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.

Not long ago, I had lunch with the headmistress and the PR director at a local private school that charges high-schoolers $30,000 a year. Over our meal, we discussed diversity at their school; they explained that they take great pains to guide their students into “acceptable” ways of thinking about the subject. “What’s ‘acceptable’?” I asked. The headmistress waved a hand: “Oh, you know. What people generally wouldn’t take offense at.” What, I asked, about minority opinions? Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about—protecting speech that isn’t popular, or considered “acceptable”? She had no answer for that.

It’s no doubt true that you’ll have fewer hurt feelings at an institution of learning if everyone’s doing groupthink. Last year, the New York City school district provided companies preparing standardized tests for its students with a list of topics that would “probably” cause a test question to be “deemed unacceptable.” Just a few of these dozens of topics: dinosaurs and prehistoric times; evolution; geological history; expensive gifts, vacations and prizes; politics; movies; nuclear weapons; holidays; slavery; poverty; violence. And why are all these topics off-limits? Because, according to the school board, they might “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students” and create a “distraction” for them, thus affecting their scores. Fundamentalist children, for example, might be wounded by talk of evolution. Black children could be upset by a mention of slavery; poor children, by test questions concerning expensive gifts. As for politics, well, why would testing on that ever belong in a school?

You couldn’t make up a more absurd list of banned topics. It’s almost parody-proof, this antiseptic bubble we raise our children in: Don’t learn about anything controversial, don’t talk about anything controversial, don’t think about anything controversial. Stick to what’s acceptable. Gee, what habits do you suppose kids pick up from that?

Teachers I talk to say students today are less likely to challenge material presented to them than they used to be. Amanda Anderson, a Johns Hopkins English prof and author of the book The Way We Argue Now, has traced this to the hurt-feelings epidemic: “It’s as though there’s no distinction between the person and the argument, as though to criticize an argument would be injurious to the person.” And God knows we can’t have that.

“There’s a simple concept,” Lukianoff says, “behind the free flow of information: that it’s really valuable to hear what people think.” When you believe people have to be restrained from saying what they think, you become paranoid: “You start to believe people are worse than they are.” And once you do that, you see discrimination everywhere.

This is the process that creates “crusaders” against disrespect and insensitivity, Lukianoff says—romantic, irrational do-gooders ever alert for potential offenses. Take, for example, the reaction of a student at the University of Pennsylvania to a February Fresh Grocer ad circular. At the top of its first page was a banner reading FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH. And beneath that was an advertisement for family chicken packs.

Which is racist. Because, you know. Black people and chicken.

So the student left a message on the Fresh Grocer Facebook page complaining that the juxtaposition was offensive. The store’s response? “Our intention is to celebrate Black History Month by acknowledging it on the front page of our ad where the message is most prominent and gains most visibility, which is the same location that we place similar holiday and memorial acknowledgements throughout the year.” This only fueled the complainant’s wrath; she told Penn’s student newspaper, “I don’t think they took it very seriously because their response had typos in it. … ” The paper, hard on the case, contacted Fresh Grocer’s corporate office and elicited a real apology. The student was gracious in victory, telling the paper, “I think it’s these very small things that reinforce cultural and racial stereotypes … ”

Actually? It’s these very small things that don’t matter, that inhibit our common discourse and clog our courts and drain our coffers, and that have a chilling effect on any actual progress toward eliminating prejudice. But I’m sorry if your feelings got hurt because chicken was on sale.

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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.