Two weeks ago, Jonathan Chait, an alumnus of the University and The Michigan Daily, published a much-clicked essay on political correctness, his pen intently focused on the popular topic of free speech on campus. Chait’s piece argues that the left has employed a strategy of censorship, especially within academia and social media, stifling free expression in order to win debates about race, gender and sexuality. But what Chait misses, and what so many commentators and politicians miss talking about this issue, is the ability for free speech to stifle other free speech — an Outrage/Silence Roundabout. Here’s how it works:
One person, person one, starts talking. Another person, person two, interprets something about their argument as so preposterous and hurtful that person two feels offended. Person two can respond in a number of ways: they can label the idea as offensive and attack the other person’s argument, they can label the idea as offensive and outright dismiss it without explanation, or they can say nothing at all.
In Chait’s article, the typical response from person two is choosing to publicly take offense without explanation. The events play out as such:
Person one denies their bigotry and asks for explanation. Person two could explain, but instead they push the outrage further, claiming it isn’t their responsibility to educate someone on how to not be an asshole. Moreover, person two argues the fact that person one can’t see the ignorance behind what they say shows just how bigoted they are. Person one, feeling personally attacked and otherwise bewildered, shuts down and learns nothing.
That scenario is a nightmare for the future of education. However, Chait hugely ignores the other, far worse scenario that often plays out:
Person one says something that person two finds as deeply offensive, and person two — in fear of being called too sensitive or having their identity attacked — says nothing.
This scenario and others like it have driven a great deal of “P.C. policing” at the University, from the adoption of a Race and Ethnicity requirement to the #BBUM campaign. This is all an attempt to grow, not stifle, free speech and promote intellectual growth. None of us are entitled to feel comfortable at all times, and being educated requires us to even avoid comfort. But there is a difference between comfort and what has come to be called “safety.”
Creating a “safe space” (terminology I personally loathe to no end) is nothing more than setting ground rules for conversation and debate, largely to avoid the Outrage/Silence Roundabout. The typical rules of a safe space are far from oppressive: speak for yourself and not others; attack ideas, not people; don’t over-generalize. This requires a great deal of patience for everyone involved, and different spaces have different focuses and hence, different rules. No one can seriously expect the world at large to ever become one giant safe space, and screaming accusations of threats to one’s “safety” are rarely constructive if missing an explanation.
Ironically, Chait is calling for exactly the same thing he is attacking: the adoption of ground rules for how we debate, so that no one feels silenced — in his case, non-left wingers. I would agree with Chait that zealous outrage is, if anything, stifling toward the free exchange of ideas that is necessary for education.
Unfortunately, this rather simple idea finds itself muddled in Chait’s equating of political correctness with flat-out oppression of democratic free speech. Chait ends his article with a gushing review of non-left wing American liberalism, whose “glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.”
Aaron Sorkin would be proud, but I have a feeling most historians would disagree.
Coercion has in fact been the driving force behind most of America’s great leaps forward when it comes to race. Slavery saw its end thanks to the sword, not the pen. Roosevelt didn’t desegregate military contracting because he loved racial equality, but because A. Philip Randolph threatened a massive, crippling march on Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court may have been convinced of school desegregation, but the South certainly wasn’t. Perhaps Jonathan Chait’s memory failed him, but the Freedom Riders, the Little Rock Nine and Vivian Malone didn’t win an argument — they were surrounded by soldiers.
Chait wants people to fight for justice by creating agreement with strong argument and reason. But what happens when the people who need to be convinced are unreasonable? The movement for political correctness has no doubt overreached at times, but quite often the anger of left-wing groups is fueled by liberal apathy or resistance to progress. Michigan is no stranger to this phenomenon, as Chait detailed in a 2001 American Prospect article.
During the late 1980s, Chait wrote, left-wing groups — most notably the United Coalition Against Racism — controlled Michigan’s campus. The left-controlled student government pushed the school to adopt an unconstitutional speech code and even invalidated elections when their majority in the student assembly was threatened. This is the kind of blind, unreasonable climate colleges want to avoid, and it led to a large conservative backlash. Michigan’s campus is in a far better position now, but it is because, not in spite, of the demands of the left wing.
While the speech code was an abysmal failure, the late 1980s and the 1990s saw the creation of the Race and Ethnicity requirement and the Program on Intergroup Relations. It also cemented a legacy of anti-racism at Michigan, one that continues to this day. There are occasional missteps and overreaches — some much worse than others — but left-wing demands that began in the ‘60s have consistently driven colleges to new heights of inclusion and scholarship. Chait and others may be living in fear of “P.C. culture” ruining free speech, but that same culture is to thank for countless students having any kind of voice at all.
James Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.