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.

Earlier this year, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that it intended to hire a “conservative-in-residence”—an in-house right-wing intellectual to serve as counterbalance to the campus’s general liberalism. The president of the school’s College Democrats told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he welcomed the addition: “It shows we are interested in all opinions, left or right.” It’s a start, though it’s hard to imagine, say, Bob Jones University teaching evolution.

Still, the venting of opposing opinions is vital to learning, not to mention to democracy. What gets lost in the noise raised by those claiming they’re offended is this: Put a lid on a boiling pot, and eventually that pot boils over. Publicly clamping down on people’s ability to say what they think is a lot like that pot. Have you looked at the online comments on Bob Huber’s cover story in the March issue of this magazine—“Being White in Philly”? Hate’s hate; driving it underground doesn’t make it go away. Forbidding mention or discussion of ideas that aren’t “generally accepted” doesn’t do anything to eliminate those ideas. Just ask the Inquisitors and Copernicus.

My generation, though, has been so wildly desperate to protect our kids from hurt or harm—and to prove our liberal bona fides—that we’ve pushed for hypersensitivity at every turn. Those same instincts undergird the war currently being waged, nationwide, against bullying. In her new book Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Slate editor Emily Bazelon, who went to Germantown Friends, examines the ge­nuine harm caused by bu­llying—but she also defines it as much more than the o­ccasional snide remark. And she decries our current practice of jumping to the now-default conclusion that whenever a kid shoots up a school or attempts suicide, bullying’s to blame. In every case she examines in her book, the truth turns out to be far more nuanced and complicated than the headlines such tragedies spur.

We’ve turned into a “gotcha” society, ever on the alert for offenses that can be Facebooked and tweeted and turned into petitions and causes—that we can hitch our wagons to, so we can draw attention to ourselves. Are there words that are hateful, and hate-filled? Absolutely, and we should discourage their use. But what if instead of stirring up public drama when someone says something “unacceptable,” we gave one another the benefit of the doubt—or just sent a private email or note to the offending party?

I guess that wouldn’t scratch our itch.

The parts in Bazelon’s book that stuck with me weren’t about the students who were bullied. They were the parts where she wrote about the need for children to spend time among themselves without the oversight of adults, to not have parents always charge in and make things right—for kids to have the opportunity to fumble toward fixing things themselves. We can be vigilant without being vigilantes; we can care for one another and still disagree. We all need to stand down.

In the wake of a string of incidents of racial vandalism at ultra-liberal Oberlin College early this year, a student reported seeing someone dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes near the Afrikan Heritage House. Campus and local police charged in to investigate; the college president cancelled classes and activities; and students took part en masse in a teach-in, a “demonstration of solidarity,” and a “community convocation” on intolerance.

Police reported that while no Klan members were found, they did come across a woman wrapped in a blanket. They think the Klan sighting may have been a mistake.

We see what we look for. We could be looking for so much more.