Under the Radar: Political Correctness Never Died

By Young, Cathy | Reason, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Under the Radar: Political Correctness Never Died


Young, Cathy, Reason


THESE DAYS, TALKING about political correctness in academia makes you sound like a quaint throwback to the 1990s. It seems utterly irrelevant to the post-9/11 era, a threat dwarfed by (depending on whom you listen to) either terrorism or losing our liberties to the war on terrorism. Eric Wasserman, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), says many people have a knee-jerk reaction to the very phrase political correctness, seeing it as an old story.

But in fact, says Wasserman, the phenomenon is very much alive. On campuses across America, the censorship of speech and ideas in the name of sensitivity continues unabated.

In April, for instance, the faculty council of Oklahoma State University approved a "racial and sexual harassment policy" that amounts to a far-reaching speech code. According to a report in The Daily O'Collegian, the policy's definition of harassment includes "a hostile environment that unreasonably interferes with the work or academic performance of those oo a particular race, color, ethnicity or national origin" even if such "interference" is "unintentional." It covers "verbal and nonverbal harassment, as well as print and electronic harassment."

The policy does purport to exempt any "presentation or inquiry foiling within justifiable academic standards covering course contents and pedagogy." But justifiable is a nebulous term, and the policy as a whole is so broad and so vague that it would surely chill the legitimate exchange of ideas, particularly outside the classroom--in student papers, for instance.

Some recent incidents involving student journalism bolster these concerns. Around the same time that Oklahoma State approved its harassment policy, a controversy erupted at Oregon State University after the student paper, The Daily Barometer, ran an article by staff columnist David Williams titled "A message from a white male to the African-American community. "Williams argued that one reason for the social ills disproportionately afflicting blacks is that character and accountability in the black community are undermined by a tendency to rally around prominent African-Americans behaving badly, from O.J. Simpson to singer R. Kelly, currently facing child pornography charges on the basis of a videotape allegedly showing him having sex with an underage girl.

Williams went out of his way to qualify his message, saying he realized his article could be seen as "picking on the worst" of the African-American community and that his judgment on the issue might be suspect because he is not black. "I have never been the victim of racism" he wrote. "I am a white male. This all is very easy for me to say." Williams nonetheless concluded that blacks "need to grow beyond the automatic reaction of defending someone because he or she shares the same skin color and is in a dilemma."

Maybe it was a good column making a necessary point, and maybe it was tired and condescending. But the reaction went far beyond criticism of Williams' arguments or tone. Following a protest rally, The Daily Barometer ran a groveling editorial that repeatedly apologized for printing the column and called its publication "an inexcusable mistake." Williams was fired from his position as columnist. At a campus forum held a few days later, university president Ed Gray called the incident a "teachable moment"--the teaching in question, of course, being about diversity and institutional racism, not about freedom of the press. The Barometers Forum editor, Christina Stewart, offered yet another apology for letting the offending article appear. (In a twist, it was subsequently revealed that Williams' column had been inspired by an article on a similar subject by the Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., who is black.)

This case is one of many recent examples of politically correct censorship of campus journalism. April, apparently, is the cruelest month for student papers: April Fool's Day editions are especially likely to incur the wrath of the sensitivity police. …

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