I recently read a piece by essayist Phillip Lopate titled “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” It offers advice to writers about building themselves into characters — rounding out the “I” in the narration of personal narratives and creative non-fiction. One passage stood out for reasons entirely unrelated to the craft of writing: “Ethnicity, gender, religion, class, geography, politics: These are all strong determinants in the development of character. Sometimes they can be made too much of, as in the worst sort of ‘identity politics,’ which seeks to explain away all the intangibles of a human being’s destiny by this or that social oppression.” 

Lopate suggests that an element of building characters in stories is explicitly recognizing the groups to which we belong, because to some extent, these groups have shaped us. They are not meaningless associations. They’re worth bringing to the forefront when we define ourselves. But Lopate makes the poignant observation that, beyond what applies to essay-writing and self-questioning, “identity politics” reduce the individual to these group associations — known quantities — and neuters the qualities that make one an individual.

Lopate’s point, while tangential, applies to university climates. At universities, political correctness is a subtle but dominating force; it’s a feature of many college campuses around the nation. Essayist John Taylor describes it as a “New Fundamentalism” in a New York Magazine cover story: The radical left students who live by politically correct dogma take on extreme measures to make sure other students do the same. This purportedly advances the interests of oppressed groups. Why? Because the zeitgeist of universities, specifically the humanities and even the sciences, are informed by belief systems that favor wealthy, powerful and privileged groups. Political correctness (PC) culture, therefore, corrects this inherent imbalance by purging out of the public sphere ideas that are considered the status quo. As reasoned as it might be to simply believe a societal power structure exists that prevents equal opportunity, the most extreme PC activists go to embarrassing and even violent ends to act on their strongly held beliefs.

Political correctness is, therefore, an ideological engine that promotes group identity politics on college campuses. This is dangerous for several reasons. It co-opts meaningful indicators of identity, like background, ethnicity and politics, for use in assigning value to each other and each other’s opinions. This creates an atmosphere where opinions are judged not on the merits of their idea, but on how supposedly oppressed the individual holding that opinion is. Moreover, certain opinions can be deemed invalid (by the left) for reasons that are wholly beyond your control. This harms campus discourse because it enables people to presume your opinions based on your group identities. You may not agree with any of the beliefs you’re linked with but are judged for them nonetheless. Moreover, it encourages a silencing of viewpoints that are misaligned with (read: right-leaning) prevailing campus ideas, so only certain groups are worth listening to.

This emphasis on group identities politics makes political correctness harmful to free speech as well. Open discourse is necessarily linked to the sharing of ideas; it is tied to an environment in which ideas can be heard. PC culture inhibits the formation of such an environment because it labels people and their ideas with unrelated superlatives like “racist,” “sexist” and “patriarchal” for mostly arbitrary reasons. What might have begun as a parsing tool for identifying ideas with malintent has become a mechanism for silencing people who don’t agree with PC culture.

These viewpoints are not “racist” or “sexist”; they’re just labeled as such, due to some unclear association with these labels, for the purposes of silencing a competing opinion. As such, the politically-correct left has free reign to stymie campus discussions and debates that involve ideas they don’t like. This fundamentally defeats the purpose of universities, as Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, recently noted in a speech in Vienna: “Students should be learning from each other by working through and discussing different opinions … But the environment of demonization and ostracism of those with opposing views can choke the intra-student discourse vital to an education.”

This type of closed-mindedness, this unwillingness to listen to other opinions, is antithetical to the mission of a university. And more specifically, the intent to shut down other opinions due to their disagreement with far-left culture inhibits free and open speech. Free speech, however, is a necessary element of universities as it fosters an intellectually rigorous environment where voices and ideas can be heard and scrutinized properly. Radical promoters of political correctness prevent this ideal culture from existing because people are unjustly demeaned for their divergent beliefs.

Indeed, this is a problem even on the University of Michigan campus. Only two years ago, protests nearly derailed an American Enterprise Institute-sponsored event hosting controversial political scientist Charles Murray. Chants and disruptions reigned during the entirety of a peaceful event about the politics underpinning the 2016 election. PC culture is a problem among faculty, too. This past year, a non-profit free speech advocacy group Speech First filed a lawsuit against the University on behalf of students who were identified by the U-M Bias Response Team (BRT). The team was designed to reprimand students for offensive speech, but how they carried out this intention was called into question by the students and Speech First, resulting in a victory for the conservative activists and disbanding of the BRT.

The phenomenon of political correctness on campuses is dangerous. It prevents the understanding that our identities are most definitely informed by our backgrounds, politics and unique ways of thinking: This surely applies to writing, but is more true for individuals in real life. It reduces the individual to group identities; it reduces divergent ideas to their group associations. This brand of identity politics devalues diversity of viewpoint and imposes a danger to free discourse on campus because individual and divergent opinions are considered fundamentally invalid due to their departure from the accepted norm. This culture can only be corrected with a robust commitment to free and independent thinking, for which a university atmosphere is perfect.

Neil Shah can be reached at neilsh@umich.edu.

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