I just finished reading Greg Lukianoff’s excellent book Unlearning Liberty. Lukianoff, who is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (aka, the FIRE) has spent the last decade fighting attempts in higher education to stifle free speech, trample on free association and turn campuses to indoctrination centers.
I highly recommend the book. It’s four years old but it’s age is actually a strength. Over the last year, we have witnessed an explosion of illiberal, speech-crushing actions on college campuses. We’ve seen communications professors try to “muscle” the press. We’ve seen pro-Trump chalking decried as “hate speech”. We’ve seen students scream at a professor because he thought they could decided for themselves what Halloween costumes were appropriate. We’ve seen student demands less freedom, more censorship and the hiring of hordes of new administrators to teach sensitivity and fight racism (and then wonder why college costs so much).
This eruption of political correctness didn’t come from nowhere. It was built over two decades and Unlearning Liberty details how it was built. Lukianoff shows how speech codes (which afflict about half of college campuses) have been used to silence dissent and promote liberal agendas (and to silence critics of administrators and student government). He describes professors declaring certain ideas to be undebatable in their classroom. He details how universities will allow exclusively black or gay groups on campus, but fight against exclusively Christian groups. He details a maddening questionnaire incoming students are forced to fill out that asked them such things as whether they would have sex with someone of a different race. And then he details how refusing to answer such questions could earn mandatory sensitivity training sessions with crackpots teaching from “oppression wheels”.
Viewed through this lens, the current climate on campuses is not surprising. This is simply the poison hatching out after years of indoctrination (that really starts in high school). This isn’t just a generation of crybaby students. It’s a generation that has been taught from Day One that liberal ideas are right, that disagreement is hate and that further indoctrination is good.
(It has also empowered and enriched people who are, frankly, crackpots. When you read about what these people believe (or claim to believe) it’s crazy totalitarianism. Penn and Teller once had an interview with a “cultural auditor” who makes tons of money teaching about political correctness on campus. Every word this man said was garbage, a word salad of high-sounding nonsense. And the stuff he was teaching was frequently racist garbage, such as it was “insensitive” to expect black people to be on time for things.)
Lukianoff describes himself as a liberal Democrat but has admirably spent much of his time fighting for campus conservative and Christians with whom he disagrees. The book will give you an excellent contrast between a classical liberal like Lukianoff and what Andrew Sullivan has dubbed “the illiberal left” — a group of Left Wing advocates who have decided that free speech, free association and free religion can not be tolerated if it might disrupt their agenda.
One final thought that struck me when I finished the book: has political correctness ever solved a problem? Ever? I’m serious about this. Has all this nonsense with safe spaces and speech codes and affirmative consent and intersecionality and oppression wheels actually solved any of society’s problems?
I would argue that it hasn’t. In fact, I would argue that by depriving us of our ability to discuss issues of gender and race in frank terms, by stomping down ideas considered “incorrect”, by putting everyone on tenterhooks, political correctness has made things worse. It has created political paralysis on key issues. It has created armed political camps that lack the ability to discuss and debate issues lest someone be offended. It has left institutions of higher learning in the hands of cranks who have no idea what they’re doing. In fact, Lukianoff thinks the illiberalism on college campuses is a big reason why our politics have become so partisan: a generation of college students are coming of age who have never had to engage opposing ideas or consider that their own ideas might be wrong. They are used to retreating into ideological “safe spaces” where their ideas can not be challenged. And, of course, only talking to people with whom you agree has a tendency to make one even more extreme.
Look at a serious issue: sexual violence on campus. We can’t warn students about the connection between alcohol and sexual violence because that’s blaming the victim. We can’t have fair trials because the issue is too important. We push this idiotic model of affirmative consent which has little bearing on the realities of human sexuality. Brandeis, a university named a fierce civil liberties advocate, found a student guilty of sexual misconduct with no trial because his boyfriend decided after the relationship was over that some stuff had not been consensual. This process is becoming extremely expensive, driving up college costs and creating a virtual police state.
(Each link in that paragraph, BTW, is a must-read.)
But all this is necessary, we are told. All of this is critical to destroying rape culture and making campuses safe.
The problem: according to the Left, it’s not working. The Left claims that one-in-five women on campuses are victims of sexual violence. Let’s put aside that this number is almost certainly a wild exaggeration. If we accept it at face value, this means that all this political correctness has made things worse for women, not better:
Sexual violence in our society is down — way down. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rape has fallen from 2.5 per 1000 to 0.5 per thousand, an 80% decline. The FBI’s data show a decline from 40 to about 25 per hundred thousand, a 40% decline (they don’t account for reporting rate, which is likely to have risen). RAINN estimates that the rate has fallen 50% in just the last twenty years. That means 10 million fewer sexual assaults.
Yet, for some reason, sexual assault rates on campus have not fallen, at least according to the favored research. They were claiming 1-in-5 in the 80′s and they are claiming 1-in-5 now. The sexual violence rate on campus might fall a little more slowly than the overall society because campus populations aren’t aging the way the general population is and sexual violence victims are mostly under 30. But it defies belief that the huge dramatic drops in violence and sexual violence everywhere in the world would somehow not be reflected on college campuses.
I explain how you can unbias the current research to show that sexual violence has, in fact, declined on college campuses. But if you accept the Left’s number, it has not. All that censorship, all that sensitivity, all those kangaroos courts. And, if you believe them, the result is that women are in more danger than ever.
Political correctness has also deprived us of our ability to recognize and deal with actual racism and misogyny. After all, when you’re kicking students off campus for just having a book about the decline of the KKK, how are you going to emotionally deal with, say, some racist asshole who goes into a black church and murders a bunch of people? When you’ve called the campus vice squad on someone for complimenting a woman’s appearance, how are going to deal with someone demanding sex for a promotion?
You have to be tough to deal with discrimination. And political correctness doesn’t make people tough; it makes them weak. It makes them incapable of dealing with ideas they don’t like without three college administrators holding their hands. I’ve had to deal with anti-Semitism from time-to-time. Would I be more or less capable of doing that if the mere sight of a Christmas decoration gave me a fainting spell?
I’m not saying that people should ignore “microagressions” or small acts of racism and sexism that many people experience very day. I’m saying we need to keep thing in perspective, to differentiate between things we can deal with by engaging other people and things we need to literally make a federal case over. Screaming racism and bringing the wrath of a college administration on someone over a racist joke is not going to solve anything. It’s going to make people defensive and entrench any discriminatory beliefs they have.
Even worse, a lot of the time, the dictatorial powers we have given college campuses are being used to silence and punish the very students they are supposed to help. See, e.g., Brandeis putting a black mark on gay student’s record without so much as a hearing.
If you were Mr. Evil Republican White Christian Male and wanted to maintain racism, sexism and bigotry in our society, you’d be hard pressed to find a better weapon than today’s political correctness. It makes people weak and hypersensitive. It brings debate and understanding to a grinding halt. And it’s spreading out from college campuses to infect the media, the workplace and our personal lives.
So what do we do about it? For one, keep calling it out. Young people especially need to be calling this out. On a political level, the federal government needs to stop supporting and even mandating this garbage through Title IX and other provisions. Even better, it could come out and make a bold statement against unconstitutional speech codes and indoctrination, declaring that it will always throw its weight on the side of free speech and free minds. If college campuses knew the Justice Department would side with a student punished for speaking his mind, they’d think twice about their ridiculous speech codes. Simply putting down the Federal foot down on the side of decency and respect would go a long way toward restoring some sanity to our campuses.
So, buy Lukianoff’s book. And better yet, support the FIRE. The last thing we need is this country is another generation of voters who retreat into their own navels when their ideas are challenged.