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.

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.

Trump Tweets and Higher Education

It’s been clear from the time Donald Trump ran for the Republican nomination for president, that he represents a force contrary to the goals of education. My personal political leanings aside, I feel obligated to speak up in defense of the values that animate Wesleyan and so many other schools—values that President Trump attacks on a regular basis. From the denial of science, to the politics of division and cruelty, his irrationality and downright nastiness have been a direct challenge to the research, teaching and inclusion that lie at the core of the mission of colleges and universities. This mission includes promoting intellectual diversity, but it can not abide the politics of racist divisiveness. Condemning President Trump’s attack is not about choosing “sides” in a debate about ideas. It is a defense of what higher education stands for, and of the kind of country in which higher education can thrive.

President Trump’s tweeting tirade against four congresswomen of color this past weekend, telling them to go back to their countries, is just the latest example of racism run amok at the highest level of our government. White supremacists and neo-Nazis are celebrating his administration’s insistence on hate as a vehicle for stimulating the most destructive energies of a sector of the American population.

As many of us plan our return to the campus at the end of the summer, let us imagine alternatives to the noxious brew of racism and xenophobia emanating from the White House. Let us imagine creating a vision for our country as a place of inclusive experimentation — a project that can be achieved only by considering a wide range of ideas that will help us create greater opportunity, freedom and justice. I know these words often conceal hypocrisies and worse, but let’s strive to find ways to make them more real — at least as a civic aspiration for our campus and beyond. We don’t have to live in President Trump’s country of carnage. Let’s return, or turn toward, a country, our country, that we build together.

 

 

Free Speech and Inclusion

Now that the academic year is underway, I am often asked about how Wesleyan handles controversy – from government policies that affect higher ed to campus speakers who take unpopular positions. Sometimes those positions, in addition to being unpopular, incite action that can harm individuals or groups. What to do?

Wesleyan students, faculty and administrators alike have made clear their commitment to making our campus inclusive, and that commitment starts with wanting people to feel free and safe. That said, the imperatives of freedom and safety are sometimes in conflict. For everyone to have equal access to our educational resources, the campus must be without violence and intimidation; at the same time a campus without challenge would be anti-educational. Although it is crucial to pay attention so as to eliminate subtle forms of harassment, we must also be vigilant in respecting broad rights to speak freely. Beware of those who offer protection! Historically marginalized groups have the most to lose when authorities limit freedom of expression in the name of civility, safety or security. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be willing to risk giving offense for the sake of creating new opportunities for thinking.

At campuses like Middlebury, Claremont McKenna and UC Berkeley, we’ve seen incidents in which protestors shut down a speaker whose views they found anathema. At Wesleyan, we recognize the rights of protestors; at the same time, we ensure that those invited to speak on our campus get a hearing. This usually proceeds without problems because invitations go to scholars or other public figures accustomed to engaging in dialogue based in evidence and reasoning. At campuses where purveyors of hate, or celebrities famous only for their viciousness have been invited to speak because of their ability to provoke, it is hardly surprising that some people have, in fact, been provoked. But attempting to shut down speakers only plays into the hands of those who in the long run want to undermine the ability of colleges and universities to expand how we think and what we know.

I consider it my duty as university president to ensure that students, faculty and staff have opportunities to make their views heard, and to learn from reactions that follow. I have and will continue to defend freedom of expression – cognizant that not everyone has equal access to the tools for making use of that freedom and adamant that “freedom of expression” never be allowed to legitimize persecution. I will continue to support the right to speak out with views that may be at odds with the campus mainstream, but I will not countenance harassment. That’s a commitment to free speech, and I view it as core to the educational enterprise.

Events at Charlottesville underscored the problems that arise when exercises in intimidation are permitted under the guise of promoting dialogue and discussion. Our obligation to eradicate harassment entails a commitment to stop those who would bully the disenfranchised, to stop those who would terrorize others for their own purposes. That’s a commitment to equity and inclusion – also core to the educational enterprise.

Engaging with difference, including intellectual diversity, is essential for learning at the highest level. We learn from one another through our differences as well as our commonalities, and, in so doing, we can build meaningful solidarity – learning to care for one another.

I look forward to a year full of learning, engagement and care!

From ‘Unruly Hearts’ to Open Minds

Inside Higher Ed asked me for a response to the new Pew survey results regarding colleges, and I wrote the following op-ed, which was published this morning. 

 

Commencement was over, and we had awarded diplomas to the more than 800 graduates in a timely way. I had made remarks, as I always do, connecting the education they had received with events in the world at large, especially the combination of corruption and inertia in Washington. While marching across the stage, a few dozen graduates managed to express their disappointment that the administration in general and the president (me) in particular weren’t as progressive as they would like on issues such as sexual assault, divestment from fossil fuels and support for underrepresented groups.

The commencement address at Wesleyan University this year was given by the MacArthur grant-winning poet Claudia Rankine. As president and master of ceremonies, I admit I was focused on the way she engaged the students — no easy task. The address was political, as antiracism speeches must be, and it was smart, funny and moving by turns. She concluded by expressing, “Love to each of you and love to your bad behavior in the boardroom, on juries, in the office, on the street, at your dinner tables in all and every space that believes it can hold racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Muslim rhetoric and on and on. Love to you and your wild and unruly hearts imagining our world again.”

As families milled about after the ceremonies, taking pictures, sharing hugs and high fives, I was suddenly called out by an angry voice: “You annihilated my existence,” yelled a middle-aged man. Taken aback, I wasn’t sure I heard him right. “You annihilated my existence,” he repeated and went on to say that the ceremony had left him out and was an example of why people hate closed-minded universities today. Evidently, he did not feel included in the poet’s reference to unruly hearts.

I was surprised by this outburst, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I had recently encountered pushback from some on the other end of the political spectrum when I published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an affirmative action program for conservative ideas on campuses. Noting the tilt to the left in many humanities and social-science divisions at selective colleges, I argued that it was not enough to take a free-market approach to intellectual diversity. Being unruly at a Northeastern university these days should include making a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived. We should avoid the hate-filled provocateurs of the alt-right and instead encourage the serious study of ideas outside the progressive consensus.

Many students and colleagues who think of themselves as being on the left, as I do, worked themselves into a position of outrage, even victimization, after hearing about my short essay. A young alumna returning to campus for her reunion told me that I had made it more difficult for people like her to get an education because I was claiming that this education should contain ideas contrary to her own. She didn’t say I had “annihilated her existence” but seemed to feel that way.

What’s going on?

Survey data released this week by the Pew Charitable Trusts have given me a better feel for the intensity of such reactions. It is clear that many national institutions with hitherto broad public support are now viewed very differently depending on one’s ideological position. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Republicans and right-leaning independents have a far more positive view of churches and a more negative view of labor unions than do Democrats and left-leaning independents. Although the media’s popularity among those tilting left has grown over the last year, that doesn’t offset the steep decline among Americans on the right who think the national media is having a positive impact on the country. Interestingly, one can’t find a majority who think favorably about banks and financial institutions, though Republicans are more positive (46 percent) than Democrats (only 33 percent positive).

The sharpest partisan divisions appear when people are asked whether colleges are “having a positive or negative impact on the way things are going in the country.” Fifty-eight percent of Republicans and their ideological friends now say that colleges are having a negative impact, while 72 percent of Democrats and their comrades see colleges as positive. This gap has widened significantly in recent years. In 2015, a majority of GOPers thought positively about higher education; in fact, the decline among those who lean to the right is close to 20 percent! The views of colleges of those who fall toward the left have been pretty stable.

Colleges and universities have long been the screens upon which groups project their own fears and anxieties. Older people wonder what the next generation is coming to, or worry that their children are having their lives distorted by a professoriate not part of their “real world.” In the past two years, the fantasy of political correctness on college campuses has been a catch-all for a range of people angry about the world, especially those concerned about their status in our age of rapidly growing inequality. The PC campus bogeyman has an important function — it pumps up the myth that our biggest problems stem from a lack of tolerance for ideas friendly to the status quo. When fraternity brothers are disturbed by university restrictions on how they organize parties, they find a new rallying cry in bemoaning “political correctness.” When middle-aged veterans of college protests of yesteryear no longer see their own battles and slogans repeated by today’s students, they complain about PC culture undermining free speech. When men, even elected officials, are caught bragging about sexual assault, they punch back at political correctness.

As I noted in the run-up to the presidential election, there just isn’t any downside to attacking this imaginary monster of groupthink, and so people friendly to the status quo will continue to trumpet their own courage in “not being PC” as they attack society’s most vulnerable groups. Racism and xenophobia get a free pass when folded into an attack on PC elitism.

At the same time, those attacked as PC shouldn’t take the bait and content themselves with labeling anyone who attacks them as racist. Those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony. Those who support a progressive campus culture make a big mistake if they think they are protecting that culture by insulating it from ideas that come from conservative, libertarian and religious traditions.

Demonizing people because they have ideas different from your own has always been a temptation, and lately it has become a national contagion. College campuses are not at all immune from it, but this malady is fatal for liberal education. Many people are so accustomed to curated information — be it from social media feeds or just from one’s choice of cable news — that they have lost the ability to respond thoughtfully to points of view different from their own. When they are confronted with disagreement, they may feel their “existence is annihilated” or that the person with whom they disagree wants “to make it harder for people like themselves to get on in the world.”

So those on the left and on the right surveyed by the Pew Foundation may actually share the same picture of colleges but just evaluate it differently. Democratish survey respondents may be imagining campuses as places where they would find people who hold views like their own, and Republicanish respondents may be thinking that people like them would simply be called nasty names were they to speak out there. Both groups may be imagining colleges in blue states and red states as places where like-minded people go to become more alike.

This is a disastrous view of colleges and universities, one that we who work on campuses must do our best to dispel. We must highlight and enhance the ways that students and faculty members consider alternative perspectives on culture and society; we must promote vigorous debate that doesn’t degenerate into personal attack. This kind of consideration and debate is increasingly rare in the public sphere, and that’s why it is more important than ever to cultivate the terrain for it on our campuses. By this I don’t mean inviting provocative entertainers to the campus so as to get free speech points at the cost of providing a platform for idiocy and abuse. I mean enhancing conditions for the serious study of alternative visions of justice, freedom, individual rights and communal responsibilities. I mean not just sharing biases with students in acts of solidarity, but testing one’s biases by engaging with ideas that also challenge the campus consensus.

Even when colleges and universities are seen as places to engage with ideas and inquiry that break a consensus rather than support it, when students and faculty are seen as capable of trying out ideas without fear of reprisal, not everyone will say that colleges are having “a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” If we are doing our jobs, some should always object to what happens on campus. But when we are getting objections (and support) from people who hold a variety of perspectives, then we can be more confident that we are fostering the intellectual diversity essential for higher education’s role in this country.