The Myth of Political Correctness, 20 Years Later

Two decades ago, I wrote a book titled “The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education.” Two decades later, the myth continues. Today, the proponent is Jonathan Chait, who warns us in New York Magazine of this dire evil resurrected from the distant past: Political correctness.

According to Chait, “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” And Chait responds with a style of politics in which centrists attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as repressive and illegitimate.

Of course, Chait does manage to cite a few real cases of mild censorship. There’s a University of Michigan columnist who gets fired after writing an offensive column for a competing newspaper, plus four idiots who left some trash outside his building. And he correctly condemns a few cases where leftists protested commencement speakers they disliked, while he says nothing about the right-wing calls to censor commencement speakers such as Barack Obama.

Chait argues, “the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence” He accuses them of “eliminating” freedom and claims, “In a short period of time, the p.c. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular.”

According to Chait, “large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness.” But his evidence mostly consists of things like a private Facebook group where some feminists are mean to each other. That’s not a convulsion, it’s not censoriousness, and it’s certainly not a large segment of American culture.

Chait shares with the far right a laughable belief that the left is all-powerful. Chait writes, “Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia”—now, he says that left has “hegemonic control” of both academia and social media, where political correctness “flourishes.” Considering that Chait also argues for a sudden new resurgence of PC, I can’t figure out exactly when he thinks the left made a hostile takeover of all social media in the world.

I understand some of Chait’s perspective. I’m a white male liberal, too, and I think many leftists are wrong about many things. I think trigger warnings are stupid, too. And I think some people are oversensitive. That’s why I try very carefully never to be oversensitive or to suggest that the solution to a debate is for one side to stop talking.

What made “political correctness” a myth (then and now) were two things: 1) the gross exaggeration of intolerant leftists into a monumental threat to American culture and colleges; and 2) the complete obliviousness to the greatest threats to free speech in America, which come from conservative and corporate forces (which I called “Patriotic Correctness” in a 2008 book).

Leftists today try to suppress free speech about as often as they did in 1995, which is not very much, and with very little success. Some people imagined that the title of my book was an act of denial. I never said that political correctness didn’t exist. There are certainly some leftists, then and now, who call for censorship, and there are cases were conservatives are victimized, as I detailed then, and for 20 years since. And there are certainly some leftists, then and now, who make silly arguments obsessing about stupid things.

Chait argues, “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.” This is completely made up history. What really happened is that right-wingers and annoyed liberals like Chait united to attack leftists in the early 1990s, eventually got bored of whining about the fictional PC police, and then Chait resurrected the same old arguments after getting annoyed by leftists again.

Even by the lowly standards of fake trend journalism, Chait’s evidence is weak. Chait’s proof that PC has been resurrected is that “one professor at a prestigious university” told him so: “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’”

I wonder the same thing. Back in 1991, Chait’s publication, New York Magazine, published an infamous cover story, “Are You Politically Correct?” Back then, the feared words were “Native American” and “Animal Companion,” but the thesis was the same. That 1991 cover story, written by John Taylor, began with these ominous words:

“Racist” “Racist!” “The man is a racist!” “A racist!” Such denunciations, hissed in tones of self-righteousness and contempt, vicious and vengeful, furious, smoking with hatred—such denunciations haunted Stephen Thernstrom.

As I noted in my book, The Myth of Political Correctness, these hissing, smoking words were never spoken. Even Thernstrom was “appalled” at the article and declared, “nothing like that ever happened.” Some African-Americans students didn’t like the way Thernstrom taught his class at Harvard, and criticized him. Thernstrom decided not to teach his course, and his cowardice was turned into one of the most cited examples of the power of political correctness.

Now, the magazine that helped turn a fabricated anecdote into an imagined totalitarian movement is back to dig in those abandoned mines of PC.

Chait devotes a substantial part of his article to a dumb professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Mireille Miller-Young, who was offended by an anti-abortion protest sign with graphic images, and decided to take the sign away. Miller-Young was denounced and humiliated across the internet, faced a campaign to get her fired, and was ultimately sentenced to three years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service and 10 hours of anger management classes (none of these rather important facts are mentioned by Chait). Is this the mighty power of political correctness?

If we’re going to talk about political correctness suppressing debate, surely we have to mention the fate of Steven Salaita, who was dismissed by the University of Illinois for tweets criticizing the Israeli invasion of Gaza. You might imagine that a man like Chait who is so oversensitive about oversensitivity would jump right on the bandwagon to defend someone whose crime was tweeting a few offensive comments critical of Israel. But Chait seems to have never uttered a word about Salaita, and certainly doesn’t include him in his parade of evils in our culture today.

After all, Salaita was merely fired from his job, banished for life from an academic career, and forced to move his family into his parents’ house. He didn’t really suffer, like Chait did, the horrors of listening to people talk about microaggressions.

Chait himself is guilty of what he calls a “central tenet” of the PC movement: “treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses.” So, using silly trigger warnings isn’t a sincere sensitivity to students, but a full-scale offense in Chait’s eyes.

At least we’ve made some progress since 1991: leftists are no longer called “humorless”; instead, Chait claims that their mockery is too sharp and painful for the soft tummies of well-intentioned liberals, as shown by his anger at terms such as “mansplaining” and at the feminists who used the mocking hashtag #RIPpatriarchy to criticize someone who argued that patriarchy is dead.

When I called political correctness a “myth,” I was never denying the fact that some leftists are intolerant jerks, and sometimes their appalling calls for censorship are successful. My point was that even though political correctness exists, the “myth” about it was the story that leftists controlled college campuses, imposing their evil whims like a “new McCarthyism” or “China during the Cultural Revolution.” In reality, then and now, the far greater threat to freedom on campus came from those on the right seeking to suppress opposing views.

Perhaps the best proof of Chait’s misguided priorities is one example of the evil PC police cited by him: “A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas.”

It’s hardly surprising that a 20-year-old play about gender might be regarded as outdated, nor is it an act of repression for a theater group to decide to write its own play about sexuality rather than repeating the same old one they’ve used. But what’s remarkable is that Chait somehow ignores the fact that The Vagina Monologues is the most frequently banned play in America—but the cause isn’t the PC police. It’s a right-wing organization named the Cardinal Newman Society.

The Cardinal Newman Society notes with approval that “many Catholic institutions have not allowed the play on campus” and annually lists the Catholic colleges that allow the play, calling upon their wealthy and influential supporters to demand censorship. The Cardinal Newman Society has taken credit for reducing the number of Catholic colleges with performances of the play from 32 in 2003 to 10 in 2014. It’s quite likely that this play has been banned from college campuses hundreds of times due to the influence of this right-wing group.

But in Chait’s bizarro world, a theater group performing their own play is part of the PC thought police destroying freedom, while highly successful right-wing censors are simply ignored.

Chait isn’t attacking the idea of whiny victimhood. He’s embracing it, with the white male liberal in the mirror as the swooning victim of mean feminists and angry black folks.

We should worry about anyone who wants to silence debate, whether it’s left-wingers who want to suppress opposing views, right-wingers who try to punish controversial ideas, or centrists who fear political correctness lurking under every tweet. The paranoia about political correctness became the excuse for a variety of right-wing censorship in the past quarter-century. Let’s hope that Chait’s ramblings don’t create a new myth of political correctness that is used to promote another wave of repression.

6 thoughts on “The Myth of Political Correctness, 20 Years Later

  1. Agreed. I don’t like trigger warnings either, but if there is an organized “left” left in America, could someone please show me where to find it. Corporate America has practically killed that off. Chait’s “strawwomen” and men romping across the US, apparently with an army capable of shutting everyone up, is the “let’s make things up” kind of document that Glenn Greenwald has regularly criticized for its desire to represent all thiings “center,” which turns out to be vacuous.

  2. John, it was nice to meet you a few weeks ago in Champaign. Your piece is cogent, but I want to add that I don’t subscribe to the definition of the “left” that is equated with the sort of identity politics that is the basis for whatever complaints Chait has. These are liberals, I guess, who have found a niche in the diversity-and-sensitivity bureaucracy that is now characteristic of higher ed administration. Their identification as the “left” probably only speaks to the relative lack of a real left on campus. Here at the U of I, you have such a bureaucracy which, unsurprisingly, hasn’t said a word in defense of Salaita. Phyllis Wise, you well know, is perfectly comfortable with prattling on about civility. She is a neoliberal cog of the first order. Thus “political correctness” is a top-down affair, notwithstanding Cary Nelson’s absurd accusations about the popularity of BDS on campus (it is not particularly popular on this campus).

  3. I assume you have no problem with a public library owning such volumes as Joseph Nicolosi’s A PARENT’S GUIDE TO PREVENTING HOMOSEXUALITY and Richard Cohen’s COMING OUT STRAIGHT: UNDERSTANDING AND HEALING HOMOSEXUALITY. Correct?

    • No problem at all, Nora. As long as those books are in the “religious intolerance” section! You’re belief system does not take precedent over science and biology, dear. Homosexuality is biological and occurs in all of nature. It’s clearly NOT a choice. Do you choose to be straight? Take care.

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