Straw Freshmen: Why the War on Campus PC Culture is Bullshit

by fivefifths

Vann R. Newkirk II (fivefifths) is Co-Chief Scribe at Seven Scribes, a writer at Daily Kos, a fiction writer, blogger, futurist, and activist. Vann is currently working on a science-fiction novel and short story series and resides in Silver Spring, MD. Find him napping on a bus near you.

PC culture.

It’s the new evil gripping the millennials of this country, coddling all of our college students so they become unquestioning, reactive drones; social justice warriors who put their icky feelings above everything else, whine over perceived microaggressions, and shout down and sue everyone who disagrees with them. They label anything remotely offensive as trigger warnings to avoid ever having to be challenged and have paralyzed universities into compliance. These social justice warrior millennials, in particular the loud liberal contingents of feminists and racial minorities, are no longer being educated in the right way, which involves learning to synthesize and hold equal a broad range of views, including “traumatizing” and offensive words and ideas.

Except, that’s all bullshit.

There is a very distinct cadre of mostly white, mostly male elites who have advanced the anti-political correctness agenda so far that even President Barack Obama has recently chimed in, coming down in firm opposition to PC in a speech in Iowa. But his remarks, and the larger body of essays and articles lashing out against PC culture on campuses, clash deeply with one of the presidential personality traits that many applaud in Obama: they are simply not evidenced by a broad body of facts.

One of the champions in the war against campus PC is The Atlantic. The outlet has published a journalistic epic against campus PC and trigger warnings((Defined as verbal or written messages that precede content that may trigger PTSD or poor mental health states in readers or viewers who have experienced trauma)) in the past year, culminating in the feature polemic by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” but supported by earlier articles like one detailing the controversy around Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley, another describing the perils of performing risky comedy at liberal institutions, a duo of articles discussing the pushback against “microaggressions” on campuses, and the analysis of President Obama’s comments that links back to several of these.

The Atlantic’s suite of anti-PC musings is particularly seductive given its insistence that a wave of “victimhood culture” is part of a rising tide threatening all campuses. However, these articles all draw from the same limited nebula of incidents as factual grounding. Conor Friedersdorf’s “The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” an essay critical of the idea of microaggressions((Here is a good campus resource detailing just what microaggressions are)) in a campus context, spins a long argument from only two sources: a single blog post from an Oberlin College student about a white person saying fútbol instead of soccer when speaking to Hispanic students and a study of microaggressions and “victimhood culture” by researchers Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.

The study itself is similarly thin in sourcing actual cases of people and places crusading against microaggressions, noting among the “growing number of websites are dedicated to documenting offensive conduct at particular educational institutions” only seven American institutions.((Notably, not exactly the same as a site or group dedicated to documenting microaggressions. One of the noted blogs, “I Too am Harvard” is best described as a photojournalism project documenting struggles of Black students at Harvard University to fit in than a microaggressions blog.)) The body of the text only directly cites one such example directly: the same Oberlin blog post. In a follow-up post at The Atlantic, Friedersdorf notes that critics called out the usage of Oberlin alone as an “absurdity unrepresentative” of the actual microaggression framework. In his response, Friedersdorf places the onus on readers to provide him with examples of more legitimate usages–all while avoiding adding any more context beyond that which came from one blog post from a (likely frustrated and stressed) college student.

I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women,” Obama said. “I gotta tell you I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.-President Barack Obama. tweet

Other articles in the same vein at the same publication suffer similarly from a tendency to turn anecdote into sweeping assessments (and damnations) of social phenomena. Peter Beinart’s “Political Correctness is Back” uses a single example of a 2014 controversy around Bill Maher’s invitation to speak at UC Berkeley as a launchpad for the argument that a wave of political correctness has returned to college campuses. Caitlin Flanagan’s “That’s Not Funny!”, which purportedly details both the “infantilization of the American undergraduate” and the same victimhood culture with respect to acceptance of comedians, uses experience from a single convention and an interview with a comedian as primary sources. Secondary sources–all from comedians–are unexamined as to their bias. Of course comedians aren’t exactly sociologists, but even an average consumer can note the conflict of interest in taking a comedian’s assessment of people that don’t find him or her funny at face value.

The cornerstone “Coddling of the American Mind,” befitting its length, is more well-sourced than the others, but this is hardly comforting considering two of the sources are aforementioned articles. Three more come from personal stories about trigger warnings from professors Jeannie Suk (at the New Yorker), Laura Kipnis (at The Chronicle of Higher Education), and an anonymous professor at Vox. Two come from Inside Higher Ed posts that reference a single event–a guide developed at Oberlin College for trigger warnings that was subsequently abandoned.

Even taking these bits of evidence at their strongest and considering every source’s sources, so far the evidence from within The Atlantic’s reporting on PC culture within campuses yields data points from eight known American colleges and universities, one anonymous university, twelve professors, two researchers, three comedians, and one blog. No first hand interviews or viewpoints from actual students. There are over 4,700 degree-granting institutions, almost two million post-secondary professors, and 21 million enrolled students in the United States. These sources hardly form enough to decide to pursue a question, let alone form a broad cultural commentary, and further still show that these things actually impact campus life and policy in a meaningful way.

The Atlantic is not alone in its broadsides against PC culture on campuses. Other outlets have served as homes for personal essays from professors, and Jonathan Chait’s “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” at the New York Magazine was especially explosive. However, The Atlantic’s long history of publishing opinions from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an ostensibly nonpartisan campus free speech organization, makes its history of articles on the subject of campus PC the most interesting. FIRE has been cited in a consistent string of at least 18 articles at the outlet dealing with the subject of campus PC dating back to 2002, mostly on the specific topic of women’s issues on campus. Many of these articles were written by Wendy Kaminer, a board member of FIRE who is curiously inconsistent about noting her organizational affiliation–even in articles that directly advocate for it. In one such article, “Sharpton’s Law,” Kaminer, who has been known for drawing Black ire by using the n-word provocatively in text and speech, wrote the word “nigger” seemingly just because she could.

FIRE is again an ostensibly neutral organization, but a review of the cases it supports on its websites indicates a marked preference for cases most likely to offend liberal groups, minorities, and women and be noted as derogatory by them. According to SourceWatch, FIRE has been supported by grants from Conservative and Libertarian stalwarts, such as the Koch Brothers and the Bradley Foundation. FIRE marks itself as a member of the “intellectual diversity” movement, which seeks to erase a perceived liberal bias in academia and teaching.

The connections between publication and organization continue with “Coddling,” as co-author Greg Lukianoff is the current president of FIRE. The 13-year collaborative history has more often than not yielded analyses like this, thin on reporting and heavy on hyperbole. The most damning argument against FIRE’s common cry that a wave of PC culture is suddenly washing over our students is that these exact points have been repeated by them for at least 13 years. Either this is the slowest generational phenomenon in history or the truth of the matter lies somewhere beneath the hype.

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This isn’t to say that student life isn’t changing in a meaningful way and that some students could get out of hand or exploit a trigger warning system and assume victimhood status. These students likely exist, and they likely have for as long as there have been students. College is as much as place where one learns to get over on people as it as a place that teaches values. But these sorts of unevidenced broad strokes analyses do a serious disservice to the real plights of real students who are women, members of the LGBTQ spectrum, or people of color.

TW: Following section contains a topical discussion on sexual violence and intimate partner violence on college campuses

Take the “trigger warning” as an example. There are still no colleges or universities that mandate trigger warnings as a practice in any field of study. Most cases of them being used have been in teaching sensitive issues of rape, abuse, or assault to classes with young women. The overarching point in “Coddling,” that trigger warnings actually can’t improve mental health, misses the point of the reality of these women. A new study from the Association of American Universities finds that over a fifth of all college women are sexually assaulted at some time in their enrollment. Another 47% have experienced sexual harassment and another 12% have experienced intimate partner violence. This means that any given classroom with any significant amount of women could be composed of up to a third or more of women who are processing rapes, assaults, harassment, or violence. Given the absolutely horrendous state of affairs within colleges (and largely, the country) in handling rape cases and pursuing justice and health for these women, it is likely that most of these survivors have not received or are not receiving the proper therapy and healing in order to be able to process triggering images and words without suffering further damage.

In this case–in likely the most dangerous environment women will ever be subjected to in their lifetimes by the numbers–it is probably a first concern to provide them means of agency to dictate their boundaries and safety in all cases. Trans students and others within the LGBTQ spectrum face similar issues and others at even higher rates, including harassment, physical assault and humiliation, and often suicide. With the monumental failure of the university institution as a whole to fulfill its basic duty to keep these students safe, it smacks of double talk when some agents of those universities constantly bemoan a largely imagined culture of rampant trigger warnings. The two concepts are inextricable.

It is also impossible to assess any facet of campus culture without noting the role that overarching Whiteness plays in it. Being a minority at a majority institution is hard. Teasing out “teachable moments” from true micro or macro aggressions in personal interactions is often beyond the means of anyone, let alone struggling college students. Racism does exist, this is fact, a fact that likely manifests daily in the lives of students of color. The idea that being subjected to abusive or racist words spurs growth makes the supremely privileged assumptions that dealing with a lifetime of racism constructively is simply a matter of “growing up,” or that the benefits of learning from some objectionable interpersonal interactions outweigh the harm that can occur.

The central conceit of President Obama’s statement, that students need to learn the viewpoints of those that oppose and offend them, is troublesome as well. Why should racial and ethnic minorities have to listen to or read the words of people whose fundamental disagreement with them is not politics or economics, but the very fact that they exist? For many, the word “nigger” is a stark reminder of just that. What growth do women who have personally experienced the horrors of rape, abuse, or assault have to glean from stories about it or simulations of it? It seems to me that most of the “growth” in this case is for young white guys who haven’t been privy to these existential perils.

For others, college represents the very first time in many of their lives that they can choose–legitimately choose–what they consume, what they learn, and how. Many marginalized students are for the first time exercising agency over their lives and what they let in. We should encourage this. Exercise of this agency is the mark of adulthood, and perhaps in encouraging that adulthood at least some of the reshaping of the student-professor pedagogical dynamic (perhaps involving a social expectation for TWs or other courtesies) is to be expected.

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But I digress. My personal argument aside, I imagine that there are thousands of administrators, professors, and students who aren’t so alarmed and would say so–and indeed some have. However, peddling culture wars and generational wars (this particular topic smacks of the “millennials are trash” popular rhetoric) tends to receive more sensational results than telling everyone that the world actually isn’t ending.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there are those on campuses who disagree with me and who do think the way students process offense could be shaped better. There are those who note a changing dynamic but are ambivalent, and there are many who have just started to research these issues from a pedagogical perspective. These are not invalid viewpoints when supported by evidence, considerate of mitigating factors like gender and race, and not driven off a cliff by hyperbole. Instead of setting out to frighten America into submission over the rise of the coddled, liberal kidult, perhaps journalists and researchers could do a more rigorous job of presenting a broad evidenced-based view. As opposed to bullshit.
Photo Credit: Jimmy Brown: Flickr

About the Authors:
Published by fivefifths
Vann R. Newkirk II (fivefifths) is Co-Chief Scribe at Seven Scribes, a writer at Daily Kos, a fiction writer, blogger, futurist, and activist. Vann is currently working on a science-fiction novel and short story series and resides in Silver Spring, MD. Find him napping on a bus near you. View all posts by fivefifths


  1. MrAveryBrown

    This think-piece accurately gives a necessary narrative on trigger warnings, especially in our college campuses. Kudos to the writer, and I will definitely share this article with my classmates.

  2. JacquesCuze

    Re: your silliness about FIRE.

    1) That FIRE would be referenced in articles about political correctness and free speech is like the ACLU being referenced in articles about racism and civil rights. It ain’t a conspiracy, it’s what they do and where you would expect to find them.

    2) The rest of your silliness is literally the definition of ad hominem. We get it, you need to discredit FIRE but can’t so let’s attack their defenses of speech by examining their funding.

    And Kaminer? Oh yeah, former board member of the ACLU, but no doubt she’s a racist now too.

    Hey, did you hear about the Water Buffalo Incident? Because you didn’t mention that one. That was 1993.

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