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.

Penn’s water buffalo debacle marked the moment when a remark ceased to be assessed on its merits and instead became subject to the ears of the beholder. Jacobowitz’s epithet wasn’t racial, but the women shouting outside his window perceived it to be. The content no longer mattered; their reaction, their hurt feelings, did, and that’s what the administration acted on in charging the freshman with using a racial slur.

This didn’t go unnoticed. An American Lit prof at Duke University at the time warned that under such logic, language would “cease to have any communicative value.” Proof of this came soon enough in incidents—in Washington, D.C., at the University of Wisconsin, in North Carolina, and as recently as 2009 in California and 2011 in Florida­—in which the word “niggardly,” derived from a Scandinavian term and meaning “stingy,” resulted in resignations, reprimands, firings and at least one lawsuit. In the Wisconsin case, the student who complained about her Chaucer prof’s use of the word fumed that it continued even after she informed him that she was offended. She told the faculty senate, “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.”

In the post-Buffalo world, as Lukianoff puts it, “Claiming to be offended is the ultimate trump card in any argument.” You hurt my feelings, and that makes you wrong. This is the process whereby TV anchor Jennifer Livingston became a cause célèbre for complaining she was “bullied” by a viewer who emailed to chide her for being obese. She retorted on the air: “You can call me fat and, yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. … You don’t know me. … I am much more than a number on a scale.” All of which is true, but … was her pen pal bullying her? He’d concluded his email, “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” If Livingston hadn’t been so ready to jump on the victim wagon, she might have interpreted his words as a gentle remonstrance that she take better care of herself.

As if.

Why, in disagreements ranging from Chinese Tiger Moms to sequestration to boycotting Chick-fil-A, are we so ready to vilify those who criticize us? When I spoke with Lukianoff, he mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s theory, put forward in the speech “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” that we “sacralize” our own points of view, believing them to be particularly righteous and moral. “And that means we demonize the other side,” Lukianoff explained. “If you disagree with me, you’re a bad person.” We learn these habits, Lukianoff says, in school, where we’re taught that there are right ways and wrong ways to think.

What’s a wrong way to think? Ask Alex Watkins, who was suspended from second grade at his Colorado elementary school for hurling an imaginary grenade at an imaginary box to save the world from evil. Or, locally, the Penns Grove Middle School teacher who let a student make a “Wanted” poster for a runaway slave for a history lesson, and had a black activist complain. 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. Really. In all three cases, anyone with a lick of sense would see an incident blown way out of proportion by people who … well, who want everybody to think the same way they do.

We all want that; it’s human nature to desire to be among like-minded companions, unless you make your living as a radio talk-show host. But we need disagreement, Lukianoff warns, if we are to learn and grow. Consider the “speech code” at Swarthmore College, which defines sexual harassment to include “unwelcome verbal or physical advances; persistent leers; sexual innuendoes, comments or jokes; the persistent use of irrelevant references or remarks to a person’s gender, sexuality or sexual orientation; sexist remarks about the target’s clothing or body; expressions using sex stereotypes whether or not they were made about or directed to the grievant and whether or not intended to insult or degrade … ” [emphasis mine]. Now imagine you’re a Swarthmore student taking, say, the course “Race, Gender and Environment.” Do you foresee classroom discussion being furthered by that code? Or perhaps you’re just a 19-year-old kid who’s kidding around. A fellow student who takes offense at something you say can haul you up in front of the disciplinary board whether or not you intended to insult him—because his feelings get hurt.

And you can bet there will be a phalanx of folks to help him cope with those feelings. A student at Penn who feels she’s been sexually harassed has, according to the student handbook, a choice of the following on-campus resources from which to seek “information and counseling”: the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs; the African-American Resource Center; the Penn Behavioral Health Employee Assistance Program; the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Labor Relations; the Office of the Ombudsman; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Staff Relations; the Division of Public Safety, Special Services; Penn’s Women’s Center; Student Health Services; Counseling and Psychological Services; and the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life. Christ, no wonder the school costs $60,000 a year.

Yes, of course there are students, and citizens, who have genuine grievances. But we no longer distinguish between them and those claiming harm where none exists. And the price goes beyond money. “People think political correctness is a forgivable and harmless part of higher education, but it has real ramifications,” Lukianoff says. “It’s the source of bad intellectual and rhetorical habits. Students learn: It’s easy to join an ideological club, find professors who aren’t dangerous, not interact with anyone who disagrees with you. You stay in the echo chamber.”

In case you think what happens on college campuses doesn’t seep through to the culture at large, consider the City Controller’s Office at Philadelphia’s City Hall. After some birdbrain scrawled a lewd comment about an aide and his partner on a men’s-room stall, a dozen employees were grilled by a private investigator (cost to taxpayers: $7,746), then subjected to four hours of “Diversity & Sensitivity Training” on bullying and stereotyping (cost to taxpayers: $17,671). Did shelling out $25,000-plus for a sensitivity consultant accomplish anything that a stern “Hey, people, let’s not be idiots” wouldn’t have?

But sensitivity training has become a huge industry, commonplace on campuses, in the workplace and in government. In one ultra-fatuous example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent nearly $200,000 to have a trainer lead employees in repeating such ­farcical mantras as “The Pilgrims were illegal aliens” and “Thank you, white males,” as well as shouting, when prompted, “Bam!”

Sometimes, the costs of such “sensitivity” are more than just financial. Remember Major Nidal Hasan, who shot up Fort Hood in 2009? A report on the incident noted that an officer at the San Diego Field Office for the Joint Terrorism Task Force had informed headquarters in Washington, D.C., before the shootings that he thought Hasan should be asked about possible terrorist sympathies. The response from the D.C. office? It “doesn’t go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites.” Besides, the San Diego office was told, the matter was “politically sensitive.” Not long afterward, dozens of soldiers were wounded and 13 were dead.