Stop complaining about “p.c. culture” and engage

annetaintorwarninglabelAt Salon, Swarthmore College alum Arthur Chu writes a brilliantly funny and angry screed about those silly “p.c. culture” articles published as clickbait by The Atlantic last week, and says exactly what I’ve been thinking and meaning to write all week long–just go read and think about it. His thesis is pretty clearly announced in the headline “So college ‘p.c. culture’ stifles comedy? Ever hear a comedian sh*t on the American Dream at a Wal-Mart shareholders meeting?”  In short, Chu exposes once again that the term “politically correct” is a meaningless bludgeon only used against some forms of speech and protest, and not against others.

Chu says it all much better than I can, but I’d just like to add two things:  although I’ve been guilty of it on this blog on occasion, and only in the distant past I think, the recent jeremiads about “kids these days” published in The Atlantic just make the authors appear sclerotic and judgy, as the young people say.  Please protest if I ever write something as carelessly and thoughtlessly dismissive as those silly articles!  (Pro tip to those worried about “p.c.” today on college campuses:  the best cure for bad, silly, or uninformed speech is more speech, not a huffy demand that an entire generation of students S.T.F.U.)

Finally, I’d just like to add that although I think that I can teach college students a thing or two that might come in handy some day, I also think that older people should pay attention and see what we can learn from our students too.  They are the generation that made sodomy laws and constitutional amendments preventing same-sex marriage fall so quickly.  It wasn’t my Generation X, which has mostly been just about us instead of serving others or working towards political action.  Even on a politically complacent, historically white campus like Baa Ram U. during the 2004 election, in which gay marriage bans were on several state ballots, I had majorities of students ask me in honest disbelief why anyone would be against same-sex marriage or harbor prejudice against gay and lesbian people.

The current generation of college students includes many from undocumented families who are bravely challenging capricious and punitive U.S. immigration laws.  It takes courage to go to college without any federal or state aid and without any guarantee that you’ll be able to work in the U.S. because your parents immigrated illegally when you were a child.  It takes even more courage to be open about your status and to use it to urge change.  Don’t talk to me about how emotionally fragile our college students are as a generation.

annetaintorthelmalouiseComplainers about the “p.c. police” are hypocrites.  They demand a conflict-free work environment for themselves, while criticizing students for being conflict-averse and “afraid” of ideas they dislike.  If our students talk back to comedians who deploy boring, old stereotypes in their humor, or if they question why they need to learn what we’re trying to teach them, don’t throw up your hands and scream “I can’t deal with your political correctness!!!”  Engage them.  Hear them out.  If you truly disagree, explain your point of view and listen to theirs.  Isn’t that what college is supposed to be all about?  If the professors and teachers in the room can’t handle a few tough questions, that’s not a p.c. problem–that’s an insecurity problem, which is your problem, and not something you can blame on your students, you entitled, emotionally fragile whiners.

20 thoughts on “Stop complaining about “p.c. culture” and engage

  1. “Pro tip to those worried about “p.c.” today on college campuses: the best cure for bad, silly, or uninformed speech is more speech, not a huffy demand that an entire generation of students S.T.F.U.”

    I agree 100%, but that’s a little complicated when people who spoke up for Laura Kipnis got hit with Title IX investigations, speech that offends people is met with petitions to the administration, and a majority of class sections are taught by people without even a shot at tenure protections.


    • I found Kipnis’s article last winter offensive and ignorant of power dynamics, but she can write whatever damnfool thing she wants to. Title IX investigations merely for speaking up for her right to write stupid articles? That’s Orwellian, but that’s why free speech is so dangerous! Sometimes doing the right thing is risky.

      As for “petitions to the administration:” who is not “the administration” to a student at a university? Every faculty member (in theory) plays a role in institutional governance, so whether they complained directly to Kipnis, to her Department Chair, her Dean, the Provost, or the President and Board of Trustees, it’s all “the administration,” right? I don’t fault the students for complaining or to whom they complained, but their complaints should have been met with a directive to engage Kipnis herself instead of these “investigations.”


      • Also, p.s. I only thought it was Kipnis herself who was subject to a title IX investigation–did the inquisition really go beyond her into the lives of the people who defended her?


      • First, I agree that Kipnis’s original essay was full of foolish things and woeful misunderstandings of how power works.

        Second, as far as investigating people who spoke up for her, she brought, Stephen Eisenman, the chair of the Faculty Senate, to a meeting about her case as an advisor, since she was not allowed to bring a lawyer. Afterwards, in a Faculty Senate meeting, Eisenman spoke about the case in general terms and said that he found many aspects of the process to be unfair. He was then hit with a Title IX complaint.

        Eventually the complaint was withdrawn, but a message was sent. The best cure for disagreeable speech may be more speech, but how many adjuncts are going to contribute more speech about certain topics when even a tenured professor and Faculty Senate chair can be hit with an investigation? There’s no easy solution to that problem. Obviously part of the solution (a very hard part) will involve structural and fiscal issues in universities, but another part of the solution is to try to de-escalate certain rhetorical arms races. We shouldn’t encourage students to view speech as making an environment “unsafe.” We shouldn’t teach students to equate speech with any word that includes “aggression” (even if the prefix “micro” is included). Speech might offend, speech might be amply deserving of criticism, and some speech might be unprofessional and inappropriate for a particular setting, but the default assumption should be that most (not all) speech deserves a free speech response rather than an official investigation.


      • Thanks for this–I googled “Laura Kipnis Title IX investigation,” and read all about it and how it concluded, and noted that it was only the “support” person she brought along to the TItle IX hearing who was also hit with Title IX charges. In the end, Kipnis was cleared of any wrongdoing, as she should have been.

        But here’s what I wonder, from an account with some interesting details:

        “Two students told the Huffington Post that they approached Kipnis shortly after her original piece was published to say that her description of the Ludlow cases included inaccuracies. The students say Kipnis did not offer to amend the essay. (The Chronicle later made some of the revisions requested by the students.)

        In response, the students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis and Northwestern’s Title IX coordinator. . . ”

        What would have happened if Kipnis heard the students out, acknowledged that she had made some errors in her article (which I assume is the case because it was later corrected by the Kanigel of Higher Ed), agreed to correct them, and turned the meeting into a productive encounter? Maybe she and the students could have left that meeting feeling like they had talked through some difficult issues, that there were disagreements between them but the students left feeling like Kipnis had heard them out respectfully.

        Maybe that wasn’t in her power. Maybe the students smelled blood in the water and were out to get her, but her representation of her writing “as a feminist” in all of her essays on this subject smells bad to me if indeed she was hostile to or dismissive of the students who approached her to talk to her about their problems with her article. I’m not denying that Kipnis is a feminist–just pointing out that hearing students out and talking to them is pretty central to any truly feminist pedagogy.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I think it’s also worth noting that the students who filed the complaint have openly and repeatedly, from my understanding, agreed with Kipnis that if her account of the investigation was accurate the lack of transparency and timeliness hurts everyone and they did not condone it. A lot of the investigative process smacked to me not of students on a witch hunt but rather an administration eager to protect its own institutional reputation. Institutional interests are rarely in 100% alignment with that of either faculty or students.


  2. A few years ago a speaker from FIRE was invited to our campus (it may have been Lukianoff himself, but I don’t remember) by the local conservative curmudgeon. The FIRE guy was quite condescending to the students, telling them that students who protested against sexual harassment or other things were dupes of unnamed other forces. The students were not pleased. I thought that Lukianoff’s piece in The Atlantic at least offered some points to ponder and argue about, even if his central reference point was his own struggle with depression. Flanagan’s essay was just weird — who cares if some comedians aren’t working college campuses any more?

    My sample pool is small, but I have never had a student ask about trigger warnings or complain that ze was upset by class material. Are such complaints really a thing, or have hand-wringers taken a few outrageous cases and blown them way out of proportion?


    • I’ve never had any complaints or demands for trigger warnings, although students tell me all the time that my classes are “too rapey,” not because they’re traumatized but because it’s depressing! I have had a student who left the class a few times because she found the material upsetting, but I permitted her to do so and she never suggested that I tailor my lectures or readings to her sensitivities. We **talked about it**. I understood where she was coming from.

      Maybe there are college students who are huffy and demanding to faculty and T.A.s, but I’ve never met one. Not even at Penn, when I was a grad student! I think this is mostly about faculty (and older comedians like Jerry Seinfeld) who can’t stand it if their judgment or sense of humor is questioned, which means they’re just thin-skinned jerks.


      • I have had huffy and demanding students (back before I had white hair and kids). They were almost 100% tall white guys (often, but not always, athletes) who were taking a required math class they were unprepared for and didn’t want to take. Never anything about PC etc. (Though I did once get a student complaint for using the word “prick” in class as a synonym for “jerk”… apparently in the South it is something sexual. Of course, my male colleagues who regularly use the “f-word” in their lectures have never once gotten a complaint or had an admin talk to them about their language.)

        Oh, and I got in a little trouble last year in a topics class for making a joke about voting for a specific candidate– a second semester senior in the class had just gotten a job for hir campaign and one of the major issues in hir campaign was something we were discussing in class and I said something to the effect of, “If you believe X, you should vote for [candidate], right [student]?” referencing the student who had just gotten the campaign job– that got garbled through a student grapevine to the chair who brought it up at a faculty meeting about not telling students how to vote. After I explained everyone rolled their eyes and we moved on. I definitely don’t think we should tell students how to vote– in the South they’re so subservient to authority that they might actually feel pressured in a way that they don’t in the rest of the country. As a student I had zero problem with my teachers and professors getting passionate about their political causes, even conservative ones, but I also never felt any pressure to do what they said. The students I get now are much more obedient and thus much more pressured by these kinds of discussions and less likely to speak out to the person talking. Except, you know, in scary math classes where the teacher is a small young woman.

        There’s a lot of complicated things going on with silencing vs. free speech.


  3. I’ve never had a student demand trigger warnings, but I do ask students to think about what it means to make and study art (including literature) about violence (including rape, murder, etc). I want them to recognize that non-consensual sex in Chaucer (for example) isn’t just a joke or plot device, but something they should think about more deeply.


    • That makes sense to me. Art is full of sex, violence, and violent sex! (So is history, but only recently have we begun to acknowledge this.)

      The vast, vast majority of our students want to learn new things, talk about the things they couldn’t talk about in high school classes, and be challenged. And I don’t think that’s changed much over my nearly-30 years of experience as a student and teacher in higher ed.


  4. Brava!

    We’ve said before that a lot of these complaints about “kids today” not having a sense of humor etc. really are coming from people who are out of touch. It’s crazy how history repeats itself… or, as they say, rhymes. I sure hope we’re on an upward trend towards equality, empathy, etc., but history seems to repeat itself there. I just hope the progress crash happens many generations after I’m dead.


    • Thanks!

      Yes, even if I kind of agreed with the whiners, it would just be embarrassing to admit how out-of-touch and clueless and cranky I am. (Or would be, but am not.)


  5. At my age it’s tempting to demand that everyone young get off my lawn. The problem is that my students are curious, hard-working and funny, often and rightly at my expense. As Historiann says so eloquently, they’re real students, and It’s a pleasure to work with them. It’s a big university system: there will always be some conflicts. They don’t mean Armageddon is upon us. That’s what Scott Walker might mean, a different matter entirely.


    • I think the best way to defy age is to embrace the young and welcome them to your lawn!

      But as you point out, Tony: it’s not that hard if you’re open to them.


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