William Deresiewicz

Read original article: On Political Correctness

First things first: Deresiewicz is not advocating against kindness or empathy, or in favor of hostility or bigotry. Instead, he defines political correctness as such:

“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.”

Deresiewicz’s views are shaped by his time teaching at college campuses.

People no longer know the rules for political correctness. You can be guilty of a crime you didn’t know you committed. An idea that was okay yesterday might not be okay today.

“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.”

Last year his students could wear moccasins. Today it’s cultural appropriation. Christian students won’t share that they are religious. Even the feminists on campus are nervous about expressing their views. And so on.

The atmosphere in the school was rapidly transforming from open inquiry to everyone being careful about everything they say.

Open discussion en masse is valuable. But the risk-to-reward ratio of one instance of open discussion is different: the upside is intriguing conversation, but the downside is social or professional destruction for the person who poses the topic.

Perhaps the worst impact of this on college campuses: teachers will avoid thought-provoking and debate-inspiring topics, for fear of “triggering” someone and getting into trouble.

When enough single instances of open inquiry are stifled, open dialogue en masse is lost.

The problem in a sentence:

“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.”

Colleges have transformed from a safe place for open inquiry into religious, dogmatic institutions. The religion is not Catholicism or Islam, but an extreme version of liberal beliefs. And attending a college means the opposition is muzzled, the rest are socialized or indoctrinated.

“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.”

The spirit of open inquiry and discovery is limited to within a narrow range. The assumption is we already have the full moral truth. No more debate is necessary.

Liberal colleges are championing diversity, but the diversity is skin-deep. You have people who look different but say the same thing. Identity diversity is crucial. But it does not make diversity of thought less necessary.

So what happens when everyone has the same set of beliefs? No open discussion or discovery. And what is the problem with not having that?

If you never discuss or debate, you:

  1. Don’t have to articulate your views
  2. Don’t have to challenge your views
  3. Don’t consider other perspectives

This brings me to my favorite quote from the piece:

“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.”

Why are colleges so homogenous? Because of class. We don’t talk about class anymore. But students at elite liberal schools are overwhelmingly from middle, upper-middle, or upper-class families. The children of the working class are almost entirely excluded from the conversation.

Excluding the concept of class from the conversation is how elite colleges perpetuate class. Colleges pose as a meritocracy, but “students have as much merit as their parents can purchase.”

The origin of many of the most dangerous far left ideas and tendencies is well-intentioned. The problems are real. But a real problem doesn’t justify a dangerous solution.

“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.”

Where political correctness switches from good to bad is when it becomes about power. And, Deresiewicz argues, it is far too often about power.

It is a way for students to exercise power over each other, by suppressing opposing or minority views. And it is a way for students to exercise power over their teachers, because there is a chronic oversupply of teachers.

The result? Opposing views are crushed, muzzled.

We don’t have the full truth. You are not correct about everything. And in order to discover what those things are, you need open discussion.

Open discussion is not always pretty. Civility is often championed as the principle to balance free expression.

“Free expression is an absolute; to balance it is to destroy it.”

This is where the danger posed by progressives is most clear. The First Amendment legislates free speech. It does so well. It is good because it recognizes that the accepted norms will change. And thus, allowing all viewpoints to express freely enables social change—even if those viewpoints are undesirable.

“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. 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.”

Some other interesting notes:

First, since the liberal viewpoint is so homogenous and rarely challenged in the open, it is the conservatives who are now the counterculture on college campuses.

“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.”

Second, since conservatives don’t care what progressives think of them, political correctness just results in a civil war on the left.

“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.”

He ends by posing this an important question.

“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?”