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.