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The Devolution of the Political-Correctness Backlash

What was once a debate about elevating standards in higher education has become a challenge to their existence, and more broadly, an excuse to ignore even the most basic forms of propriety.

The gates are open, and the barbarians are there.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune

It should not have been surprising that, in the midst of a renewed and retro debate over that thing called political correctness, the University of Chicago would rather noisily insert itself in the middle of it. The U. of C. is something of a Great Books school with a long pride in its Common Core curriculum; it self-mythologizes its intellectual flintiness; and it’s been there before.

In 1987 Allan Bloom, an alumnus of and professor at the U. of C., a child-prodigy classicist legendary in his field but obscure outside the ivory tower, published The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. The title suggests why it became a beststeller, but it was unlikely nonetheless—as much a difficult history of Western philosophy in the context of the university and society as a churlish lament about what the hippies did to it. (Though it is that, too.)

Its success anticipated and in some ways stoked the debate over political correctness that followed a few years later, something which we’re revisiting again. But it’s a very different dialogue now than it was back then, devolving from Bloom’s problematic but idealistic philosophical verities into a rancorous, relativistic permissiveness, and the ruins of it are scattered throughout higher education, the media, and contemporary politics.

The Closing of the American Mind is essentially three essays. The first is a grim, uncharitable complaint about our fallen state, with jeremiads about rock music, sexual mores, and a particularly atavistic defense of traditional gender roles. The second is a learned, esoteric philosophical history. The third is most relevant here—an essay about the meaning of the university.  Here Bloom offers words that resonate with the current debate:

Freedom of mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside. It is not feelings or commitments that will render a man free, but thoughts, reasoned thoughts. Feelings are largely formed and informed by convention. Real differences come from difference in thought and fundamental principle. Much in democracy conduces to the assault of awareness on difference.

This sounds not too far distant from the U. of C. letter to incoming students that caused such a fuss, and the gleeful praise that followed. “Diversity of opinion is crucial, and it requires that all sides respect the right to free expression. Students who cry foul over discourse they find objectionable miss the chance to learn. They also, we would add, risk looking like babies,” raved the Tribune editorial page. “‘I’m offended’ is not an argument. If students haven’t learned that before they arrive on campus, university administrators should waste no time getting the message across. Bravo to the University of Chicago for leading the way,” glowed the Boston Globe.

But diversity of opinions had its limits for Bloom, in ways that informed the initial debate about political correctness (emphasis mine).

The original intention of the reformed academies and universities was to provide a publicly respectable place—and a means of support—for theoretical men, of whom at best there are only a few in any nation, to meet, exchange their thoughts and train young persons in the ways of science…. Freedom of thought and freedom of speech were proposed in theory, and in the practice of serious political reformers, in order to encourage the still voice of reason in a world that had always been dominated by fanaticisms and interests. How freedom of thought and freedom of speech came to mean the special encouragement of fanaticism and interests is another of those miracles connected with the decay of the rational political order.

[snip]

The tiny band of men who participate fully in this way of life are the soul of the university. This is true in historical fact as well as in principle. Universities came to be where men were inspired by the philosophers’ teachings and examples. Philosophy and its demonstration of the rational contemplative life, made possible and, more or less consciously, animated scholarship and the individual sciences. When those examples lost their vitality or were overwhelmed by men who had no experience of them, the universities decayed or were destroyed. This, strictly, is barbarism and darkness.

Bloom was an unapologetic elitist, which made him a fat and often deserving target; Martha Nussbaum, who’s now the U. of C.’s most popularly prominent philosopher, gained early notice by torching Bloom in the New York Review of Books (though she later came to admit areas of agreement and admiration). But his elitism in defense of the Western canon made him quite popular at the time, and informed the first popular opponents of “political correctness"—which, at the time, was used in defense of Bloom’s rarefied ideals.

Take Joan Beck, the longtime Tribune columnist, writing in 1990:

But the PC movement has already far beyond concern for words and attitudes. It aims to wipe out not just the remnants of historic discrimination against blacks, women, gays and others but the very value systems and historic roots that allowed it to exist. It doesn’t intend just to add Third World writers and women to English courses but to replace what some Stanford students called “dead white guys.” It even considers the very idea of making value judgments to be discriminatory.

Emphasis mine. We’ll get back to it in a minute.

Or Ruth Rosen, a specialist in women’s history at U.C. Davis, striking a balance in the Los Angeles Times in 1991:

The attack on “political correctness” is, in part, an old guard’s last moan at the passing of a coherent world view. Life was much simpler when everyone believed there was one (Western) civilization in which all the great books were written by white men. Certainly, my own teaching would be infinitely easier if I ignored the ways in which gender, race and class have helped shape people’s historical experience. But I cannot. Many of the Great Books must remain an integral part of the curriculum. But, like many of my generation, I have devoted the past 20 years to excavating other voices from the past that make a simplistic world view seem anachronistic.

[snip]

During the 1960s, a few of these tenured radicals made careers on the left by condemning others for insufficient revolutionary fervor or expressing the wrong political line. Political correctness never made good politics; it makes even worse thought. Embattled by the backlash, few of us have been willing to admit publicly that good and honorable dissent is being muffled when people fear their intellectual honesty will be misunderstood as racist or sexist.

But the backlash against political correctness has evolved—devolved, really—over the years. Granted, aspects of the old backlash were problematic, as the late Saul Bellow discovered when he tripped into the debate (Bellow contended he was misunderstood by an interviewer):

Kazin quoted a comment Bellow made to an interviewer in 1988. Addressing attempts to make undergraduate reading lists of literature more inclusive, Bellow had quipped sarcastically, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be happy to read them.” When he heard that Bellow had said that, Kazin wrote, “my heart sank.”

[snip]

Bellow’s remark was insensitive. The attempt in the 1990s by academics and critics to open up undergraduate reading lists to new voices was a robust and healthy, if sometimes irrational, democratic development. Such a development was the result of, as Bellow liked to say, implacable trends in history, society, and culture, and Bellow the Big Thinker proved himself surprisingly unable to grasp them.

But at least it was in defense of books that are, in fact, really good. More thoughtless aspects aside, it’s hard to look too askance at the desire to keep Proust and Tolstoy in the curriculum. There was some sort of baseline, that the university would be “a publicly respectable place,” in Bloom’s words, “in order to encourage the still voice of reason in a world.”

The backlash to political correctness is now much broader—everything is permitted, nothing is wrong. To quote Joan Beck, “it even considers the idea of making value judgments to be discriminatory.”

For instance, the DePaul College Republicans invited the cynical, bullying, ultimately kind of sad professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus; his talk was shut down by protesters. This is how he was described by the Tribune editorial board (emphasis mine):

If you’re wondering about Yiannopoulos, he’s the tech editor for Breitbart, the conservative news outlet, who says things like “feminism is cancer” and, despite being gay, questions the role of biology in homosexuality. So he’s made a career of saying controversial things. Add him to the list of digital age oafs or truth-tellers, depending on your own point of view.

This is a rather gentle treatment of Yiannopoulos. He carefully tends a large following among white nationalists that have coalesced around the label “alt-right”; here’s how the libertarian journalist Cathy Young describes him:

The pursuit of outrage was a road that led Yiannopoulos to his current role as a “fellow traveler” of the alt-right. It has also led to his permanent Twitter ban for allegedly inciting racist harassment toward black actress Leslie Jones. In recent months, his provocations have grown toxic: In recent months Yiannopoulos has praised websites like VDARE, a white nationalist platform with a fixation on racial differences and the subversive tendencies of Jews, and people like Twitter Jew-hater and racist “Ricky Vaughn.” He has joined in the racist Twitter abuse directed at anti-Trump conservative Jewish journalist Ben Shapiro after the birth of his son, tweeting a taunt implying that the baby’s real father was black. Despite his own partly Jewish background, which he has used as a defense, Yiannopoulos has also toyed with the alt-right’s Jew-baiting jargon such as mocking Republican Trump critics for getting “shekels from their globalist paymasters.”

Or Ian Tuttle in the conservative National Review:

Most on the Alt-Right do not only reject the “conservative Establishment” or some other contemporary bogeyman; they also reject the ideals of classical liberalism as such. That rejection grounds the thinking of Jared Taylor, and Richard Spencer, for instance — representative “intellectuals” of the Alt-Right, according to Bokhari and Yiannopoulos. These men — the founders of the publications American Renaissance and Radix Journal, respectively — have not simply been “accused of racism.” They are racist, by definition.

So what does he say when he does get to speak at length in front of a college audience?

“Your professors are cunts, on the whole,” he tells the mostly student audience in an almost-full auditorium, “limp-wristed, pacifistic, sandal-wearing weirdos.”

[snip]

“There is an assault in this country”, he informs his interviewer, “on straight white men”, waged by “middle class women and cucks.” In this case the latter is being used to describe male feminists, who “don’t need to be castrated, they’ve done it themselves.”

Moving onto rape culture, which he considers a myth, he asks, with a theatrical moan, “Is there anything worse than consent?”

[snip]

When he describes lesbians as “horrendous, quivering masses of horror”, described feminism as “cancer”, he’s practically spitting. It’s the kind of vituperation you don’t usually employ unless you’ve encountered a real threat.

Oaf or truth teller? Depends on your point of view, I guess.

The Tribune editorial favorably cites the University of Chicago’s Statement on Principles of Free Expression, but that also sets limits: “the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests.” And Yiannopoulos had a history of behavior bordering on this:

The Breitbart writer, who previously appointed himself a star of the digital trash fire known as “Gamergate”, has been a peddler of inarguable hate speech. Beyond just speech, though, he’s cannily built smear campaigns that incited his followers to dogpile other users, usually women and people of color, until the targets could no longer use social media constructively.

The students who conceived this empty stunt—they admitted to bringing him to campus because they couldn’t fill a room otherwise—got a free pass, while the protesters were told "[t]oughen up… [f]ree speech is good for you” and lumped into “the issue of political correctness run amok.”

The devolution of these ideas is a fascinating market of the current culture. Or, as Bloom put it, “how freedom of thought and freedom of speech came to mean the special encouragement of fanaticism and interests is another of those miracles connected with the decay of the rational political order.”

What had been an attempt at maintaining a high, dignified culture—one with problems and blind spots, perhaps, but aimed at cultural uplift—has become code for the most coarse permissiveness, exemplified by the current GOP candidate for president. When Trump didn’t not call Fox host Megyn Kelly a “bimbo,” he played it off with a crack about political correctness; he did the same when Kelly asked him about prior comments calling women “dogs” and “fat pigs”; he did the same when Republicans recoiled at his pointless, self-defeating attack on a federal judge. It’s gotten to the point where even some conservatives, like Walter Hudson at PJ Media, David French at National Review, Mitchell Blatt at The Federalist, and CNN’s S.E. Cupp have wearied at the candidate using the term as a get-out-of-jail-free card for the fallout from his tantrums. But it’s a bit late for that; it’s been absorbed and amplified by Trump.

There’s a historical irony to this. For decades the Left was considered to be the permissive, decadent, cultural-relativist ideology by the defenders of propriety. Now? Add him to the list of digital age oafs or truth-tellers, depending on your own point of view.

What happened? I posed this question to a friend, an English Ph.D. used to thinking about these sorts of things, and I like his idea: in the 1990s, political correctness was used by outsiders to position themselves closer to the center of power. Maybe by getting certain works in or out of the canon; maybe by promoting affirmative action; maybe by getting certain terms in or out of the discourse. The anti-PC backlash was often elitist because it came from power, from an elite.

The anti-PC backlash of today, on the other hand, comes from people who perceive themselves as outsiders struggling to regain control, or in the words of Damon Linker, “to wield cultural and social power in a way they believe they once did and no longer do. Which is another way of saying that the anti-PC crowd is primarily animated and provoked by a sense of defeat, failure, and cultural grievance. It’s an angry reaction of people feeling themselves on the losing end of an argument.”

While there may have been excesses and anger on both sides (there always is) the end goal was something above that, not an end in itself. “Freedom of thought and freedom of speech were proposed in theory,” Bloom wrote, “in order to encourage the still voice of reason in a world that had always been dominated by fanaticisms and interests.” Now the two are one in the same, and the expectation is survival, not growth. What had been an ideal of honing skills has been reduced to a need to build stamina—how to take a sucker punch without flinching.

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