There’s No College P.C. Crisis: In Defense of Student Protesters
Part of the answer lies in the fact that these disputes are now more public than they were in the past. Our current boom in student protest is the first since streaming video and social media made every sit-in a real-time global spectacle. Twenty-five years ago, the last time the country freaked out about student radicals and “political correctness,” we had a bit more distance, and maybe even a bit more perspective.
There’s also the issue of who today’s activists are, and what they believe. The demographics of American higher education have been transformed dramatically since the 1960s, and the concerns of protesters have changed as a result. No previous generation of American student protesters foregrounded the concerns of women, students of color and LGBT students like this one has, or was so visibly led by people who weren’t middle-class-or-better straight white men. And much of the jargon of the current movement — trigger warnings, microaggressions, safe spaces — can be off-putting, particularly to non-initiates.
But these explanations only go so far, particularly since so many of the movement’s critics are self-proclaimed free-speech advocates. Even if they think the students’ ideas are bad or weird, the right to put them forward is surely worth defending. But that premise — that campus activists have free-speech rights that are worthy of robust and aggressive defense — has been largely absent from mainstream writing about contemporary campus culture. Many high-profile commentators, in fact, have taken the opposite tack, claiming that the students’ ideas are so bad and so weird as to represent a threat to free speech itself.
A bizarre, but not unrepresentative, example: Early this year, a student theater group at Mount Holyoke College announced that they would no longer be staging their annual production of The Vagina Monologues, explaining that the play’s “perspective on what it means to be a woman” is too “narrow” and “reductionist” for their taste. When word of this decision broke in the media, the troupe was widely accused of censorship. By canceling the play, Lizzie Crocker wrote in The Daily Beast, “you’re excluding me from watching something I want to see.” Feminist writer Meghan Murphy asserted that the group was “silencing women.” New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, a leading critic of today’s student activists, highlighted the Mount Holyoke case in a widely read essay that condemned political correctness as an “attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”
But who exactly was being censored here? Who was being silenced? What was being regulated? The troupe hadn’t been forbidden to stage the play. They’d just decided not to. Surely the same freedom of speech that had given them the right to perform it gave them the right to stop. And even if other students had encouraged them in their decision — if, say, activists had gone to the troupe and explained their objections to the play and asked them not to put it on again, and the performers had mulled the request and decided to honor it — that wouldn’t have been censorship either. It would have been dialogue, discussion — exactly the encounter of minds and ideas that the university is supposed to nurture.
Some will argue that I’m painting too rosy a picture of typical campus “discussions” around issues of identity and ideology in the year 2015. It’s not rational discourse that such activists use to change people’s behavior, argues Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic, a persistent critic of the movement, but “stigma, call-outs, and norm-shaping.” But even granting that premise, since when is upholding norms something to condemn? When has publicly shaming people who do publicly bad things ever not been a legitimate part of political debate? Friedersdorf is shaming activists, not reasoning with them, when he describes them as overwrought children. I’m shaming Friedersdorf, not reasoning with him, when I point that fact out. And that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with a little public shaming. In fact, sometimes a little public shaming is exactly what circumstances call for.
Last May, news leaked at San Diego State University that Vincent Martin, a tenured professor, had been found by campus investigators to have sexually harassed one of his undergraduate students. He’d neither been terminated nor publicly reprimanded — the whole thing had been swept under the rug. When students found out, they protested. They planned a picket outside of one of Martin’s classrooms, and when he canceled that day’s classes they plastered his office door and the surrounding walls with their signs and posters.
The protesters’ goal wasn’t to engage Martin in discussion. They had no reason to believe that a rational consideration of the harms of sexual harassment would dissuade Martin from re-offending, or, for that matter, convince the university to get him out of the classroom before he victimized someone else. (It has since emerged that Martin sexually harassed multiple students at two different universities.) No, what the protesters were engaged in was exactly what Friedersdorf criticizes: “stigma, call-outs, and norm-shaping.” And they were right. That was what the situation required, and it worked — Vincent Martin is no longer employed at SDSU, and he will have a very difficult time finding another teaching job.