I was talking with an ex-university professor recently who told me that he was very happy to be retired. He said he was glad to be out of the hornets’ nest, away from a world so filled with political correctness that it was difficult to get through the day. Life on campus, he said, is rife with so many non-issue “issues” that it’s like walking barefoot on sidewalks littered with broken glass.
He related how he once told a fellow professor that she “looked very nice today,” meaning that she had selected a particularly nice outfit. Rather than thank him for the compliment, the professor took him to task for being sexist and going out of his way to objectify her as an object (a piece of meat) to be admired.
“You wouldn’t say the same thing to a male colleague,” she scolded. The male professor was taken aback and told her that she was wrong. “I do say the same thing to male colleagues. I do it all the time.” The professor also happened to be gay, so he wasn’t thinking about female objectification (the meat factor) when he said what he said. Welcome to university life in 2018, where every word out of your mouth has to censored, and where even paying a colleague a compliment can get you into hot water.
The ex-professor told me another story, of when his university invited a well-known woman speaker to lecture to students. While the speaker’s presentation was flawless and held the audience spellbound, during the Q and A a well-dressed young man stood up and said that the speaker had disparaged African Americans.
“I compliment you on a good talk, however you made one gross mistake that is offensive to the African American community,” he began. The speaker asked in a soft voice what the offensive remark was.
“In your introduction, you described yourself as being the ‘black sheep’ of your family,” the student said. “The use of the word black in this instance connotes negativity and undesirability and as such it casts a poor light on African American students. It is racist.”
Yes, she was right up there with the Ku Klux Klan.
The speaker swallowed hard, not quite sure what she should say when another woman professor in the audience stood up and complimented her on a stellar lecture and added that she was certainly entitled to express her views anyway she wanted to, including using any word she felt was appropriate. Common sense won out in this instance — the easily triggered student who called the speaker a racist became so unpopular on campus that he eventually transferred to a school outside the United States.
But this is a rare scenario. Generally the triggered student is not reprimanded, but joined by other triggered allies in the audience.
Last year, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at Villanova University, but his talk was cancelled after protests from left-leaning students — even though the event was arranged months in advance by campus Republicans.
Milo’s (now defunct) multi-campus “Dangerous Faggot Tour” sent many colleges and universities into tailspins, with left-of-center students engaging in many forms of protest. Some students stormed the stage, such as when Black Lives Matter interrupted Milo’s talk at DePaul University. Many of the protests occurred outside the auditorium or lecture hall where Milo was scheduled to speak. Here the students brandished signs and banners, many in full-scream mode. The more impassioned anti-free speech advocates blocked doorways and wedged their bodies between security and the lines of students eager to enter.
Some protesting students wear face masks, an odd if somewhat adolescent theatrical touch which is supposed to invoke the revolutionary fervor of Che Guevara, but which instead raises questions of cowardice. Why are you hiding behind a mask?
There was a time not so long ago when only the right wing was crazy over censorship. In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, it was conservatives who banned books and movies and even speakers (Communists, etc.) from college campuses. Today it is the Left. That’s why the term regressive left in now a part of the national vocabulary. A regressive leftist is someone who has an inability to listen to contrary, uncomfortable viewpoints without throwing out accusations of bigotry, racism, and white supremacy. Labeling someone a “racist” or a “white supremacist” is supposed to shut down all debate. It’s what philosophy professor Christina Hoff Sommers means when she says: “In their war against intolerance, they take on the extremes of intolerance.” She also adds: “It’s going to be hard for future historians to understand what happened on American campuses in this decade.” This is true because freedom of expression on campus is being replaced by the right to feel comfortable.
When I attended journalism school, America was waging the Vietnam War. Students at that time were either pro-war (a hawk), or pro-peace (a dove). The majority of students at my school were reluctant to take a side: they didn’t want to voice their opposition to the war because so called peaceniks in those days were often labeled “dirty long haired hippies in need of a bath.”
When our professors would occasionally blurt out a pro-hawk statement during class they would usually accent it with an acerbic anti-hippie comment. Hearing these impromptu comments was always unsettling for those students against the war, but everything was taken in stride. Nearly all the students viewed a professor’s political tirade, left or right, with a grudging tolerance. The point/counterpoint aspect of it all often echoed what we were hearing at home from parents and siblings. Yet we never allowed the clash of ideas in the classroom to bring us to the brink of despair or “war,” unlike the atmosphere on today’s college campuses.
There were no space spaces at my journalism alma mater, no padded side rooms with play dough, licorice-flavored binkies, or settings of milk and cookies to soothe over hurt political feelings. The anti-war students agreed to disagree when one professor invited a pro-war Colonel to speak to a class, or when the school sponsored a “Support the Troops” day, code at that time for Support the War.
At some colleges now, the latest trend is banning white male poets like T.S. Eliot and John Milton. This would have been inconceivable to students in the 1970s.
Glen Harlan Reynolds, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Tennessee, says the term “hate speech” is meaningless because “all speech is equally protected whether it’s hateful or cheerful.” Yet this solid Constitutional definition doesn’t wash with college campus social justice warriors, especially at schools like Swarthmore, Brandeis, UC Berkeley, Smith College, Sarah Lawrence, Bennington, Wesleyan, Oberlin, and Sarah Lawrence College (where, as a critic noted, freaky theater types go who want to be like Yoko Ono).
Students in the 1970s understood that college is a trial run for adulthood. And adulthood, after all, is an Upton Sinclair “Jungle” of clashing opinions and warring ideas. Colleges that seek to protect students from the world of ideas are not colleges at all, but four-year retreats.