On Political Correctness, Free Speech and Higher Education

This morning the Washington Post published the op-ed below in Valerie Strauss’s education blog, The Answer Sheet. I reproduce it here. 

It would be hard to find a period in peacetime when our government has made a more concerted effort to undermine freedom of inquiry and expression. These attacks start with the press and extend to education. Every week President Trump takes aim at journalists, calling them enemies of the people, or deriding sources he dislikes as “fake news.” As many have documented, his administration has engaged in an assault on the very notions of investigation and truth, doubling down on lies about Russian cyberattacks, economic markets and tariffs, and his own past behavior.

Along with attacks on the press have come attacks on colleges and universities. The link between them is the idea of being politically correct. President Trump made political correctness his personal bogeyman, so that when challenged about any variety of salacious improprieties, he would respond that he didn’t have time to be politically correct, or, put more stridently, “political correctness is killing our country.”

Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the gratuitous, overheated criticism of higher education — which remains one of the sectors of American culture and economy that has continued to attract respect and engagement from the best and brightest from around the world. Participating in the pile-on culture he claims to deride, Sessions attacked the usual caricatures in his speech to a gathering of conservative students: “Through ‘trigger warnings’ about ‘microaggressions,’ cry closets, ‘safe spaces,’ optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do.”

In the wake of the awful cruelties and dramatic embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction. At a time when law enforcement is separating families and the racist rhetoric of “infestation” has become a regular part of national presidential discourse, we must recognize that criticizing pc culture is just a fig leaf for intimidating those with less power.

When confronted with scandal, conflicts of interest and the inequitable distribution of resources, it’s far too easy to fall back on talk about threats to conservative activists on campus. I have argued before that many universities should do more to represent conservative points of view in their approaches to the humanities and social sciences. And there is plenty of room for improvement in our efforts to cultivate intellectual diversity. But it is downright unseemly to hear speakers trumpeting their own courage in “not being pc” as they attack especially vulnerable groups in society. As the midterm election battles develop, we should expect to see candidates rush to show they can stand up to this phantom force against speaking one’s mind. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on pc elitism.

When his audience of high school students began repeating the irresponsible, uninformed chant from the last campaign, “lock her up,” our nation’s foremost guardian of due process and law enforcement had an opportunity to educate them. Did he take that opportunity?  No, he smiled and joined in the groupthink, while also hypocritically calling for “the molding of a generation of mature and well-informed adults.” He went on to claim that colleges and universities “are doing everything they can to create a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.” With the moral spinelessness and alliterative verve of Spiro Agnew, Jeff Session played to his base while championing openness to others.

Political correctness remains a scapegoat with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike. Sure, there are campus groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded. But on my college campus and others I’ve visited, I also see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. Campuses are challenging places when they cultivate diversity of perspective, a sense of belonging and a common devotion to rigorous inquiry. In an America where there is deep polarization and segregation, one might ask if there are other places today where these arguments are taking place among people from very different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance.

While the president legitimates fatuous attacks on the press and education, on inquiry and truth telling, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate, intellectual diversity and rigorous inquiry. These have made American universities attractive to people from all over the world, while our government officials offer a spectacle of cruelty, pandering and corruption.

19 thoughts on “On Political Correctness, Free Speech and Higher Education”

  1. Excellent post. To me, being “politically correct” is almost a reformulation of the concept of “tact”. Of course, when you use “tact”, you’re being agreeable and take into account someone else’s thoughts, feelings, etc. Not to avoid the issue at hand, but simply to avoid unnecessary offence and aggravation. However, many of the criticisms about “political correctness” seem to me criticisms of “fairness”. So, for instance, if you’re making an argument for “fairness” it’s easy for someone to undermine your argument by simply saying that you’re being “politically correct”. The implication being that you’re not arguing about substance but simply burying a “truth” with niceties. Then the critic can present the “truth” as they see it, dispensing of these niceties and argue that somewhere deeply you must also agree, but are being too “politically correct” to recognise it.

  2. This is a terrible time for those who grew up thinking that the U.S. was Good. Immigrants and other minorities are now being characterized as obstacles to economic growth. Education for those below the median wage is becoming increasingly vocational. Economic myths have replaced philosophy. Why is there no protest against the proposal to combine the Labor and Education Departments?

  3. You need to remove President Trump to realize that this is a valid point he is making. Just no one else is making it and nobody within that stratosphere can realize it or the ones that do are living too good to question it.

    We have a serious problem on our hands and President Trump harsh some of his rhetoric maybe is true. Let me take the immigration issue first. Now you can really solve the current “heroin” (Read Opioids but in all actuality, it is clandestine Mexican and Chinese manufactured lab fentanyl and analogues) by strengthening the border security. We already have all Chinese packages being scanned for Fentanyl. The only way in now is from our Southern Border and it has been ramped up exponentially each year to feed the growing addiction as current users tolerance slowly rises and new users enter the fray. Now needless to say the addiction issue has many causative factors contributing to it but if you remove the supply cut the heart out of the hydra all heads will wither and die.

    Not only would the war on drugs finally be won by the creation of a border wall, drone-based detection combined with life jump teams.

    How does this argument become an argument about race or immigration? It doesn’t but it solves two birds and one stone.

    The way Congress operates they will sneak in little things into a larger package. I don’t see how a package combating the war on drugs to this nature could also sneak in a border security identification system. Nowhere does the word immigration appear. Nor is any immigration package provided in fact it is left how it is. I have no problem with anyone with the thirst for the American dream coming into our country. As long as they don’t plan on playing gangster shooting guns and selling drugs and living the thug life. If they want to come up with creative and innovative ideas that do not involve pimping and hoes drugs and you know all that gangster shit, fine by me.

    Now as for the press? I was thinking today over my morning oatmeal how can many of these men in the media even stomach themselves. I wonder sometimes if Jim Acosta or Joe Scarborough or Sean Hannity really believe the shit they are saying or the way they are acting. LIke come on Sean do you need to repeat your job history every show to be one local contractor boys? Or come on Acosta who screams out answers for attention and for prestige among his pathetic peers who is analogous to the Class Clown in Second Grade who has glue smeared all of his face with PEN15 written in marker on his forehead…. Fucking clown.

    The media is a bunch of crap hogwash and you do not get the real story. Turn on Fox you get things left out that CNN includes and vice versa. This is so evident that during breaking news you can turn closed captioning on and mute and watch stories unfold in real time as the bullshit is spewed, changed, updated, downgraded, and twisted to the narrative the broadcasting Network serves. They all are trying to make it sound to their tune. So by swindling millions do you really deserve any respect at all?

    Also, the Mainstream media is assisting the Socialist takeover of America. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

    Patrick Anthony
    Proud American

  4. Courageous and unfortunately highly necessary.
    Interesting you’re mentioning of Spiro Agnew, a reminder that the sewers of American
    politics have been opened before.
    Keep us informed
    Frederik J Broersma

  5. Thanks for the write-up. I agree with much here and the positive spirit and the immense value of what used to be referred to as a liberal education.

    Unfortunately intents and results do not alway align. I am vehemently opposed to everything the present PC culture is now pushing.

    This debate demonstrates for me, by the words, ideas, quality of thought and general characters themselves about all that need to be shown to decide upon this present day debate of pros an cons of the PC agenda.

    I’d encourage all to watch the whole debate and decide for themselves. That’s polite and intelligent advice.

    ‪Political Correctness https://www.munkdebates.com/The-Debates/Political-Correctness‬

    (ADMINS: Edited text here if preferring to delete first draft)

  6. Sir,

    As usual you have done a superb job at highlighting a problem and with your knowledge and skill as a writer brought cogency to the issue concerning free speech, political correctness and education.

    President Trump and his followers are guilty of changing the subject to deflect attention from their own actions that, in my opinion frequently conflict with our national interests and often times good taste.

    Blaming victims and people who try ameliorate social ills seems to be their strategy to satisfy the basal instincts of their supporters. This strategy is tragically repeated many times throughout human history.

    Another strategy is to degrade their opponents’ accomplishments. Their treatment of John Kerry, John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama for their accomplishments only reinforces their disregard for decency and their own faults.

    Sometime ago I had a conversation with an acquaintance about political correctness in our society. He stated that some people are too sensitive and we should not coddle them with political correctness. My response to him was, where do we draw the line between political correctness and good manners. He had no response.

    On another note, I completed your online class on modern and post modern ideas. I learned a great deal. It opened my mind to many ideas about art and philosophy and I finally, after many years reading about post modern philosophy, obtained a satisfactory explanation to post modern ideas.

    Thank you and keep up the good work.

    If you are in Phoenix, AZ and have time look me up.

    Thomas Hulen
    C. 602.619.9717

  7. The real motto of our time is not to be who you are, but to be more than the others, to be lord among the others who live “voluntarily” subjugated by a masked ideology of freedom, believed by the power in promiscuity with the instituted knowledge, the one that survives and stands out in the institutions, that despite being “independent” they suffer from the same evil. Trump is not the disease, but the symptom, a way of being that is transversal to society. The affirmation of the being, not with the others, but by the position that is occupied in the hierarchy. Trump is not who he is, but the materialized, physical realization of the unfiltered ideology that governs “contemporary” society; a privileged individual who assimilated the present values, those that move and characterize the human being of the XXI century, but that is camouflaged by a subservience that is also characteristic of it, a result of the dependence of power, but that as it grows within oneself, it reveals the Trump that lives in each one of us.
    Thank you

  8. Once again a concise summary of our dilemma facing liberals of all persuasions. I have been following carefully the free speech shenanigans at my Berkeley homeland. Reading your latest blog underlines why we all must be Roth groupies!

  9. Far too many people — perhaps as many as 63 million of us — can’t differentiate “political correctness” from common decency or simple kindness. They are encouraged in that by the Trump political approach, which was neatly summarized in just a few words by Steve Bannon:

    “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall,” he said. “This was pure anger. Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” Bannon added, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with sh*t.”(*)

    Our republic is in real trouble. 98 days to go to know just how much.

    (*) https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-vs-the-times-inside-an-off-the-record-meeting?mbid=nl_Daily%20073018%20Second%20Send&CNDID=38764064&utm_source=Silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%20073018%20Second%20Send&utm_content=&spMailingID=13967405&spUserID=MTMzMTg0NTA5OTEwS0&spJobID=1442578160&spReportId=MTQ0MjU3ODE2MAS2

  10. I wonder why you had nothing to say when the entire media ( except Fox) defined the meeting with Putin as crystalnacht, holocaust, Pearl Harbor, 9/11…
    Why you accept as normal attacks by media that are nothing less than holocaust denial?! If all Jews experienced during the Nazi regime is similar to what Trump presidency causes you and the media, then nothing really happened during the holocaust…
    Political correctness IS the cancer of the American society.
    With all due respect your position as stated here, for me and many others is nothing short of insanity.
    I am an east European Jew who immigrated to this country decades ago. My family was exterminated by Nazis and their European collaborators
    For me, your life experience and the perspective it formed would be considered puerile even for a 7 years old in Eastern Europe of post WWII.

    You teach history yet history taught you nothing.

  11. The idea that racism and xenophobia are topics open for intellectual debate regarding their acceptability as moral, ethical, or political options is the equivalent of opening up flat earth theory for discussion in advanced astronomy. But worse.

  12. If you think higher education is anything other than pretension that has no capacity for understanding the vast majority of the human race now or ever at the personal level, than you are exactly the problem with academia. Even Nietzsche complained of your lot being nothing other than “higher wet nurses.”

  13. I’ve only recently started your class on Modernism and Postmodernism and I’m wondering about it. Behind politics is an epistemology undergirded by an ontology. What have you done, but failed to recognize and fail to deal with the fundamental drives of the culture forces. What use is your great learning if you cannot recognize it’s play in the life of the world. How stagnant and dead is your weltanschauung? From your high pedestal of academia, what prevents engagement with the inarticulate thoughts of the masses? What are your words without a content, except an avoidant sophistry? This is your great pretense. In Blumenberg’s interpretation, the secular discourse inherently appropriates modes of expression, remaining in the realm of the myth, being a mythical narrative, and so parasitic as parody. This parody you present yourself as being.

    Pulchrum est paucorum hominum.

  14. Thanks for sharing this article in your weblog and also reminding others like me as your student in your course in coursera to read this article. I cannot tell anything about education system in the US because I am not there to totally understand your situation however understanding thoughts is what I am trying to do. It seems what some people have told over decade about educational system have influenced officials. According to the article, most of this current movements against educational systems is deliberately comes from current Trump propaganda system to get more attention in mass. But, I think, it is not the whole thing because we should answered these babbling before more before they become so popular that official would believed them or use them for their own purpose. It is a good time to officially defend educational system like what this article trying to do. It is just a beginning. I am sure the some intellectual like you could publish more insightful articles to change the course of mass people.

  15. Dr. Roth I have enjoyed your class on Coursera so far. Thank you for educating me for free! You are a good teacher. I decided to read your article because you invited me to read it by sending me an email. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed, but not surprised by it. I will try to explain why. It seems to me that Political Correctness is a vague (undefined?) term that means something a bit different to different people. I would be hard pressed to give you a definition of it, but I know I don’t like it. Some people say political correctness is just another way of saying we should be polite and courteous to each other, but I don’t think that’s correct. Example: I know a student at a public university (a white male) who very recently had a fellow student (not a white male) yell out during a class lecture “White Men suck!” (The topic was former Supreme Court Justice Scalia, may he rest in peace.) No one said anything…crickets. The professor (a white man) didn’t say anything. He went on with his class lecture as if nothing happened. Now is it politically correct to say, “White Men suck”? I think it is, but it certainly isn’t polite or courteous. So then what is political correctness? Whatever it is, it seems to me to be more than a “boogeyman”, as you put it, and I guess it must seem like more than a boogeyman to many other Americans too, since they voted Trump into office. (I voted for that 3rd guy who didn’t stand a chance). Now I may be wrong…maybe it is not politically correct to say, “White Men suck” in a crowded classroom, but I think many people think saying “White Men suck” doesn’t break the rules of political correctness. If someone had shouted, “Black Men suck”, or “Illegal Immigrants suck”, I think the person who said it would suffer negative consequences from those in authority and probably from fellow students, because saying such a thing is clearly not politically correct. When Hillary Clinton called half of our nation’s citizens “deplorables” if front of a crowded room of obviously very politically correct people, there was no booing; in fact, I believe there was applause. So calling people names, and being rude and offensive is in fact okay if you are politically correct, as long as it is directed at certain groups of people. This is the way I see it and I feel threatened by it. You wrote, “In the wake of the awful cruelties and dramatic embarrassments of the Trump administration in regard to immigration and foreign policy, these kinds of attacks are nothing more than a political distraction.” I agree that these “attacks” are political distractions, but I think you are wrong to say that is all they are. If they were only political distractions, they wouldn’t be very distracting. There is substance to these “attacks”, as you call them, and I hope you will consider that. Until the Left begins to get their own house in order by calling out the rude, violent people on the Left with the same fervor they use when criticizing Trump and those on the Right, their cries of indignation will ring hollow and hypocritical to everyone on the Right. Both sides are guilty of hypocrisy and hatred and just downright bigotry. By the way, I thought they weren’t separating families at the boarder anymore. They stopped that right?

  16. I am one of your student from coursera and indeed I am not American. So I will only focus on the issues that are not super local (to you Americans). Though I agree with some of your points, I strongly object your defence points about the media. Do we even have such a thing as free and unbiased media now? Fake news is not even the correct word, maybe Trump is trying to be politically correct. What we have is Garbage News! I have travelled to three continents and explored 14 nations. The situation in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America tells a different story while the so-called ‘free’ media tells another.

    We have been fade enough lies in the past and it is the right time for us, the naive public, to fire back. The mainstream is corrupted and proved time and again to be a gang of professional liars! Cry wolf… Now the public would rather choose to believe Trump than the Media.

    When the US invaded Iraq it was this media that tell us the Iraqis are developing WMD. As usual, the US didn’t pay for its heinous crimes. Rather, the sanctimonies and politically correct leaders say, “oops it was a mistake we are terribly sorry”. But sir, do you know who paid for this mistake, us leaving in the middle east and Europe.

    As if that was not enough, your gang of liers was the midwife in the birth of ISIS. Here is how they deliberately helped ISIS: the mainstream politicians assisted ISIS not just via the supply of weapon and US dollar but with their media dogs who depicted the other regimes in the region as the root of evil (Gadafi, Assad, and Ali Abdullah Saleh etc). Now we die every day like flies and still the so-called free media solemnly beseech about how evil Asad is. Maybe a few hundred Americans died because of the Iraqi war and now and then your beloved media moan about it, but more than 300,000 Arabs have died because of that war and the aftermath. Again hundred thousands are dying in the none Arab world (Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya etc). But Sir, please tell me what your free media is doing now? Yes, they are talking about invading IRAN! Is this a Greek tragedy and that the hero (the US as the global police of Democracy) must inevitably commit the one mistake that will bring the tragedy to the climax? How I wish this was just limited to the fine arts!

    And let us see the case of Russia too. I cannot even begin from the beginning. Meddling in US election… for the sake of the creator let us not share the bed with the queen of all drama queens. The US meddles with almost all elections all over the world; it has been doing that and it still does that and it will keep doing that. Yeah, when the free media tells the total lie about the Ukraine revolution, I personally suffered through that too, (I was stationed there). The US not just meddled with Ukraine, it orchestrated a coup d’état (let me remind you the Victoria Nuland incidence). And as if all of us have Alzheimer, a month later the so-called free media begins to speak about a revolution in Ukraine and the narratology bombardment commenced; we heard the mainstream media blowing the call of war because the people of Ukraine are hungry for democracy. Yes, we have no power to match the power of this free media even if we demanded them to investigate the prior incident in which the US not just meddled in the election but as well was caught hand picking the potential presidents for Ukraine. We asked them to investigate if this revolution is true of the people and it has nothing to do with that incident which proved that the US wants not what Ukrainians want but what it wants. Today, your media is again crying for blood and the things between Britain and Russia are great examples. First, the media will plant the hatred and fear via their fake news. Then follows war and as usual, we the common folks, the poor, suffer through it. The ones that demand political correctness never fight the war but the common vulgar do.

    And I am sure that I will be labelled as one of Russia’s Troll Army. Alas, freedom! When your free media spread lies and terrorism they are untouchable and unaccountable, even to criticise them is a taboo now. Yet, what we see in reality is that they are no better than the Russian troll army (if it exists). Again let me remind you sir about the case in Palestine. When an Israeli is killed we will not just hear a news, we will see a documentary about the deceased how great the deceased was and how beautiful dreams he/she used to dream. Yet when the Israelis killed hundreds of Palestine, what we will here is numbers (if they are lucky they will not be a footnote under the big screen but the anchor pronounces their death). Sir your free media has a different value system; An American or an Israeli or West European’s life is much precious than a black, an Arab or Eastern Europeans life). It is not just fake, it is garbage!

    Political Correctness? What good is it for us, the common people? During the Obama administration, the greatest pretender of all the US presidents, the number of Blacks killed by police in the US exceeds that of the Bush administration. what good is it to be PC but in reality you are stabbing the poor and the weak at their back? Trump is another bad guy, no doubt, he sounds racist and tyrant, but at least he is honest about being bad! If one is killing why add an insult by lying about it too? PC is not killing the new generation in the US, it is destroying the rest of the world. Tell it as it is!

    And the real issue scholars like you have to address is not just the superficial media war which will pass quicker than the Clinton sex scandal, the real issue a scholar like you should address is why the public is backfiring? It is because of the failed attempt at globalization. Yes, as usual, the free media in the early 80s and 90s started a new rhetoric globalization (indeed the group pushing this idea were the mainstream politicians) but amid the existing unspeakable inequality, the idea of globalization is something like watching a chimpanzee ride a bicycle. When the attempt (globalization) fails it re-introduced the menacing nationalism and populism which hunts Europe now.

    We are witnessing a change in the way the news is presented as well. It is becoming more like a show than a news. Now what they care is about rating and how not to be boring. I remember the day eastern Aleppo was freed by the Asad and Russian force. When the breaking news was on air and when most of the media were discussing the issue, CNN was airing 4 idiots discussing Kim Kardashian and the Aleppo news was just a footnote crawling via the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. This is the free media we have. And as if that was not enough, the next day CNN was busy showing fake protestors in Aleppo demanding democracy. Even a blind cat can see through that. No single word about the Asad regime effort to get rid of ISIS.

    A media that fails to hold accountable its leaders, a media that just toots its own trumpet from one side, above all a media that cares only for showmanship is a garbage!

    P.S You are an awesome teacher by the way and you have the charisma, thank you for the course.

  17. Roth Boy, get out of your bubble, can you see the hypocrisy of the main stream media, people like Senators Murphy and Blumenthal (your pals you cite so often), who say nothing when 72 people are shot (11 killed) last weekend in Chicago and 20 more shot just last night. All are black on black shootings (doesn’t fit narrative of white cop shooting unarmed black man–which is bullshit) and these are truly mass shootings and they get no coverage in the left wing press. Chicago is run by Obama’s former Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel) and is the former President’s home city. This is the legacy of the Democrat party which runs Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, failed policies and devastation of the black family.
    You libs who run these neo-Marxist indoctrination training camps (called Universities) need to get real, abandon your tired abstractions about the human condition (it doesn’t change my friend) before the country is irretrievably lost.

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