Political correctness might be back; fretting about it totally is

Yale students confront professor Nicholas Christakis over an email his wife wrote.

Yale students confront professor Nicholas Christakis over an email his wife wrote.

“I’m not politically correct,” says the person who is racially, sexually and anatomically correct. The 1990s’ favorite straw man is back, possibly for real but definitely as something to fret about. For the last several days, Yale has been embroiled in debate over an email professor Erika Christakis wrote suggesting campus administrators not supervise students’ Halloween costumes. Students were outraged, calling for Christakis’s resignation and demanding that Nicholas Christakis, her husband, apologize. “You should not sleep at night,” one student shouted at him. “You’re disgusting.” It is pretty disgusting when a man refuses to apologize for his wife saying kids should get to wear what they want. This seems like another troubling indicator that today’s college students are less interested in free speech and more interested in enforcing a simplistic ethos of identity. But what if they’re not?

Don’t get me wrong: it would be pretty exciting if they were. If the young woman who told Professor Christakis that his job “is not about creating an intellectual space…it’s about creating a home here” represents the views of her generation, it would be the perfect unfalsifiable trend story. It combines attacks on free speech—a value we pretty much all agree on, when we are not encircling our professors and screaming at them to apologize/be quiet—with America’s changing sense of minority identities with the theory that millennials are spoiled assholes. It’s pretty much the best thing that could ever happen to Jonathan Chait.

But is it real? Last month, when Wesleyan students sought to defund the student newspaper over an editorial criticizing Black Lives Matter, it turned out that there were only about 170 of them. That’s 5% of Wesleyan’s total enrollment. Reports from the Yale campus put about that number of protestors outside last Friday’s William F. Buckley Jr. Program on free speech, where panelist Greg Lukianoff remarked that students were acting like Erika Christakis “burned down an entire Indian village.”

That was a dumb thing to say. By the time the panelists left, a couple hundred students were outside changing “genocide is not a joke.” A fair reading of Lukianoff’s remark would conclude he presented genocide as something very bad, but would you deliver that line to a roomful of American Indians?1

According to panelist Kevin Williamson in the National Review, protestors spat on him. He refers to those protestors as “idiot children” throughout. Advanced writing tip: if you find yourself using the word “idiot” a lot, maybe you should refine your take. It’s tempting to conclude that kids today are spoiled rotten and incapable of perceiving nuance, as Williamson seems to:

There is a certain strain of upper-middle-class American culture that cultivates an excess of self-importance that grows cancerous when it isn’t counteracted by a deep understanding that the world is full of things that are much more important than you are: God, country, the rest of the human race.

But those “idiot children” are absolutely preoccupied with things they consider more important than they are: maybe not God and county, but definitely other members of the human race. They may couch shout their arguments in terms of creating “safe spaces” for themselves, but they are expressing the idea that both history and present systems have been deeply unfair to any non-majority group. They have found a moral cause, and it’s one they consider much more important than themselves.

Their plan of action for addressing that cause is pretty dumb. Restricting free expression on college campuses is not going to do a goddamn thing for queer Palestinians or early-childhood education in Brownsville. But the problem here is not that college students hate free speech. The problem is that they are confined to college campuses, where speech is pretty much the whole world.

Most of those Yale students have parents who put up $45,000 in tuition a year, plus room and board and iPhones. Those who are on scholarship are enjoying a respite from money crisis for maybe the only time in their lives. Of course they think an email suggesting the university not censor Halloween costumes makes them unsafe. Of course they believe speech is tantamount to violence. Speech is the only thing they experience. It is their world, and they know their world is unjust.

It’s deeply alarming to see college students demand protection from ideas. That’s not what learning is about. I personally believe that the free exchange of ideas and the principle that speech is never equivalent to violence are foundational to a good society. But I think it’s absurd to claim that kids today hate free speech. We hate kids today. And they hate everything but perfection, as we taught them to.

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  1. Not sure about this, Dan. It seems to me a big problem with analyzing this media trend, such as it is, about ‘PC flare-ups’, is that there’s so much ambiguity about whether the category ‘kids today’, when referring to college kids specifically, actually comprises ‘kids’ or adults. So Williamson clearly makes them out as children. Meanwhile Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic can’t seem to decide (the term “youngsters”, amounts to an equivocation), but he errs exceedingly, I think, on the side of tenderness. Ultimately, this is a categorical distinction that bares keeping in mind when trying to address, as a gloss on ideology, the semantics employed by these protest movements, because then I don’t think you can really say things like “they hate everything but perfection, as we taught them to.” This implies a sort of hazy generational dynamic that I think obfuscates the issue. My two cents? They’re adults. Extremely immature adults. But also notice that there are actual, (old) adults around, whose presence must be accounted for. Indeed, these were the more striking characters in the video embedded in Chait’s piece today.

  2. Well said.
    “But those “idiot children” are absolutely preoccupied with things they consider more important than they are: maybe not God and county, but definitely other members of the human race.”
    I’m inclined to agree with this because it accedes to my requirement that all analysis of conflict conclude it stems from blameless misunderstanding and can be ameliorated with better communication and a little effort. It’s The Requirement of the Reasonable.
    But on second thought, I do not see the selflessness present in the speech of these Yale protesters or other PC flareups like the queer graphic novel, Bernie Sanders moment of silence in Seattle, or other recent provocations. I see youths accessing and wielding power. The rationale of that power seems secondary to the exercising of that power. As you say, their plan of action is dumb. Were they dedicated to unraveling racist/sexist/ableist institutions they’d be prioritizing changes and starting at the top of the list rather than what’s convenient. The strategy would be proactive and mostly unresponsive to goings on in social media and emails. I wouldn’t expect this, but it should be seen as a virtuous approach to combating marginalization.
    Instead, zealots choose what’s nearby and convenient, then claim protesting every transgression or regressive act is tactically sound. After all, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” They hold the line like a phalanx, unable to distinguish between a real threat and non-combatants in the fog of war, and make every spear thrust a ballad for the bards. Never mind that it is incredibly self-serving and deluding; it’s power and wielding it is fun.
    The suggestion by Christakis that they, ya know, not ally with the bureaucracy for greater control while prosecuting their war is completely reasonable, but she’s from the old school. In her day bureaucracy was the threat that would twist you into a tool to advance its own needs. Nowadays, bureaucracy represents the satisfying means to persecute those who persecuted you.

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