Commentary Magazine

“PC” So Far

The term “political correctness” seems to have originated in the early part of the century, when it was employed by various species of Marxists to describe and enforce conformity to their preferred ideological positions. Books, films, opinions, even historical events were termed politically correct or politically incorrect depending on whether or not they advanced a particular Marxist view. There is no indication that the revolutionary ideologues and activists of that period spoke of political correctness with any trace of irony or self-mockery.

Eventually the term dropped out of the political lexicon, only to be revived in the early 1980’s when it came into use by spokesmen for assorted contemporary ideologies: black consciousness and black power, feminism, homosexual rights, and to a lesser degree pacifism, environmentalism, the counterculture in general. The new Webster’s College Dictionary, published by Random House, defines political correctness as “marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology.” These days, as most people know, the home of such “typically progressive orthodoxy” is the American university.

Like the Stalinists and Trotskyites of an earlier era, contemporary campus activists maintain that “everything is political,” and thus to them it seems quite proper to inquire whether classroom lectures, the use of language, and even styles of dress and demeanor reflect a politically correct stance or not. Indeed, many of today’s activists are not content with espousing politically correct views themselves, but seek to impose them by force on the new generation of students. So it is that as American society at large is moving toward greater tolerance of heterodox opinion, American universities, ostensibly dedicated to the free traffic of ideas, have been moving in the opposite direction, becoming (in the memorable phrase of Abigail Thernstrom) “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.”

More than a hundred universities have instituted censorship codes which typically outlaw racially and sexually “stigmatizing” or offensive speech. Many of the codes are quite broad and elastic: at the University of Connecticut, for example, violations of the ethnic harassment policy, for which the penalty ranges from a reprimand to expulsion, include the “use of derogatory names,” “inconsiderate jokes,” and even “misdirected laughter” and “conspicuous exclusion from conversation.” Although a federal judge struck down as unconstitutional the censorship code in place at the University of Michigan—where a student, hauled up before a disciplinary council for making negative remarks about homosexuality, was recently sentenced to write an apology and to attend sensitivity sessions to transform his unenlightened views—similar regulations are being enforced on many other campuses, and at private colleges they may be immune from First Amendment scrutiny.

The greatest obstacle to free speech on campus, however, is not the explicit censorship code but a political and social atmosphere in which politically incorrect opinions are discouraged, vilified, and ostracized. Although not a numerical majority, PC activists on campus constitute a kind of “moral majority,” enjoying enormous leverage over a predominantly liberal community which is already hypersensitive to hints of racism or bigotry. In several cases, some highly publicized and others relatively unknown, professors who have dissented from PC nostrums have found themselves unemployed, or disgraced by administrative rebuke and sanctions. Many other professors and students have gotten the message: rather than risk being drawn into a vortex of accusations, sensitivity indoctrination, or censure, they simply abstain from articulating unpopular views; they censor themselves.



None of this, of course, is news to readers of COMMENTARY, where articles about the radical agenda of today’s academic activists have been appearing for years. But many mass publications took their first notice of political correctness per se only about a year ago. In “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct” (New York Times, October 29, 1990), Richard Bernstein reported a pressure to conform to an “unofficial ideology” among students and faculty of American universities. At a conference in Berkeley, “Political Correctness and Cultural Studies,” Bernstein interviewed a number of academics who did not deny that they were engaged in a project of ideological consciousness-raising, but asserted that it was justified by the need to topple “patriarchal hegemony” and the “white male power structure.”

Then on December 24, 1990, Newsweek, itself a magazine with a “progressive” reputation, surprised everyone with a cover story on today’s campus “Thought Police.” The article was a parade of horror stories, each showing how professors and students who trespassed on prevailing orthodoxies were made to suffer. Still, the article also implied that university leaders who permitted these excesses were in pursuit of a good cause, and that historical and demographic changes on campus were anyway bound to provoke tensions.

In early January of this year, New York magazine entered the fray with a vehement blast from John Taylor, “Are You Politically Correct?” Taylor made cruel fun of the PC lexicon, according to which, for instance, pets must be called animal companions and, in one extreme version, short people “vertically challenged.” Chuckle we may, wrote Taylor, but many university officials take all this very seriously; an official document at Smith College, for instance, warns students to eschew not only such evils as racism and sexism, but also heterosexism and even lookism—“the belief that appearance is an indicator of a person’s value; the construction of a standard for beauty and attractiveness; oppression through stereotypes and generalizations of both those who do not fit that standard and those who do.”

While the article in New York accurately captured the Star Chamber quality of the political environment on campus, it gave no plausible explanation of who precisely the new McCarthyites were and what they sought to accomplish. Like the Newsweek story, however, Taylor’s article did help somewhat to delegitimize the PC authoritarians. PC was starting to look uncool.

What followed was an avalanche of critical scrutiny, both in the serious and the popular press, and on television. On February 18, the New Republic published a special issue, “Race on Campus,” which included troubling vignettes from several prestigious campuses, an editorial attack on politically correct conformism, and a curious but important article by Irving Howe defending the traditional Western canon. The New Republic subsequently published a number of other exposes and essays, including an enthusiastic review of my book, Illiberal Education, by the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese, who issued a resounding call for an alliance across the political spectrum to resist PC ideologues and acquiescent administrators. In April, Time magazine warned of a “culture of forbidden questions” and a “new intolerance” on campus, while the New York Times Magazine published a heavily sarcastic account of the annual convention of the politically correct Modern Language Association, where all the best-attended sessions appeared to focus on sexual deviation, and where classics like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick fell into the deepest disrepute (“There’s not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to animals, and the black characters mostly drown by chapter 29”).

Where the print media led, television quickly followed. After a talk-show appearance to publicize my book, I was approached by a prominent newscaster who wanted to confide that “all of us here are concerned about the thought police who are roaming our nation’s campuses.” (This was a much more extreme statement than anything I had or would have uttered—but such is the way of the media.) And on Good Morning America, where I was to debate the chancellor of UCLA, the show began with an interview of a pretty young Filipina who despite outstanding grades and extracurricular achievements had been refused admission to Berkeley because, she said, of an anti-Asian quota. When the anchorman kicked off our debate by demanding to know from Chancellor Young what he had to say to the aggrieved young woman, Young’s woeful look drove home the degree to which the pendulum had shifted: to the media, university spokesmen, once liberalism’s champions, were now its ogres.



How have these spokesmen responded to criticism of the policies they have devised and implemented? So far, with only a couple of exceptions, by a deafening silence.

At first this could perhaps be attributed to the simple bewilderment of a class of people so accustomed to approbation that they had lost even the reflex habit of self-defense. But when weeks and months passed without response or rebuttal, one could only conclude that university leaders were unable to account effectively for their policies, and had decided to lie low until the storm passed—a strikingly pusillanimous posture for those usually so quick to claim a special social prerogative to engage issues of principle.

In any event, the burden of defending PC policies fell at first to political columnists, many of whom had not set foot on a campus for years, and to faculty radicals. In the case of the latter, the results were embarrassing. At the June conference of the Modern Language Association, for example, the consensus seemed to be that no defense was necessary. The problem was instead that ordinary Americans did not understand the incredible complexities of academia—“It’s like trying to reduce a Henry James novel to a telegram,” protested Martha Banta of UCLA’s English department—or were just plain stupid, “people who don’t know the difference between Plato and Nato,” in the words of Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin, who was head of Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960’s. The only practical suggestion came from Professor Gene Ruoff of the University of Illinois, who urged that radical faculty mount a massive letter-writing and op-ed offensive to explain current academic trends to the general public. But he also conceded the risks of such a campaign; after all, many if not most Americans hold convictions diametrically opposed to those he wished to defend.

By summer, however, it became possible to trace the contours of an argument on behalf of political correctness. The general line, as advanced by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, was that as America becomes a more diverse society, the rules of academic life, heretofore shaped by white males of European origin, will have to be modified in order to reflect multiple voices and interests. Current university policies are based on the recognition that persons of color cannot be expected to homogenize themselves into “an America in cultural white face.” A new social compact needs to be negotiated and then institutionalized; while critics of PC may be right to point out a few unfortunate excesses, they have diverted attention from that grand and necessary process.

A similar line was taken by the feminist scholar Catharine Stimpson of Rutgers. In the first place, she maintained, the curriculum has always harbored acknowledged or covert ideological bias. And in the second place, PC activists are not politicizing the curriculum but only attempting to make higher education more accessible, to open closed doors, to promote inclusion. If anything, they should be congratulated for their honesty in unmasking the racial, patriarchal, and heterosexual biases in the so-called great books.

A few have gone farther. On the MacNeil-Lehrer show, Professor Stanley Fish of Duke University asserted that freedom of speech is only one of several competing values worth preserving; sometimes it must be balanced against, or subordinated to, other desiderata. Richard Rosser, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, while conceding that university codes of censorship may be regrettable, asserted that they are the only way to curb the current campus epidemic of hate speech and racial epithets.

Mainly, however, the defenders of PC have not sought to justify university policies but to shift the burden to the other side. The threat, they say, is a manufactured one, or at the very least has been greatly exaggerated by conservatives for their own nefarious political ends. “Where’s this left-wing reign of terror on campus?” asks the columnist Michael Kinsley in mock-innocence. In a New York Times review of my book, Nancy Dye, a dean at Vassar, came close to achieving Orwellian inversion with her charge that the critics of PC have framed their case “entirely in polarities,” ignoring the “vast middle ground” and mistaking healthy and constructive debate for intimidation. The American Council on Education, which reflects the views of the academic establishment, released a survey of campus administrators most of whom offered a serene and untroubled portrait of the higher-education landscape and failed to see political correctness as a serious problem. The Village Voice and the Nation have also treated the PC threat as a mythic concoction of the right wing, and Brent Staples of the New York Times went so far as to imply that it was a “bogeyman magnified by leftover cold-war hysteria.” The darkest pitch of all came from Joel Conarroe, president of the Guggenheim foundation, who suggested that the true goal of critics of PC was to legitimize racism, sexism, and homophobia “as a matter of high principle.”1



Unfortunately for those who would deny the reality of PC, however, the facts continue to speak for themselves. As many a politically “incorrect” professor and student can testify, censorship codes are on the books and are being enforced. It has gotten to the point where even some university administrators have begun to admit their concern. Yale president Benno Schmidt, for instance, has warned that nowhere is free speech more endangered today than on the American campus. In his annual report to the Harvard community, outgoing president Derek Bok cited the politicization of the university, primarily along race and gender lines, as one of the greatest perils to liberal education.

If there is any good news, it lies in these isolated voices from within the community of university administrators, bolstered by an un-PC faculty organization like the National Association of Scholars; but it lies even more in the public criticism that has been aired. That criticism has indeed placed PC cadres somewhat on the defensive, a little less quick to ostracize dissenters—especially when there is a chance their activities may be exposed by the media. Even some sensitivity-indoctrination programs now seek “balance” (which usually means allowing one representative of a non-conforming view for every dozen PC advocates). When it comes to the curriculum, although the drive to replace Western-culture requirements with “multicultural” or non-Western programs is already far advanced, it now has to contend with an intellectual opposition, sometimes from emboldened faculty liberals.

But the bad news is that the radicals are deeply entrenched in academia, and have no plans to go elsewhere. In many departments, particularly ones like ethnic and women’s studies, faculty ideologues seek to perpetuate their position by hiring only like-minded people, limiting the range of views in some disciplines to what Eugene Genovese terms “a diversity of radical positions.” Policies such as racial preference are also thoroughly institutionalized, and have generated vested interests not only among beneficiary groups but also among enforcement bureaucracies.

In short, although the fight against political correctness has so far gone well in the open air of public opinion, the fight on the ground has barely begun.


1 Connaroe's sense of proportion was on display in another PC-related context this season, the fight over the President's nomination of Carol Iannone to the National Council for the Humanities. Miss Iannone had dared, in COMMENTARY, to judge black writers by the same standards she applied to white; for this violation of a PC code she was likened by Connaroe to Paul de Man, the Yale critic who during World War II was a Nazi apologist.

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