In an essay published on The Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, President Michael Roth responds to those in the media who see political correctness “run amok” on college campuses. “I work with students everyday, and I have had protesters at my office, and I don’t see their realities reflected in public discourse,” he writes.
Roth sees political correctness as a “charismatic bogeyman with strange powers to titillate liberal and conservative writers alike.”
Sure, there are groups that form around common values and ideas, and sometimes a group can be close-minded. But I see vigorous discussion within the faculty about ideas that matter, and I hear plenty of students rebelling against the notion that young people all think alike. For example, on my left-leaning campus, there is more religious practice than there has been in years, and we have had forceful discussions with large groups of students about everything from the role of fraternities to the economic/political possibilities of a carbon tax.
Of course, some people do shout down others, and sometimes a group of students will want to retreat to a place with like-minded friends. This has always happened, whether such spaces were called “safe” or not. That the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal echoes a gaggle of columnists in calling demonstrations and posters “political intimidation” would be merely curious if the editors and writers didn’t also claim to be protectors of free speech.
Don’t get me wrong: because there is so much intense discussion these days, campuses can be challenging places. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class … all these topics stimulate strong emotions, intense language, and, sometimes bruised feelings. I hope there are other places in America today where these arguments are taking place among people from different backgrounds, and where the conclusions aren’t set in advance. However painful this may be at times, I’m sure glad these conversations are happening on our campuses.
At a time when major presidential candidates demonize difference, and when attackers respond to groups they’ve been inspired to hate with terrorism, let’s recognize the constructive value of ongoing debate and that politicized campuses remain places of confrontation and of real learning.