“I will assess the facts plainly and honestly,” promised Donald J. Trump is his RNC acceptance speech: “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.” Say what you will about his handle on the facts, Trump made a smart play against political correctness. Contrasting himself with the toothless left, Trump spoke his mind—whatever the supposed cost. As early as December 2015, seven out of ten Republicans agreed that Trump “tells it like it is.” Erratic as his behavior was, Trump demonstrated one consistency: No controversy was ever final. Each would be supplanted by a baser sound bite. “No such thing as bad press” was, for Trump, a surprisingly effective means of deflection, and he came to take serious pride in accumulating and shrugging off all the derogatory labels of the left. A racist? No, “I’m the least racist person you have ever met.”
In voting Trump, conservatives tired of being labeled “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” or “xenophobic” combatted what they saw as undeserved condemnation. It is no coincidence that Trump received unconditional support from white nationalists such as James Edwards, the human dumpster fire who authored Racism Schmacism: How Liberals Use the “R” Word to Push the Obama Agenda (2010). If you believed in a difference between racially discriminatory policies and “actual racism,” then Trump was your man. Part of Trump’s gamble on the “silent majority” was to re-legitimize political positions on the border of acceptability. He bet that with a galvanizing force, the reprimanded would vote in unforeseen numbers. He was right.
What exactly was the anti-PC crowd’s beef? The left has long been criticized as hypersensitive: An un-American characteristic, for the right. But more recently, sensitivity reached a boiling point on college campuses in the form of safe spaces and trigger warnings. The blame falls squarely on student activists or, perhaps more accurately, on a certain caricature of a student Hua Hsu describes as “born of someone else’s pessimism.” The same portrayal of students now protesting Trump’s election as coddled befell those who last year forced the resignation of both the University of Missouri president and chancellor. As one UM parent wrote to the interim chancellor: “Free speech is under assault on campus by immature, spoiled, thin skinned punks … I am seriously considering removing my son after this semester. I will never allow him to take politically correct ‘racial sensitivity training’ if required.” Conspicuously absent in this response: The racist and anti-Semitic incidents that sparked the protests.
Whether real or imagined, accurate or mischaracterized, the left has found itself with a language problem, and the anti-PC phenomenon is especially telling. For one, the student vs. anti-PCer divide illustrates how our communication issues go well beyond the college-educated/non-college-educated paradigm. Surprising to some, Clinton captured only 49% to Trump’s 45% of the college-educated vote. Meanwhile, anti-political correctness brought together a coalition of Republicans from an array of economic situations, from Joe the Plumber to Senator James Lankford. The failure of actual student/anti-PCer dialogue to take place represents a larger, longstanding challenge the left still has to reckon with in the aftermath of the election: How to find suitable language for engaging both the working class and college-educated right. How do we speak to the other side without alienating ourselves as “soft” or “elitist” and our respondents as “deplorable”? To do so, I believe we’ll need to rethink the groundwork for many of our arguments, specifically their academic nature. We need to come to terms with how our intellectual tools often double as tools of estrangement.
For the anti-PC crusader, students are at their most obnoxious when they criticize what had previously been uncontroversial acts of language and representation. In response to the email incident at Yale two Halloweens ago, students argued that the “cultural appropriation and/or misrepresentation” a now former-lecturer called “a little bit inappropriate or provocative, or yes, offensive” should, in fact, be banned. Protests at Yale, according to Karin Agness, were the equivalent of “shouting down anyone who challenges them to think about something differently or makes them feel offended.” Efforts at the University of Tennessee to encourage the use of non-gender binary pronouns were described by State Speaker Ron Ramsey as “political correctness run amok.”
Some students at the University of Virginia, who ask that President Theresa Sullivan no longer refer to Thomas Jefferson as a pillar of morality, are representatives of what one anonymous blogger calls “snowflake university culture.” And perhaps the hottest take: That Oberlin College students who sought, among many other goals, to remove culturally misrepresentative dishes from the cafeteria menu are of “an Orwellian bent.” If you’re brave enough to read below the line on the linked articles, you’ll get a picture of how angry some people are.
Student activists see identities—who we are and how we know that—as produced by categories of difference. We understand ourselves as cultural, racial, national, sexual, religious, or gendered in some way, but always in relation to others. I am white because you are black; I am a man because you are a woman, and so on. With categories as neither natural nor fixed, students point out how language and representation shape identities and how we assume them. The consequence is that if you represent, say, black people as criminals or women as weak, you actually damage these people’s self-recognition and their life chances. They will be subject to disproportionate police attention or earn less because people believe these things about them.
This means that changing how people are talked about and portrayed is a kind of liberation politics. Nancy Fraser sums it up well: “[J]ustice today requires both redistribution and recognition.” Student activists argue, then, that you can’t be decent to others simply through the familiar, comfortable acts of charity or kindness. Being ethical means being open to learning how others wish to be treated and treating them accordingly, however strange it might feel to use the pronoun “ze.” Justice means transforming ourselves, too.
It should come as no surprise that these arguments find their home in the university, of all places. It’s not simply that, by and large, campuses remain liberal epicenters; it’s that this particular form of activism depends on a century of scholarship in the humanities. The student take on identity would not be possible without the concepts of “sign” and “signifier” Ferdinand de Saussure laid out in his Course in General Linguistics (1916). Not without “poststructuralist” thinking on the flexibility of language by academics like Roland Barthes. Not without the understanding of gender as a social construction, as in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990). Not without the assessment of blackness and racism by thinkers from W.E.B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon to James Baldwin and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The failure of academic thinking to move into public discourse is, of course, a real problem (at least for the academy), and it shouldn’t be too controversial to attribute the mockery of student protesters to an ivory tower effect. But for the anti-PC camp, student initiatives are more threatening than they are laughable; they represent a dangerous rise in language policing. From this perspective, efforts to call out stereotyping and normalizations of racial, gender, national, and sexual categories are construed as unconstitutional restrictions on speech (which, ironically, turns anti-PCers into language police of a different kind).
On this point, the right has found a surprisingly ally in liberal comedians. Jerry Seinfeld, who no longer performs at colleges, observes “a creepy PC thing out there that really bothers me”; Jay Leno makes the astute observation that “being anti-guacamole is not racist.” Bill Maher has been singing this tune for over two decades and attributes a large share of Clinton’s loss to PC culture: “You’re outrageous with your political correct bullshit, and it does drive people away.” In some cases, the institution itself responds to students on first amendment grounds. Last summer, in a letter sent to incoming freshman by the University of Chicago, the dean of students set “freedom of inquiry and expression” against trigger warnings, cancelled speaker invitations, and safe spaces. Addressing a group of protestors, Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis said it most directly: “I stand behind free speech. I defend the right for people to speak their minds.”
Commentators play fast and loose in this discourse with free speech law: While a public university cannot regulate the use of language (although Oberlin or Yale perhaps could), a student is just as protected in criticizing the use of a slur as another is in saying it. But there are more important implications. First, the criticism of students reveals a not-so-surprising strain of anti-intellectualism in the anti-PC campaign. As much as college students are “spoiled” for being unwilling to accept Clinton’s loss (although I would call protests more an expression of frustration with the national climate), they are also that way, from the anti-PC vantage, simply by virtue of being in college. Students’ perspectives lose value because they live in an alternate, cushier reality. There is some basis for this: The arms race between universities for increasingly luxurious amenities is suggestive of how many institutions are prioritizing the “college experience” above actual education. But more to the point, the anti-PC response also implies that the effects of words and representations have been largely overblown. Either the things I say don’t affect you or my right to say them outweighs whatever harm they cause. Sticks and stones, in other words.
This is a worthwhile disagreement. Students urge Americans to reconsider how language affects identity; anti-PCers are skeptical of the impact of language on others and society. But how can this conversation move forward if everyone first has to go home and read Foucault? Too often, I think, our arguments depend on academic toolsets. I teach literature. When a student claims that a viewpoint that passes as acceptable in the public discourse actually reflects a racist ideology, and that they can show me how by carefully interpreting, say, an invited speaker’s words, my heart grows three sizes. Using critical thinking to reveal the forces behind what we call normal is among the most crucial skills the humanities can teach, especially now.
But students often do so in a way that cannot reach beyond the academy. When a student claims, for example, that wearing Native American headdresses on Halloween is a kind of “dehumanization”—or, in the language of Charles Taylor’s Multiculturalism (1994), “misrecognition”—they discount how little these words mean without an education in the history of imperialism and construction of race. I’ll accept my share of the blame here; college instructors need to do better at teaching public discourse. But Democrats, too, are guilty of the same assumptions. This is not the same as saying the Clinton team spent too much time on policy details and not enough on sloganeering (true as it might be); it’s more that their arguments were often unbridgeable. When Trump remarked to Clinton in the first presidential debate, “When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn’t work,” he seized on how easily Democrats’ proposals are misinterpreted as moral condemnation.
Take Clinton’s lead-in to an answer on race relations and police shootings from the same debate: “Race remains a significant challenge in our country. Unfortunately, race still determines too much, often determines where people live, determines what kind of education in their public schools they can get, and, yes, it determines how they’re treated in the criminal justice system.” Despite the veracity of Clinton’s statement, her gloss is a risky maneuver. The picture of the world Clinton paints is coherent, to a white person like myself, only with a prior understanding of how racism is not just violence, hate speech, and segregation, but also an institutional form that manifests in law, policing, culture, and geography, among many other factors.
As Clinton’s emphatic “yes” indicates, to be caught disagreeing with this worldview is to admit to being out of touch with reality. Seeing a person’s life possibilities or experiences organized by something other than race—merit, perseverance, or ingenuity, to name a few conservative staples—means discounting that problems of race exist in the world, an ignorance few would like to admit. As many conservatives bemoan, arguing about the level of impact race has on a person’s life means risking the label “racist” yourself.
Who in their right mind would join this conversation? Who is persuadable while also on the defense?
Clearly, I believe in a right and a wrong way (or better: Many right-ish and many more wrong ways) to look at race in America. And we should be gravely concerned about the presence of racists in the White House. But politicians of the left, like student activists, do themselves no favors when they speak on only one register. The echo chamber existed well before Facebook, in the assumptions that shape our argumentative style and determine its effectiveness. One of the tragedies not to be missed in our moment is that the left’s discursive outcomes are often limited to self-congratulation and alienation. And perhaps the greater problem: That the university has become the master institution for liberal American life, that there are pitifully few left-leaning institutions in America outside the university. Amanda Anderson’s point from a decade ago rings truer than ever: As much as we demand cultural openness from the right, we too need to be open to doing discourse in other ways.
What this looks like, though, remains to be seen. Here’s a start: We can have patience to describe the world we see rather than shun those we see it otherwise. To explain why we see the world the way we do in factual, ethical, and shared terms. Life has no two-minute time cap. And here’s the crucial part: Not to take our argumentative style for granted. Not to forget how dividing it can be. Remember all that talk about how Trump didn’t have a ground game? Maybe he didn’t need one.