Wesleyan Beyond Middletown?

Recently, many Wesleyans have been discussing the news that the University has been invited to explore the possibility of opening a college in China. Our conversations have been very preliminary — should it be a film academy, a liberal arts college, some form of hybrid? Wesleyan has been running programs in China for many years, mostly in the form of lectures for prospective students or for our many alumni who live and work there. Should we explore doing something more substantial?

The University has looked into a variety of locations for Wesleyanish programing. Most of these are of the study-abroad variety with which many are familiar. We have also experimented with programs in Los Angeles for people entering the film industry, and investigated coordinated internship opportunities in public service in Washington. Giving students options for programs beyond our core campus can expand educational opportunities and increase the value of a Wesleyan diploma. In considering these possibilities, we want to be sure that the academic work is in line with the distinctive pragmatic liberal education at the core of Wesleyan’s mission. We also want the programs to be economically sustainable and contribute to positive recognition of the University.

I should say that most of these conversations don’t lead to actual programs. We set the bar very high for new initiatives, and most of the ideas we consider don’t meet our high expectations. Our conversations about a possible campus in China are still in the very early stages. Obviously, there are serious concerns about academic freedom and a host of related issues. At the same time, Wesleyan has had a very positive history of working with students and faculty from China, and so we are considering this possibility very carefully. The only decision that is imminent is whether we should do more research on this possibility.

Since many have questions about these topics, we will hold a  faculty and staff discussion on Wednesday, October 30, 4:30–5:30pm, and one with students from 6–7 pm. These conversations will surely help inform our considerations about a variety of possible Wesleyan initiatives that build on the great things that happen on our Middletown campus.

Women’s Soccer Little Three Champs!

Yesterday, the Wesleyan women’s soccer team battled rival Amherst to a 0-0 tie. Given our earlier victory against Williams, the result is this team’s first Little Three Championship in more than 30 years!

Congratulations to this great team.”Winning on the road in our conference is never easy,” stated head coach Eva Meredith. “We played hard and smart against a quality Amherst team. With a tie, we got to celebrate the program’s first Little Three victory since 1982. I could not be more proud of our team’s work ethic and mental toughness today.”

You can cheer them on this afternoon on Jackson field as we take on the Tufts squad.

Congratulations to this great team! Go Wes!!

There’s Plenty to Worry about — but not Political Correctness

The following is cross-posted with the Yale University Press blog. Some it is drawn from “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness”

 

Over the last month, I’ve been talking with reporters, podcasters, and pundits about the quality of campus culture in the US today. I was surprised when one reporter asked, almost plaintively, “President Roth, are the kids alright?” He had been reading various reports of free speech crises, illiberal liberals, coddled minds, and assaults on excellence.

Where does all the worry come from? No doubt, disturbing things happen on campuses, and older folks can react with eye rolls or, when commentators fear a trend, alarmed criticism. A template of sorts was created by Allan Bloom in the 1980s and Richard Bernstein in the following decade. Bloom and Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy. The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. With his surprise bestseller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Well before Bloom’s book, among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. The Closing of the American Mind seemed to open the floodgates, and by the 1990s, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse. It was especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. In the last twenty-five years, it has become common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and recently we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost thirty years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Today the label “politically correct” is used to mock those with whom one disagrees, or merely to deflect criticism about one’s own position. If you are doing something other people find objectionable, especially if it’s on moral grounds, labeling your critics “politically correct” is meant to return one to the side of the angels (or at least the victims).

Many who complain bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself.

But how do you tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized is among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and about sexual assault, about jobs and about the shrinking middle class . . . all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage—for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Are the kids on campus alright? Well, some of them are just fine, and others are struggling with a combination of their own personal issues along with those presented by a world riven by inequality and faced by dangers (from climate change to resurgent ethno-nationalism) that should concern us all. The folks on campuses across the land are wonderfully diverse, and it will be through acknowledging their differences that we can provide them all with a more empowering education. I ask that we stay engaged with difference, and I do hope it reminds those who care about higher education to find the courage to build intellectual communities with different forms of diversity that lead to learning that is bold and rigorous, practical and aspirational.

From Climate Strike to Climate Actions

At the Climate Strike rallies last week, many Wesleyan students signed petitions with proposals very much on point. At the Board of Trustees retreat, we were briefed on some of the work that has recently been accomplished on campus to reduce our carbon footprint. Our comprehensive energy systems upgrades, for example, will offset 747 tons of carbon emissions.

Our energy improvements are a step in the right direction, but we are facing a climate emergency and need to do more. Many at the rally urged that Wesleyan reach carbon neutrality by the date of its bicentennial, 2031. This is an excellent idea but also an ambitious one. (Until now our goal has been to accomplish this by 2050.) I am asking our Sustainability Office and Physical Plant to propose practical steps that would enable the University to reach carbon neutrality by its bicentennial while preserving its educational mission. We will need input from across the University to reach this ambitious goal.

Students have also asked that the university divest from fossil fuel investments by 2031 and that we use environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations in determining any new investments. I am confident that we are well on our way to doing this.

There are other things students, staff and faculty have asked that we do, such as changing how we care for campus grounds, encouraging our community to eat a more plant-based diet, reducing the number of vehicles on campus, and increasing the produce we grow here at Wes. I look forward to working together on all of these issues.

I also look forward to supporting the efforts of the College of the Environment and other groups to promote national and international policies that would reduce the release of carbon and increase the use of renewables. This includes pricing carbon generating products more appropriately and supporting the development of technologies that would reduce the price of renewables. We are a small university, but we can and will join with others to create policies to mitigate the damaging effects of this climate emergency while forcefully addressing its causes.

The climate emergency requires local action, to be sure, and it also requires national and international coalition building. Wesleyan will do its part.

Climate Concerns and Climate Action

This week young people around the world are making their voices heard in leading a chorus of concern about the catastrophic dangers of climate change. On Friday, Sept. 20 many will be engaged in a climate strike – breaking from their regular routines to call attention to the importance of changing the way we use the earth’s resources. Here on campus, faculty are organizing events to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change. Others, including students, will travel to New York to participate in workshops and lectures on these issues in relation to social justice organized by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, of which Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is a founding member.

Over the years, students have urged the University to change its investment policies in response to the climate crisis. I am pleased to report that the Investment Committee of Wesleyan’s Board of Trustees has voted to eliminate any permanent allocation to “oil and gas” from its asset allocation model. What does this mean? It means that Wesleyan will no longer seek out managers specifically to invest in oil and gas in order to balance its portfolio as a whole. This is a significant step, as the University had previously sought to invest around 7 percent of its endowment in this sector. Furthermore, any new investment managers hired must meet our ethics, governance and social responsibility expectations. As stated now in our guidelines: “in selecting external managers or considering direct investments,” the Investment Committee will “consider environmental, social and governance factors as part of their investment process.” Just as we aim to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy on campus, I expect we will steadily reduce our dependence on fossil fuels investments in the endowment.

Plans at Wesleyan for the day of climate action on Friday, Sept. 20 are still taking shape, but here are some of the scheduled events:

  • 12–2 p.m. Global Climate Rally (Usdan courtyard): Speeches by student groups and other members of the Wesleyan community, followed by an on-campus march.
  • 4:30 p.m. (Exley 150): Climate Rant by Professor of Physics Brian Stewart (who will also convert his 1:20 p.m. class into a climate teach-in at Exley 150)
  • 6 p.m. (Church St. or Washington Ave.) Candle Light Vigil

During the following week, Sept. 23­–27, the COE will organize more teach-ins. On Sept. 25, the COE will host a discussion among students at Wesleyan, Taras Shevchenko University in Kiev, and Universidade do Sao Paulo about climate change and coordinated action among young people.

More program information can be found at https://www.facebook.com/pg/wesleyancoe/events/.

Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.

Wesleyan Music Festival (The Mash) Sept 6th

For the past several years, we’ve inaugurated the first week of the semester with The Mash — Wesleyan’s fall version of the festival of music. Students, staff and faculty join in with song, dance, general merriment on the first Friday of the semester. This year’s MASH will kick off on Friday, September 6th at 3:00 pm on Andrus Field, and we expect 3 hours of great music.

This year we look forward to at least a dozen new acts to be opening our ears on stages between the back of Olin Library and the front of the Usdan Center. Come on out and join friends and classmates in a good boogie, or just engaged listening. It’s fall, it’s music, it’s Wesleyan, and IT’S THE MASH!

 

 

Make Our Spaces “Safe-Enough”

Happy first day of classes! Last week the New York Times published an op-ed I wrote urging that we not be too critical of the idea of safe spaces. This is related to my new book Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness. By the way, I’m donating the royalties I receive from the book to the endowed scholarship Kari and I set up here at Wesleyan.

 

As a new school year begins and students prepare to head off to college, there will be the usual excitement among family and friends as well as anxiety about the unknowns. Will these young people, especially those first-year students who are essentially entering into a new society, forge friendships? Will they be inspired and supported by their teachers? What will they learn and how will they establish good habits for study and physical and mental health? Will they be happy? Will they be safe?

To those familiar with campus politics, that last question may seem like a loaded one. The idea of a “safe space” — in the broadest terms, the attempt to make sure all students are made to feel welcome in or outside the classroom — has become a favorite target of critics who claim to worry about the preservation of free speech on campus. Easily caricatured or ridiculed, safe spaces can seem like an extreme form of what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “vindictive protectionism,” with social justice border agents policing conversations for possible microaggressions that might inadvertently wound someone.

Is this fair? That depends.

To be sure, there are plenty of examples of sanctimonious “safetyism” — counterproductive coddling of students who feel fragile. Instead of teaching young people to find resources in themselves to deal with chagrin and anxiety, some school officials offer hand-holding, beanbags and puppies. Infantilizing students by overprotecting them, or just treating them as consumers who have to be kept happy at all costs, can be easier and more profitable for institutions than allowing students to learn the hard way that the world is a challenging place and that they have to figure out ways of dealing with it.

On the other hand, the outright dismissal of safe spaces can amount to a harmful disregard for the well-being of students; it can perpetuate environments where the entitled continue to dominate those around them and students never learn how to build a more equitable, inclusive community. With mental health and suicide crises emerging on some campuses, the idea of universities taking conscious steps to protect and nurture students emotionally as well as physically should be welcome.

So what’s a university to do?

The first answer is obvious: We should begin by destigmatizing the notion of safe spaces and stop talking about them as if they were part of a zero-sum ideological war.

As a college president for almost 20 years, I am a strong proponent of creating spaces that are “safe enough” on college campuses. (Here, I draw from the psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” parent, who enables a child to flourish by letting them experience frustration and failure within the safety of the family, not by coddling or overprotecting.) Like families, campus cultures are different, but each should promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables students to learn and grow — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough.”

Despite the feverish urgency of contemporary debates, the idea of a safe space isn’t at all new. The concept can be traced back to Kurt Lewin, a founder of social psychology and of management theory. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Lewin was asked to work with supervisors and psychologists at the Harwood Manufacturing Company, a family-owned textile company that, having relocated a factory, found itself with a less experienced and more female work force. Lewin wanted to test the impact of participatory decision-making on productivity and absenteeism with small groups of employees, but he had to get honest (and hence useful) answers from workers who might be worried about speaking out in earshot of the boss.

Lewin and his colleagues created “safe spaces” in which groups of employees and managers could speak honestly about working conditions and productivity goals without fear of retaliation or retribution. When members of the group felt they could freely participate in setting factory goals, productivity increased. No puppies there, not even immunity from criticism — only the feeling that one could speak one’s mind without being attacked or losing one’s job.

As the idea of safe spaces moved from industrial psychology on the manufacturing floor to the private, therapeutic setting, clinicians saw a key benefit in their patients’ being able to more easily change their minds, to “unfreeze,” if they felt safe enough to entertain criticism and alternative ideas. In group therapy, the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom wrote, one “must experience the group as a safe refuge within which it is possible to entertain new beliefs and experiment with new behavior without fear of reprisal.” This wasn’t overprotective safetyism — just an environment in which one could speak more freely and encounter different ideas.

In the 1970s, feminist groups created their own “safe spaces” where women could come together and share accounts of life in a sexist society without fear of retaliation. In the gay liberation movement, the concept was equally important. In the face of discrimination, safe spaces allowed for community building. These arenas were not devoid of disagreement, but they were safe enough for the development of a political movement without interference by dominant and hostile groups. Moira Kenney has charted the importance of these spaces for lesbian and feminist groups in Los Angeles 50 years ago, and today the radical feminist bookstore Bluestockings refers to its safer spaces for resistance and critical thinking.

For different people at different times, safety can mean different things, but the baseline is certainly physical security. For most of the past 100 years, students of color were at risk in many campus spaces, as they were in most cities in America. When I was a college student in the 1970s, female students were routinely targeted by male professors who found it easier to get sexual partners among 19-year-olds than among women their own age. Back then, gay students knew that walking near a fraternity house during pledge week might result in getting beaten up as part of a pledging ritual. There were plenty of campus spaces that weren’t safe for different segments of the student body. Today, campuses are safer, and it would be hard to find anyone arguing that this isn’t a good thing.

Still, college women must continue to take special precautions to ensure their well-being; they pass on the knowledge that at certain parties it’s just not safe to drink from a punch bowl because some guys might spike it with knockout pills, or that it is best to stay away from certain professors who have a history of coming on to their students. Students point out that some among them are more vulnerable than others, and they warn that some spaces (and the people who administer them) are more dangerous than others. Does all this mean students are more fragile? Hardly. It means students are protecting themselves.

Critics of “safe spaces” don’t, of course, want to return to the days when students from certain demographic groups were at greater risk on some parts of a campus. What they worry about is that the idea of such places encourages the isolation of groups of students from questions that might take them outside their comfort zones. Throughout American culture, groups are enclosing themselves in bubbles that protect them from competing points of view, even from disturbing information; this siloing of perspectives is being exacerbated by social media and economic and cultural segregation.

Universities must push back against this tide; our classrooms should never be so comfortable that intellectual confrontation becomes taboo or assumptions go unchallenged because everyone’s emotional well-being is overprotected. Instead, we must promote intellectual diversity in a context in which people can feel safe enough to challenge one another. Vigorous scholarly exchange and academic freedom depend on it.

Acknowledging that campuses need “safe enough” spaces is not saying that students need protection from argument or the discovery that they should change their minds. It is saying that students should be able to participate in argument and inquiry without the threat of harassment or intimidation. Calling for such spaces is to call for schools to promote a basic sense of inclusion and respect that enables all students to thrive — to be open to ideas and perspectives so that the differences they encounter are educative and not destructive. That basic sense is feeling “safe enough” to explore differences without fear and work toward positive outcomes with courage.

Students and their families make great efforts and sacrifices to put themselves on our campuses. Ensuring they have “safe enough spaces” when they get there is our basic obligation. It’s the least we can do.

Yay, It’s Arrival Day!!

One of the most exciting moments of the academic year at Wesleyan is seeing the new students arrive in late August. This year we mostly beat the rain and got folks moved in. As usual, the athletic teams joined in to help unload giving us all a very big lift. THANK YOU to all who are making arrival day a great entry for new Wesleyans!

From Foss Hill on Arrival Day morning

At the Butterfield dorms

International students & family assembly
First meeting of Class of 2023!

Cancel the PC Label — And the Conformist Outrage that Goes With It

Yesterday the Boston Globe published this op-ed on the misleading use of the term “political correctness.” I reproduce it here. I’ve been doing some radio interviews about Safe Enough Spaces. Here are the links: WNYC WPR and the Jim Bohannon show.

 

As the school year gets underway and we get further into the presidential election season, whenever a commentator complains about college campuses or a politician needs a boogeyman to attack, we can be pretty sure that the words “politically correct” will get tossed around.

Call for more diversity in casting movies and television shows? You’ll get labeled politically correct. Describe how the rhetoric of white nationalism incites violence? You’ll be told you’re being “PC.” The phrase has long been a free pass for avoiding serious issues, and nothing seems easier for self-proclaimed individualists than joining in with others who reject PC conformism.

Donald Trump realized the power of being anti-PC somewhere between his guest appearances on the Howard Stern radio show and his run for the presidency: No matter what he said or did, he could earn credit for rejecting the politically correct. It’s always a response available to a president who uses his Twitter feed as a weapon against the marginalized.

In my new book, “Safe Enough Spaces,” I chart the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be politically incorrect, or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness, was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of political correctness became a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy.

Setting the stage for this was philosopher Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987). He didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses, plagued by “moral relativism,” into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. That prejudice, which students believe is just moral common sense, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth. We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right. With his surprise best seller, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to best-selling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to sexualized rock music and for their deafness to the higher pleasures of philosophical contemplation.

By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it. Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions.

Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African-Americans oversensitive about stop-and-frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out mis-gendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling and assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. Students, faculty, and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both call-out culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees.

Conversations about race, the economy, bias, sexual assault, climate change, or the winner-take-all economy all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language, and sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get called out for their supposed racism or privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being criticized or stigmatized. But they should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage — for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best refutation of the PC charge.

Debates on campuses can get nasty, but they are productive when they endure; compared with what one sees on the national political stage, college communities have the ability to tolerate conflict. Hopefully, there are other places in America today where arguments about important issues are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

So when the predictable sanctimonious criticism of political correctness is repeated in the coming months, let’s try to overcome this conformity of complaint and cultivate instead the ability to be open to a multiplicity of perspectives. On campus or on the campaign trail, we will certainly learn more that way.