when good intentions become strong-armed mollycoddling
Yes, you absolutely can go overboard and turn cultural sensitivity into something very, very toxic.
Remember the nasty and bitter social justice clashes that rippled out across what still remained of independent pop sci and skeptical blogs, the ones that ended up swallowing a good chunk of organized skepticism and sent many groups into a slow, quiet slide into nowhere? Well, they’re all the rage on college campuses and writing about them and their effect on students and all of the adjuncts who have to teach perpetually aggrieved and offended students is all the rage for media outlets.
In the New York Times, there was a longform discussion of how the movie PCU has been playing out in real life in upper crust private schools, an adjunct shared his fear of the vocal college liberals in his class on Vox, and after the countless articles generated in response to these pieces, even The Onion stepped in to give the topic the obligatory snark treatment. To cap things off, we have even been treated to an academic thesis that political correctness on a widespread scale is actually teaching students to follow a downright pathological worldview.
In the lefty circles of social media, the term political correctness is often held as simply treating others with respect being ostracized by bigots, an imaginary pejorative like that now constantly used social justice warrior moniker. But as with SJWs, there’s a point where activism turns ugly and becomes far more for the sake of the activist than the people on whose behalf the person advocates. It’s one thing to demand some sort of vocal disapproval when faced with a bigoted behavior on a college campus. Making fun of a group of people for the sake of offending them for a punchline just isn’t appropriate in public.
But the politically correct activists in colleges and outside of them go far beyond that and actively mollycoddle the groups they want to protect to the point where everything must come with trigger warnings and every classroom must be near some sort of “safe space” if not turn into one, as if the groups being protected are incapable of an academic discussions of complex, controversial topics, the reason why they’re in college.
See, colleges are supposed to be places where your ideas are challenged and where a difficult topic for you is externalized and experimented with in the relatively consequence-free space of classrooms. It wasn’t long ago that I too was a college student and in AI classes we took on the topic of drones and other potential killing machines that we might one day be called on to build with several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the room. If we can’t talk about it in class as we’re learning about relevant implementations of complex ideas, where getting wrong answers or expressing a controversial opinion just means more discussion rather than a death by remote control on the other side of the world, where can we? If you’re a pacifist and refused any grant to help make killer robots possible, does that give you the license to pretend they can never exist and run away from discussing what they could do if left unchecked? Real life simply doesn’t care about your feelings when comes to a topic and gives no trigger warnings.
We don’t build colleges for students to emotionally Nerf themselves and become family lawyers who can’t discuss rape or pedophilia, doctors who can’t deal with pharmaceutical companies in their offices, or food scientists who can’t be in the same room with a GMO experiment. Life isn’t easy, but that’s why you have to be tough, why you have to be bigger than your feelings, and to be able to look a real life bigot or hatemonger in the wild, and not shy away from confronting all the offensive garbage he spews.
Fewer than five years ago, drunken hookups on campus were lessons to be learned. Now there’s an army of activists who made their careers on turning long night of bad decisions into criminal cases and legislating sex and gender among teenagers still trying to figure this stuff out for themselves, often failed by their schools’ shoddy sex ed. When the activists’ critics say that we can’t turn classrooms into echo chambers by the aggrieved for the aggrieved, sanitized and censored from all ideas deemed offensive, they’re actually worried about the students’ abilities to deal with the real world on their own, not just resisting “progress” for the sake of obstinacy, or because they’re following some sort of secret bigoted agenda.
And perhaps the worst thing to me about the new dawn of political correctness is the aspect of identity politics being forcibly crammed into every topic, so in order to even be allowed to have an opinion heard, you have to divulge very personal information to be seen as relevant. I don’t feel comfortable volunteering my childhood memories and sex life in order to be allowed to say something in a nevertheless important debate, but that’s what I have to do in order for zealous activists to actually address a point being made rather than dismiss me because I don’t have a deep personal stake in a topic.
The narcissism in play is astonishing because every debate has been turned into “me, me, me” and “how I feel about this” instead of what everyone thinks and what should be the right answer if there even is one. Buying wholesale into PC culture seems a lot like buying a ticket into one’s own navel and shutting out the rest of the world for a sanitized echo chamber made to your personal liking so you never, ever have to feel uncomfortable and can deploy a constantly ready string of buzzwords to preemptively silence any new ideas.
Yet this is exactly what we get when we allow the “invalidation” argument be used to censor an emotionally charged topic. The idea that by presenting a different view on a subject you are not simply giving a dissenting opinion but actively invalidating the experience of another person is a frequently used but absurd reasoning to shut down debates about PC-sensitive matters. One of the most frequent places you see this is when law courses mention false rape and child abuse allegations, something that sadly happens in a small percentage of cases to help an ex-spouse find legal leverage in a divorce and custody proceeding.
The fact that false allegations really do happen, and that they do in no way invalidates what victims of rape or child abuse suffered, or change the guilt of the perpetrators. These concepts are not mutually exclusive. However, that we’re told that because someone could use a term or a factoid totally out of context to attack an individual’s rights or demean someone’s experience, we are not to bring it up is asinine. People who are deluded enough to consider every case of rape a shakedown by evil women just out to get their money will voice their opinions regardless. They’d just make up their own “facts.”
Even worse is that dogmatic adherence to perfect communication in which the right terms must be used at the right time, in the right context, in their right tone every single time, drives away a lot of people who are very much on the dogmatists’ side. Even in an extreme PC echo chamber like the current incarnation FTB after the Atheism+ fiasco, the gatekeepers of what is and is not properly sensitive and correct can be eaten alive by the mob they created for voicing the wrong opinion at a moment’s notice. Alienating your friends and allies because they’re not perfect and can’t keep up with the current lingo decided to be the most sensitive and inclusive is not a good way to advance an agenda.
It’s a great way to pat yourself on the back for taking others’ stories and identity issues on an emotional joyride so you can feel like you’re doing something good for the world, but for an actual movement that needs allies and advocates, it’s a terrific way to stay marginalized. And the same goes for the frequent lack of self-reflection among the most vocal activists who take criticism like this not as constructive feedback, but as a personal slight and a chance to play a game of Privilege Bingo to swiftly invalidate the person who made it.
But there is a silver lining to all this. Many of the cases cited in all the articles about it are rather extreme one-offs in very liberal colleges attended by upper middle class students with way too much free time on their hands and lots of misguided passion to make things right. For the many words expanded on how adjuncts are terrified of their liberal students, just a handful of cases in which students storm out or complain are ever given. In the meantime, your typical students on campus are having all sorts of debates on social media with people whose opinions they find to be objectionable or downright hateful, and roll their eyes when the campus’ often self-appointed guardians of personal sensitivities have another protest or interfere with day to day classes.
It’s not that colleges and students are perpetually at war with each other over what their professors should be allowed to say in class, it’s that a vocal minority found a good cause to take too far in search of a meaningful pursuit when not studying for midterms and finals. Eventually, they’ll get bored and a far more reasonable approach to controversial subject matter in campus will again put freedom of speech and academic debate above personal opinions of a dogmatic few.