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Politics & Government

College Protests Raise Questions About Culture Of Political Correctness


The heated confrontations about race and equality at colleges and universities around the country have some commentators asking if today's culture of protest and political correctness on campus has gone too far.


PAYTON HEAD: Racism lives here and so do we. And if you're uncomfortable, I did my job.

CORNISH: That's from the University of Missouri-Columbia, this past week, where both the chancellor and university system president stepped down amid protests.

So is this the latest generation finding its voice and trying to tackle injustice, or are these students being coddled on campuses that have encouraged hypersensitivity and a fragility that censors freedom of expression? Well, joining me now are two writers on the left who have been reflecting on this moment in progressive politics and have drawn very different conclusions.

Hello to Jonathan Chait, of New York magazine. Welcome to the program.

JONATHAN CHAIT: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: And author Roxane Gay. Welcome to you.

ROXANE GAY: Thank you.

CORNISH: So I want to start with you, Jonathan, and talk about - I mean, what do you consider political correctness now? How is it somehow different from what we've experienced in the past?

CHAIT: I would define political correctness as a new ideology that is completely intolerant of dissent on issues relating to race and gender. So it's an illiberal kind of politics that does not grant any political legitimacy to criticism on identity issues. So even if it's made in response to legitimate racism and legitimate sexism that people have every right to be concerned about, it shuts down Democratic politics in a way that we should be concerned about.

CORNISH: Roxane, you've heard this definition - pretty comprehensive. Does it make any sense to you?

GAY: You know, I struggle with that definition because when we're talking about gender and race, these are not things that are debatable. For example, I'm a woman. And so if I tell you what my experience is as a woman and then someone tries to contradict it when they have no idea what my experience is, it becomes really frustrating. And I will push back against that. And so when it comes to matters of identity, I think people are necessarily rigid in terms of how we discuss it. We do see some of this liberalism when people are attacked for having dissenting opinions, but I don't think that it is a great danger. I think it's a natural part of unwieldy discourse, and any time we talk about identity and identity politics, things are going to be messy.

CORNISH: That brings me to a viral video that has come out in the last couple of days out of the protest at Yale. And this is an interaction between a Yale student and a professor whose wife had - also a professor - had publicly challenged a school memo about cultural sensitivity. Here's a sample of their interaction.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?

ERIKA CHRISTAKIS: Because I have a...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who the [expletive] hired you?

CHRISTAKIS: I have a different vision...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You should step down. If that is what you think about being a master, you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space. It is not. Do you understand that?

CORNISH: Roxane Gay, talk about the role of technology and social media in this moment, right, because these are the kinds of things that can be kind of played on repeat that can come to represent the images of what students are doing.

GAY: Absolutely. Technology makes it such that nearly everything is now seen. And I think that's a part of the problem and why we are seeing such disparate approaches to the student protests that are going on. A lot of people are drawing their conclusions from snapshots and not the entire picture.

CORNISH: Jonathan, is that what you're doing?

CHAIT: I don't object to students being outraged at the appearance of hate speech, and I don't disagree with their feeling that they should be free from that kind of speech. The question is how should we handle more mild forms of expression which generate even more vitriolic responses like we just heard in that last clip, which was not a response to hate speech, it was a response to a pretty mildly-worded op-ed in a Yale paper that generated just intense outrage.

GAY: Yes, but we're not - I don't think what we're talking about is mild. The woman in that video is responding to the entire issue that's going on at Yale. She's responding not only to the master at Silliman, and...

CORNISH: And we should say, this is the administrator at Silliman College, which is a college on the Yale University.

GAY: Yes, the master of Silliman College. You know, I think that her approach was totally ineffective. But she was angry, and she was angry because Yale has a really messed up racial climate, and it boiled over. But I think that she's entitled to have her reaction, and I don't think we should dismiss her reaction as some sort of fetish for political correctness.

CORNISH: It's also - I guess, Jonathan, why shouldn't people dismiss this behavior here and there as mistakes - youthful mistakes like anything else?

CHAIT: Sometimes you have youthful mistakes, but what I think is going on here is much broader than a youth or a generational issue, even though that is part of it. What I think is happening is the rise to prominence of a kind of illiberal left ideology, and this ideology has its greatest strength on campuses because campuses are one of the few places in American life where a certain kind of far-left politics can actually impose hegemony on other ideas and really control the discourse in a way it can't in most places in American life where even moderate liberals are more of a minority.

CORNISH: Roxane, do you see this at all? Do you ever have times when you're - you know, obviously, you write about feminism among many other things - where it feels like the number of third rails and tripwires and ability to offend people even that you agree with politically has just risen?

GAY: Oh, absolutely. I think that on the right and on the left, we have these tripwires that we're not supposed to go near. And I think part of it on the left is that we are fighting for such important issues that we become extremely rigid and we start to expect perfection in word and deed because so much is at stake. And it is really frustrating because you never know what is going to set someone off and make them react in what is probably a disproportionate and illiberal way. But I really don't think that these things compose the norm. I think that they are exceptions to the general rule of people capable of critical thought.

CORNISH: Something that people may be hearing more that they may not totally be familiar with is this idea of a safe space - that students are saying that, I should feel protected and that this is something that the university or these environments should be invested in creating. Roxane, help us understand this for people who think that - who have described this as coddling.

GAY: I mean, what's wrong with being coddled once in a while? This notion that we should just be thrown to the lions and make do is absurd. There is very little to be gained from suffering. And I think what students are looking for is a space where they don't have to suffer emotionally. And as a teacher, I try to create as safe a space as possible, but I also know that my job is to make students uncomfortable. So I think students aren't asking to be coddled. They're asked to be treated with respect, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

CORNISH: Jonathan, your review on safe space? It sounds like Roxane is mixed.

CHAIT: I'm in favor of safety. What I object to is defining safety to mean the absence of contrary points of view. And by contrary, I don't mean hate speech, I don't mean threats, I don't mean swastikas. What I mean is the performance of a play that people dislike politically, the appearance of an op-ed that somewhat mildly criticizes views that you hold - those are things that people have defined as threatening a safe space, and that's a really troublesome concept for a liberal.

CORNISH: Roxane Gay, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GAY: Thank you, I appreciate it.

CORNISH: And Jonathan Chait, thank you for coming in to talk with us as well.

CHAIT: Thank you very much for having me.

CORNISH: Jonathan Chait, he's a writer at New York magazine, and Roxanne Gay, she's a professor at Purdue and author of the book, "Bad Feminist." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.