Choosing Your Fight Political correctness and free speech on campus

The hysteria about “political correctness,” particularly concerning college campuses, has spread of late. In February a speech at the University of California Berkeley by then-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopolous was canceled after protesters hurled fireworks at the building he was supposed to be speaking in. From there, windows were smashed, an innocent tire or two was set ablaze, and the media couldn’t control its glee as it found a new excuse to talk about its favorite non-issue. Then, in April at the same university, Ann Coulter (who lives every honest author’s dream of having no fact-checkers, a slavish and senile clientele, and a well-funded publicity department) was stopped from speaking after the university—which houses its own separate police department—couldn’t guarantee safety for either the speech’s attendees or its protesters.

Between these two incidents were other similar cases of right-wing academics or pundits being prevented from giving their scheduled speeches. At nearby Claremont McKenna College, Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald (whose ideal America can be fairly summarized as a terror police state which maintains a sense of civility and decorum in its political discourse—alas, otherwise, we fall into name-calling and extremism) was forced, at the last minute, to change lecture halls and have her speech livestreamed on the school’s website. In early March, American Enterprise Institute fellow Charles Murray (who is far from the avuncular, open-minded scholar he recently pretended to be on Sam Harris’s podcast) had the same issue at Middlebury College in Vermont, whose administration chose the same solution (i.e., relocate and livestream the talk). However, unlike the incident with Mac Donald, after Murray’s talk he was harassed by protesters while walking to his car, which resulted in a professor who was escorting him being assaulted and hospitalized.

In recent memory, there have also been attempts to thwart liberal visitors from speaking on college campuses. In 2015 a student petition at Cardiff University in Wales was passed around that demanded the cancellation of a talk by Germaine Greer, “Women & Power: The Lessons of the Twentieth Century,” because of Greer’s remarks calling into question whether trans women were the real thing. Cardiff decided not to cancel the talk and the event went ahead as planned—although for a time Greer considered backing out because she was angry with the university’s preliminary statement that they “in no way condone discriminatory comments of any kind.”

By now most folks are familiar with these sorts of stories. A “controversial” speaker is invited by a student group to give a speech about how gender is biologically determined; or how either black culture or black genetics are to blame for black America’s poverty; or that relativism, postmodernism, and critical theory are destroying the moral fabric of civil society; or that welfare doesn’t work because it only incentivizes the poor to remain shiftless and lazy; or that educational standards aren’t as rigorous as they used to be; or that a godless society is necessarily a decadent and corrupt one; or that the media is a liberal conspiracy against the American virtues of thrift, initiative, and patriotism; or that it’s only illegal immigration from the third-world that’s the problem, not immigration per se; or that for the last fifty years in this country, the rich and powerful have actually been the victims of the poor and pointy-headed and not the other way around. In other words, nothing one couldn’t read every morning on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or overhear at the boss’s golf club or be subjected to after your college-dropout friend comes across Alex Jones for the first time.

In order to draw attention, then, the so-called controversialist must put these received opinions in a ruder, more priggish manner than his or her more mainstream counterparts do. And in response to the vituperative tone, protesters pass out pamphlets cataloging all the speaker’s ideological sins and, once the speech begins, heckle him or her with slogans like, “We respect free speech/But this is hate speech!”

Until recently, the adversarial speaker-protester relationship on campus never went much further than this—it doesn’t, however, take much critical thought to see that where campus politics is now is where it’s been heading for quite a while. Living off a shock-and-awe gimmick means one always has to be transgressing boundaries. (Yiannopolous, for example, has lately reduced himself to attending Miami pseudo-orgies with Roger Stone to retain his appearance of lavish hedonism). Similarly, identifying your politics as in resistance to things—rather than for the abolition or transformation of things—means always having to find things to resist and to always be resisting them, even if the more exhibitionist forms of resistance aren’t actually the most effective.

Reactionaries have used this naïve stifling of free speech as a Trojan horse with which to sneak in crude ideas regarding race, gender, and class. They—along with large swaths of the media—have articulated the debate as one over the very soul of Western civilization. Between those who welcome evidence, inquiry, and proof and those who censor them for fear of what they might reveal. Between those who are tolerant of other people’s beliefs and those who aren’t. Between those who respect tradition, custom, and canon and those who scorn them for the latest intellectual fads.

Of course, these kind of free-speech champions manage to be for free expression when it comes to racialists and fascists but not when it comes to organizing workers and boycotted Muslim speakers. Nor can one of them hide behind a false calculation of proportionality. The president and his chief of staff have confessed to “look[ing] at” constitutional changes to the First Amendment. Republican governors across the country are attempting to criminalize public assemblage. And for the average American, their manager has more censorious powers over them than any number of Yale brats could ever dream of. As for their feigned concern over Western civilization, one can’t help but notice that they despise—or are ignorant of—most of its culture and history.

Still, and despite the subject being a miniscule matter in the genuine struggle for free expression, guests of colleges should be permitted to speak without harassment or cessation—and especially without fear of physical assault. And not just for all the typical reasons either. Sure, an absolutist free-speech stance is, on principle, a good and worthy thing. Sure, one ought to hear opposing beliefs if for no other reason to refine and sharpen one’s own. Sure, “no-platforming” isn’t the best technique for expressing one’s moral concerns. Sure, those who practice this sort of radical exuberance are usually just “going through a phase” and merely playing with politics as others do with music or fashion. (The old socialist Irving Howe, upon being berated by one of these types for his lack of critical dissidence, turned to the student and said, “You know what you’re going to be? You’re going to be a dentist.”) But most important, it isn’t progress to give those in power—in the case of public universities that means a governing board composed of worn-out lawyers, corporate chairmen, and one or two international business students for PR purposes—even more power.

Civil liberties play a vital role in radical politics, and we largely have the labor movement and the civil rights movement to thank for the protections on free speech in place today. At the same time as black and white workers were putting their bodies on the line for the freedom to say what they thought about war, economy, and justice, students were, even then, shouting down speakers on and off college campuses. It’s an affliction of middle-class political sightseers that’s been around much longer than Andrea Dworkin’s and Catharine MacKinnon’s anti-pornography campaigns in the 1980s.

It isn’t surprising that the indulgent madness of political correctness on college campuses took off around the time the university was reaching its apex of commercialization and philistinism. Universities were always places for a bit of upper-class frivolity, but starting in the 1960s that side feature started becoming one of its essential qualities. Nowadays most universities are no better than playgrounds of simulated liveliness. Safe spaces for narcissists and bores rather than for Marxists and multiculturalists. Nor is it surprising that avoidance of verbal offense has become so popular. Turn on the news and you’ll find anchors talking about “collateral damage” when what they mean is a whole row of families were murdered at a wedding or “labor market policies,” which means the boss’s boss plans on reaching into your pockets again. Company meetings include talk of “fee structures,” “buy-ins,” and “consumer empowerment”—sometimes there’s even talk of having to “let someone go.”

In the end, political correctness is safe for the media to endlessly and without nuance drone on about because it sells reasonably well and because it doesn’t upset management. It’s dangerous because it fools those in opposition to it into thinking they’re upsetting the status quo by sticking up for the landlord, the bigot, and the executioner. Being a useful idiot for real fascists is not something anyone should aspire to be. Liberty and social action need not be at odds. Let folks say what they like, and if what they like are fighting words, then come up with some of your own.