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Lefties Driving The Left Batshit Crazy -- Part II

Somehow, in my naiveté I thought we had lived through the era of Politically Correct speech. The PC movement began in reasonable ways with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and Feminism when it dawned (finally) on folks that certain words and expressions caused pain. There were two ways in which language could do this. The most obvious was when words and phrases specifically designed to hurt (e.g., “nigger” or “slut”) were used. Less obvious but, so the argument went, perhaps more insidious was the softer version like “redskin” or “girl.”

It was relatively easy to persuade people to eschew the use of those designed to cause suffering — except, of course, for instances where that was precisely what the speaker wished to do. It wasn’t so easy with the latter because the folks doing the speaking didn’t intend to hurt another and couldn’t grasp why anyone could feel offended or object.

To educate these unsuspecting biased souls the movement for politically correct speech was enjoined. It was an important movement because it revealed, not how insidious language can be (we already knew that from the first usage patterns), but how delicately and unsuspectingly we allowed our culture’s biases and prejudices to leak over into our daily speech and writing.

 In many ways it worked. For the most part we’ve become sensitive to how we use words that denigrate someone’s ethnicity or race. We’re aware of sexual orientation and, in many cases, uncomfortable just thinking about how we used to talk. My generation grew up referring to gay men as “faggots” and never once thought that this wasn’t appropriate.

We’ve also pretty much stopped using the masculine form as the default pronoun. While “he/she” is awkward, it turns out to be fairly easy to avoid sexist language.[1] Of course, it didn’t work in other ways. We still haven’t completely given up using “girl” to refer to adult women but, except for the very testy it doesn’t seem to be causing any problems. So, over time the PC movement seemed to fade away which most us of took as evidence of its success.

Alas, it is back and this time, folks, in a batshit crazy version. The Atlantic had an insightful piece on it. This new effort to control and direct language and writing isn’t to change the manner in which the larger culture speaks, writes and, by extension, thinks about others, it’s designed to protect and coddle and, alas, the movers are my friends on the left.

Psychologists have, since the PC movement began, studied the impact of “microaggressions” and “implicit” prejudice. Both of these “soft” forms of bias occur without the speaker being aware they have used a term or made a statement that another might find upsetting and which, some argue, reveal an underlying ethnic, racial or gender bias. Such language, the argument goes, can “trigger” off an unpleasant or unwanted emotional reaction. Because these unintentional verbal slips can disturb others, this new PC movement has swept across the very landscape where it should have been resisted, college campuses.

How nutty can this get? A group of Harvard Law students requested that the section on “rape law” be dropped from the curriculum because it violated the feelings of women students. A professor at Northwestern was subjected to an internal investigation over an article written for the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education because she attacked students’ “sexual paranoia.” An adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida was suspended because he joked that he was “killing” his students with all the homework assignments. English professors now warn students that they may find some words offensive in the writing of Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald. At Brandeis even a poster designed to raise consciousness by listing the “trigger” words and phrases that Asian-American students might find offensive was subjected to attack because it, in virtue of its existence in a public forum, was a violation of Asian-American sensitivities. The university ordered it removed and apologized publically.

This, sports fans, is nothing short of censorship, an infringement on 1st Amendment rights, a sullying of what it means to teach and a violation of academic freedom. It is also not the way to run a university where one of the central tenets has always been to confront ideas, discuss the controversial, debate and critique the uncomfortable thoughts and theories of others.

What’s doubling disturbing about this weirdly protective movement is that it relies on one line of research about the harm of implicit prejudice while ignoring a much more important field of study into the long-term impact of inappropriately protecting students from reality.

Yes, it can be useful to see college as a time of quiet reflection, a period in one’s life where they are free to learn, explore and engage. But it is just weird to expect them to learn, explore and engage when they’re being shielded from any minor offense, any word or picture or reference that might trigger off even the most fleeting unsettled emotion.

Unfortunately, this movement is still gathering steam. In legal realms where speech is both protected and controlled the line separating the two is moving. Because, as noted at the very outset of this essay, words can cause genuine pain, there are legal boundaries in place. The Departments of Education and Justice guidelines used to state that speech that a “reasonable person” finds to be “objectively offensive” may be deemed harassment and restricted.

Recently, in response to this virulent PC movement, this guideline was changed so that speech that an individual finds “unwelcome” can be regarded as harassment. The “reasonable person” test is gone and a simple, subjective, individual emotion has replaced it. The result is, of course, that everyone in education is on high alert for even the most benign utterance or reading assignment can trigger off something in someone.

And, of course, the right wingers are just loving this. In their world view this is just another reason to dismiss progressives as a bunch of molly-coddling dogooders who can’t or won’t face reality. They’re attacking “big government” (again) because the DOE and the DOJ have inserted themselves into our lives by shifting their classifications of unacceptable speech. They’re calling for the reformation of universities and colleges to include more teachers with conservative credentials.

Update (9/3): And, alas, The Donald has seized on the idiocy of this new PC movement. Assaults on polictical correctness appear in virtually every speech, attacks on crackpot liberals who want to censor ordinary folks are sprinkled throughout his press conferences and the progressive wing is made to look like a bunch of mewling babies who can’t handle even the simplest verbal assault. It sure as hell isn’t helping our cause.

It’s really getting ugly out there.


[1] Both The New Gamblers Bible and Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things were written in gender-neutral language, a fact which even my editor didn’t notice.

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