In many ways, last year was a triumphant one for social progressivism. Marriage equality continued its now-unstoppable march across the country, and along with the continuing plague of sexism, transgender rights were brought further into the public eye. Tragedies in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere have forced an honest, widespread reexamination of racism in America. This wave of social justice has carried with it a resurgence in far-left politically correct culture at liberal campuses like Geneseo. Political correctness first appeared in academics in the 1990s and then faded into a conservative parody of “bleeding-heart” liberals. This parody has now come to life on campus and online. Sensitive and vaguely authoritarian, extreme political correctness is a threat to useful discourse at colleges and to progressivism at large.
There has been a recent uptick in liberal introspection on this issue, thanks in large part to an article by Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine. In his piece “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” Chait exhaustively rebuffed the “New P.C.,” which he described as the fusion of two basic principles: “that people should … treat even fairly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses,” and that “the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing.”
The article caused a predictable uproar. Writing for The Guardian, Jessica Valentini dismissed Chait. “If the worst thing that … political correctness has wrought is that it occasionally makes people uncomfortable when they say and do terrible things, I can live with that…” she wrote.
This is a normal caricature of anti-political-correctness discourse: it is merely the ire of white, cisgender, straight rich men who have been asked to sit at the kids’ table for once. Political correctness is not poisonous for this reason, nor will it bring about a warm and fuzzy autocracy where giving offense is outlawed. The campuses and forums where it holds sway are extremely narrow parts of the cultural spectrum.
But colleges have long been the crucibles of social progress; a strict, exclusionary political correctness culture endangers the development of progressive ideas and their ability to spread. Automatically shutting down language or opinions because they may appear offensive breaks the first rule for producing good ideas: they should be judged on substance before all else.
For example, the inability to have a useful dialogue on rape has resulted in sexual assault reform that is either brute force or nonexistent. Such an atmosphere also tends to produce extreme ideologies that are guaranteed to never leave their cloisters.
The ongoing protests against the oppression of African-Americans have given hints about how social justice movements can be more effective. Most Americans are so far removed from progressive ideology and theory that beating them over the head with their own privilege is pointless. Gentler efforts to recruit white allies and make systemic inequality apparent have been more successful.
On the other end of the spectrum, the fearless and forceful nature of the demonstrations stands in contrast to the wilting flower attitude here in the realm of trigger warnings and micro-aggressions.
Contemporary political correctness is a dream come true for right-wing moral reactionaries. That is, the only hope for reactionaries is the progress of social justice failing if the left censors itself to death.