Ponnuru probes the current state of political correctness

Ramesh Ponnuru‘s latest column at National Review Online explores the latest examples of political correctness run amok on college campuses.

An allergy to proportion and judgment seems to be one of the distinguishing features of the ideas and practices that travel together under the label of “political correctness.” Were that not the case, many of the ideas associated with PC would be unobjectionable, even trivial. There is nothing in principle absurd about the concept of a “micro-aggression.” (One example, with which I used to have a lot of firsthand experience, comes to mind: asking someone of South Asian descent where he’s “really from” after he has just told you he comes from Kansas.) All of us should be aware that we can unintentionally slight or offend others, and we should try to avoid it; all of us should also have a sense of perspective if we are unintentionally, and microscopically, offended. …

… The most troubling aspect of the PC impulse is not its insistence on renaming public spaces, its harangues about the improper use of pronouns, or its interest in making sure that Oberlin students can eat culturally authentic Asian food. It is that in the name of egalitarianism, PC threatens the robust exchange of ideas. We cannot overcome this threat solely by appealing to the contrary abstract ideal of free speech. Doing so will also require judgment and, if the word is still allowed in polite company, discrimination.

To begin, we must distinguish between the different challenges to open debate depending on whether they come from government, from university administrations, or from civil society, including the corporate sector. The threats to free speech that require the most vigorous resistance are those backed by the power of the federal government. Americans are more supportive than most people worldwide of the idea that individuals should be able to say what they wish free of governmental censorship — but they, and especially the young among them, are not supportive enough. A recent Pew survey found that 40 percent of Millennials believe that government should be able to prevent people from making statements that are offensive to minority groups. It is the sort of thing that might make us “speak despairingly” of young people — at least if we are not students at the University of Missouri Law School, which recently forbade them to do that on social media with respect to any group. …

… The federal government has contributed to the climate of intolerance on campus, too. Federal statute forbids sex discrimination by federally funded institutions of higher education; the bureaucracy has interpreted this law expansively, to forbid anything that might create a “hostile environment.” Earlier this year, a professor at Northwestern University, Laura Kipnis, wrote an essay saying that colleges, influenced by the federal rules, were instead creating an atmosphere of “sexual panic.” Some students objected to the essay, and the university launched an investigation into whether Kipnis’s writing had itself violated those same federal rules.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...