A History of Political Correctness: 20 Years After Penn’s “Water Buffalo” Incident

Two decades after an ugly racially-charged scandal rocked Penn, our world is more PC than ever.


On a winter’s night 20 years ago, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who was working on an English paper heard a ruckus outside his dorm. A group of sorority sisters was singing, stomping and yelling, and he couldn’t concentrate. So he shouted out the window at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo!”

The young man, Eden Jacobowitz, was Jewish. The women he yelled at that night were black. He was subsequently accused of violating Penn’s policy against racial harassment. In the months that followed, what became known as “the Water Buffalo Incident” would threaten the confirmation of Penn’s then-president, Sheldon Hackney, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; attract the attention of the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; provide the world with a thorough gloss of the Hebrew word behema, which translates more or less to “ox of water” and is used in Israel, where Jacobowitz had lived and studied, to mean “thoughtless, rowdy person”; and be dissected, in such forums as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and the New York Times, as the ultimate example of political correctness run amok. The women eventually dropped their complaint against Jacobowitz, stating that the media uproar prevented them from getting a fair hearing. He graduated, sued Penn, went to law school, and went into human resources. No one involved in the incident wants to talk about it today.

The international outrage over what happened to Jacobowitz should have stopped PC in its tracks. Instead, that outrage was swept aside by a rising tidal wave of people claiming offense over nonsense. In the decades since, PC has spiraled out of control, starting on college campuses and graduating into the real world, eventually splitting the nation into two sides, red and blue, that don’t speak to one another, despise each other, and don’t even bother to try to understand the other’s point of view.

That, anyway, is the argument made by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philly-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a.k.a. FIRE), in his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. He posits that political correctness has hamstrung free speech, resulting in a society where citizens lack the “experience of uninhibited debate and casual provocation” that keeps minds open and dialogue flowing. People lose their jobs because of jokes and misinterpretations; they’re hung out to dry in public when they misspeak; they quake in fear of being accused of “disrespect.”

Those who dare question whether these offended parties have actually suffered harm are shouted down by the hurt-feelings “sensitivity” industry and social media and news organizations trolling for hits. And the costs of disagreeing with the PC guardians ratchet ever upward—costs that all of us pay.

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  • simon

    Would you describe the banning of the ethnic studies program in Tuscon, Arizona by the school-board, as political correctness gone awry? If not, why not?

    • FatherTime

      No that’s an extreme overreaction from the backlash, it’s possible that both sides do stupid stuff sometimes.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    The Inquisitors and Copernicus? He was never investigated by the Church and was actually encouraged to publish his most important scientific works by some Cardinals. Hell, the Pope invited him to Rome to help reform the calendar he was held in such high regard. Perhaps I should stop before I offend secular people or something…heh. Otherwise, good article.

    • Dan Dimerman

      maybe he meant Galileo

  • Menachem Began

    The correct response to cases where PC has been pushed too far is to ‘go nuclear’ (lawsuits) against those displaying the obviously bad judgment. Gather the arguments, step outside their review boards, and serve them papers to a $50M lawsuit for violation of rights. Do not settle unless it includes an explicit apology, policy retreat and significant money. This should be 100% effective, and quite lucrative…

  • fearsometycoon

    You forgot to mention the string of racial vandalism was perpetrated by a leftist student who was trying to stir things up.

  • mememine

    PC makes truth the new hate crime.

  • FatherTime

    “citizens lack the “experience of uninhibited debate and casual provocation” that keeps minds open and dialogue flowing.”

    I’m sure anyone who’s been on an internet forum has that experience

  • FatherTime

    “Or the Georgia college kid who was expelled after he protested his
    school president’s plan to build a parking garage. The student posted on
    Facebook that the project was a “memorial” parking garage; the
    president claimed this amounted to a violent threat to murder him.”

    How’s this political correctness? It sounds like just straight up extortion/abuse.

  • Depressive Realism

    Even by the official government numbers there is much more violent crime by black males against other races than there is by other races against black males.

    This is true, not just in the US but in other countries as well.

    This is true not just today but 10 years ago and I’d bet you $100,000 that it will be true in 10 years as well.

  • iagozdi212

    My Uncle got a nice year old GMC Sierra by working parttime
    off of a computer. special info w­w­w.B­I­G­29.c­o­m

  • Jane Yavis

    PC – Political Correctness or Persecuted Constantly????? It seems to have turned into little more than a fatiguing retort/justification for rude behavior.