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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