Political correctness is gradually becoming a merciless doctrine that is threatening freedom of opinion at American universities. The responsibility also falls on the first social media generation.
The humanities and arts seminars at American colleges are prevailed upon by a demon of fear and self-censorship, denunciation and a ban on irony. Thin-skinned students take the right to reprimand their professors and to silence them. They think they defend themselves against harsh words that could hurt their feelings. They believe that they have a claim on learning in a sheltered environment, only allowing small, digestible, filtered bits of reality in.
The slightest irritating hints made by a professor or a fellow student are called “microaggressions”: For example, asking a Latino where his parents are from counts as an insulting microaggression, as the question seems to imply him not being “a real American.” “Trigger warnings” are demanded of teachers, so that nobody gets unexpectedly hit by the evil. It is the 1968 rebellion with reversed signs: Students resist their professors’ critical thinking, and they demand sheltered, conflict-free teaching.
Microaggression at American Universities
The findings Greg Lukianoff, lecturer in constitutional law, and Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, discuss in their article, which was published in the September issue of the renowned U.S. magazine The Atlantic, make for an astonishing and devastating read. The authors try very hard to be fair, and to not paint a picture of an entire generation being pampered and intellectually simple. Furthermore, they support their findings with a long list of examples; they are not weirdos.
The anecdote of a setup by Asian-American students, which they founded in April this year at Brandeis University to bring about sensitivity toward microaggressions, seems surreal. “Shouldn’t you be good at math?” and “I’m color-blind! I don’t see race” are examples of such subtle attacks. The setup had to be closed down because other students of Asian origin felt very insulted and denounced its very existence as a “microaggression.”
It is about feeling, not thinking, or even objective knowledge. For years the authors have dealt with this spreading phenomenon, which they named “vindictive protectiveness.” Lukianoff is CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Jonathan Haidt is an expert in America’s so-called culture wars.
Fragile Young Students
They place great emphasis on clearing up a misconception they believe to have found in the American media: The students’ new claim to protection is not to be put on the same level as the wave of “political correctness” in the 1980s and 1990s.
Marginalized minorities then fought for their appropriate place in teaching: Native Americans, gays, lesbians and transsexuals, non-whites of all colors and ethnicities pushed into the mainstream and forced an extended college canon. Whatever you may think of the bizarre excesses from African-American Studies or Gender Studies, their aim was education and diversity.
The current movement, however, is based on the struggle for an “emotional well-being.” The basic premise is that young students are mentally fragile, and are entitled to not be put under pressure, or even be irritated whilst learning. They cannot help it.
What Harm Social Media Does
As the first generation that has been surrounded with social media since kindergarten, they have learned to revolt or to amuse themselves, to praise like-minded people and to chasten “traitors” in anonymous chat groups. Allowing dissidents the same right to speak, to discuss, and maybe even learn from them is a foreign concept to them. America’s political culture, which over the last two decades has glorified ideological battles and demoted compromise to a swear word, is, in their eyes, confirmation for their behavior.
American political scientists have termed this historic, unprecedented torpor (resulting in nearly disabling Congress and weakening the president) “effective polarization of the parties.” It is poisonous for the world’s oldest democracy.
The “I feel, therefore I am (right)” mantra seems to be replacing “I think, therefore I am.” If professors have to worry about being reprimanded or even getting suspended by university management for every lecture, counseling meeting or benevolent joke, the Socratic idea of not teaching students what to think, but how to think and how they can understand others is on the defensive.
Since student fees have rocketed and universities have to fight for students, denunciations can be made more easily. Lukianoff and Haidt refer to a case at Purdue University in Indianapolis.
A white student had read a book on a 1924 student uprising in Notre Dame against the Ku Klux Klan; the cover had a picture of a clan meeting on it. A fellow student felt he did not have to put up with this. The university’s affirmative action office agreed with the allegedly offended student. The book was put on the index.
No other fundamental right — not even the right to carry weapons — is defended as passionately as the freedom of opinion in the United States. “Freedom of speech!” is the response to everybody who is offended by the fact that it is possible for participants to wear SS uniforms at a parade on Times Square, possible to accuse the president of high treason, possible to let political candidates de facto buy their way in with donations worth millions of dollars.
The Pressure on Colleges
It is difficult to understand why the U.S. government is not just tolerating, but actually supporting the massive restriction of freedom of opinion and free teaching at college by thin-skinned, over-emotional students. At least this is what anti-discrimination bylaws — effective since 2013 — amount to, making molestation and unequal treatment based on sex, race, religion or nationality at universities punishable. They put universities under even more pressure, and play into the hands of those that see campus as an area where sensitive souls are protected from reality.
Just how these sheltered elites, who are used to always being right and being agreed with, are going to cope in America’s tough working world remains to be seen. It should not just be Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt who should worry about this. Other countries of the free world, which traditionally follow America’s academic trends, would do well to look for new prohibitions on speech and thinking at their own universities. It would be a miracle if they did not exist.