critical of PC excesses doesn’t make one apathetic to social justice issues, and I’d like to share two recent anecdotes in which I tried in my own imperfect way to find the “correct” in PC.
One morning a couple of weeks ago I was checking the news headlines from around the web. I briefly surfed a story on Salon.com that was critical of Michelle Malkin, a conservative pundit with whom I’m only familiar with because there are so few Filipino American women among conservative pundits. In the piece the white male writer referred to her as a “right-wing rage monkey.” I don’t know much about Malkin’s beliefs, but I do know one thing: “monkey” is a racial slur that goes back to the Filipino-American War of 1899. When I lived in Los Angeles I had Filipino neighbors, a doctor, a large group of badminton players that allowed me into their circle, and a girlfriend with whom I still plan to be talking to when I’m in the old folks home. By Salon.com’s own standards of sensitivity, such a racial slur should be unacceptable. I suspect the author didn’t know its imperialist legacy, but, once again, by Salon.com’s own standards of social justice, racism that is unconscious or unintentional is still inexcusable. I spent the day tweeting at both Salon and the author, asking them to edit the remark — to “bitch” or “harpy,” perhaps — and never received a response. I’m sure they would have to concede that simply because you disagree with Ben Carson doesn’t mean it’s socially acceptable to call him by an antebellum slur — “jungle bunny,” for instance. But Filipino Americans aren’t a fashionable group for whom to advocate (the transgender community, in contrast, is certainly having a moment), so I was left with the sense that neither the author nor Salon particularly cared about Pacific Islanders, especially considering the slur was hurled at a member of the opposition.
The other event happened during the summer, when the Black Lives Matter movement had seized national attention. On a sunny afternoon I bicycled over the Triboro Bridge to Randall’s Island in the East River, where there are a number of medical buildings, police and fire academies, and about 150 athletic fields and facilities, including my golf range. As I biked along the main road that snakes around the island, I spied a black body, to use the term employed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, today’s leading African American thinker, whose book “Between The World And Me” had just come out to much media accolades. The body lay on the sidewalk by the bus stop, shirtless, its pants halfway down.
I stopped. Why? It seemed obvious: a fellow human being may be dying. And yet cars drove past, as well as other cyclists. I remembered the police academy being right nearby, so I biked over and told the guys at the entrance booth that someone may need some help. They quickly referred me to the Fire Department booth. I rode over there, where I found an African American male worker who seemed to know what I was talking about, as if he had just passed the sprawled-out man on his way to work. He said he’d call an ambulance.
I returned to the man, who was still sprawled out face down. Now there was an Asian man with a golf bag waiting for the bus. I pointed at the man on the ground with an expression of concern. “Oh, he’s just sleeping,” the man said. Well with 150 grassy fields to choose from, taking a cat-nap on the sidewalk didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then I spied a police car just as it was passing by. I shouted, and the car came to a halt 50 yards down the road. I rode over and said, “You think maybe you should check out that guy?”
“What guy?” the officer said flatly.
“The guy with his shirt off lying on the ground that you just passed.”
With the same blank expression the officer said he’d come have a look. I stuck around for a few minutes as the officer dealt with the man, who was verbally responsive but did not get up. Hindsight being 20/20, perhaps I could have addressed him myself, offering food and water and seeing if he was OK and just wanted to be left alone on the sidewalk. Perhaps Black Lives Matter members would see a cruel irony in that, blinded by my own whiteness, I flagged down a police officer to attend to a black man. But in those moments I wasn’t thinking about politics. There was no P, only C.
New Yorkers continuing to ignore inconveniences such as black bodies lying shirtless on the sidewalk because it’s not their problem is not social progress. I later recounted the story to a friend, saying how it struck me as ironic that in the age of Black Lives Matter, when it’s so easy to sit at your comfortable desk and try to hashtag your way to a better world, that dozens of people of all races passed this black life over the course of 15 minutes, and no one thought it mattered but the preppy blogger in the pink polo shirt.
I made these small everyday efforts — to correct another white person’s racism and to seek help for someone that needed it — for the “correct” in PC: because I thought they were the right things to do. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD