Cowardice at the University of Chicago

Well, that University of Chicago sure made it clear who's the boss! The recent and highly publicized "warning" to incoming freshman was a blatant bit of pandering to the seemingly overwhelming consensus that women, students of color, and gay folks are too sensitive and that their playing the "victim" is soiling the integrity of colleges and universities.

John Ellison, dean of students, wrote, "Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual 'safe spaces' where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,"

One more solid blow against "political correctness" and the restoration of the rights of privileged white men to exercise their powerful intellectual might. What a courageous man!

Or perhaps, what an unmitigated load of faux intellectualism and capitulation to mean-spirited conventional wisdom.

The University of Chicago, or at least Ellison, herein commits a superfluous act of conflation, whether intentional or merely stupid. In the pubic conversation about "political correctness," at least in the campus context, there are two very different matters.

Few, certainly not I, condone the rare vigilante effort to disinvite a controversial speaker or to silence uncomfortable speech. As is true with any political or social issue, those wishing to broadly condemn "political correctness" can find an egregious example to arouse sentiment in their favor. That tactic is no more virtuous than welfare reformers who find a "queen" buying potato chips or conservative politicians who impose voting hurdles on poor communities of color by evoking fears of non-existent voter fraud.

So, I gladly stipulate to the notion that we should not yield to those who would shout down a speaker or force cancellation of a provocative presentation. In these cases, there is "harm," in that a legitimate form of speech is inhibited. All of society, particularly educational institutions, should vigorously protect the right to uncomfortable expression. To quote a slice of a broader thought from Justice Louis B. Brandeis, " . . . the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."

But that is not the issue addressed by Ellison's message or by the broad condemnation of "political correctness" among most conservatives and too many liberals. In the main, accusations of "political correctness" are flung widely and carelessly as cover for those who wish to be crude, cruel, offensive or insensitive with impunity.

This intellectually dishonest condemnation of "political correctness" has fueled the abominable "speech" coming from the Trump campaign, beginning with the candidate himself and cascading through his supporters, who use racial epithets, threats of violence and crude caricatures with apparent glee. It bears noting, for those who genuinely care about freedom of expression, that not a one of these offensive "speakers," including Trump himself, has faced threat of any civil or criminal penalties as a result of their vile utterances.

One of society's great advances, on and off campus, has been the recognition of different identities, the encouragement of empathy and the embrace of those who have been historically marginalized or vilified in society. Acknowledging privilege, understanding racism, and encouraging civility are not examples of "political correctness," they are gratifying signs of an evolving society. The anti-PC voices seem to be nostalgic for a time when privilege wasn't challenged and marginalized voices stayed on the margins.

When Yale University officials gently suggested that students not appear in black face on Halloween, others rapidly jumped in to yell "political correctness!!!" and hammered the University for coddling students. Really? The anti-PC outcry would have been quite justified had Yale threatened to punish any student who engaged in offensive costuming. But, of course, that wasn't the issue. In the name of "academic freedom," the gentle suggestion that students should be thoughtful was the perceived offense, not the possibility of some smart ass intentionally insulting hundreds of students for whom blackface is a reminder of slavery and centuries of institutional racism. Which of these two things should offend our sensibilities?

When students receive, and perhaps heed, so-called "trigger warnings," it harms no other person. The professor is not compelled to sanitize the curriculum. Other students are not denied the educational opportunity to absorb the strong material. When students wish to rest in a "safe space," affinity group or other setting where they might commiserate or find comfort, what harm has it done to the privileged majority?

Is it the University of Chicago's position - is it our society's position - that women, people of color and gay folks should shut up and endure whatever curriculum or social climate confronts them, no matter how hurtful it feels? What harm does it do the university, what harm does it do society - what harm does it do you - to gracefully yield to the lived experiences of others now and then?