Color me surprised, but when young Warwick University student George Lawlor wrote that he felt injured by a Facebook invite to a class on consent in a viral article earlier last month, no one accused him of whining about microaggressions. “To be invited to such a waste of time was the biggest insult I’ve received in a few good years… that’s incredibly hurtful,” he claimed. When liberal students chose not to attend a class they don’t agree with, we are reminded of rampant political correctness on college campuses. In this case, such cries were missing.
It is telling that the conservative (or even centrist) commentariat chose to pass on this glaring example of campus hypocrisy (which, to be fair, the student backed away from in an interview with Broadly). It may even suggest that their use and abuse of campus politics, along with jeremiads against “PC culture,” are as full of holes as anyone else’s.
Consider the more scalding take a first year Warwick student published at Breitbart right after Lawlor’s story came out. With much bluster and fanfare, Jack Hadfield added his name to “a growing list of understandably aggrieved young men.” “These classes are useless, and may even be damaging,” he cried out, a voice in the desert.
Terrified of being “falsely accused of rape,” Hadfield even suggested that conversing with girls would be “too risky now.” (Female consent just sets off all his triggers. Fortunately, he will be warned.) Hadfield claims to know “what goes down at these things anyway,” and yet he jokes about “getting them [sexual partners] to sign a form between thrusts.” What a dolt. Everybody knows you’re supposed to get them to sign the consent forms before the thrusting begins! Its political aggrievedness gone mad!
Hadfield and, to a lesser extent, Lawlor, are guilty of everything conservative media accuse liberal-minded young students and so-called “social justice warriors” of doing all the time: making more or less muddled political statements in defense of their agency as students. But with so much attention drawn to the subject of the campus culture wars, it is frankly incredible that no one has tried to articulate when these acts of defiance might be justified and when they are not.
A good starting point might be: when are teachers, administrators, and peers imposing their views on students? Surely, conservatives who rankle at the idea of liberal universities indoctrinating their kids would agree that this is a sensible question to ask, if imperfect. Hadfield and Lawlors cases, of course, fail this test. As they were invited, not required, to take the class in question, nothing was imposed on them — one of a few reasons they came off as wimps and widely became laughing stocks. The same cannot be said in instances where students object to required course materials in core classes, or paid speakers being invited to campus to sell books and promote their own agenda.
In discussions of campus insurrectionism, few tend to recall the 2011 walkout Harvard students organized in Greg Mankiw’s introductory economics course during the height of Occupy Wall Street. Mankiw is the author of a widely used introductory economics textbook, and protesting his class was as a coherent act of defiance against the discipline’s dominant paradigm. As University of Sydney political economist Mike Beggs wrote in Jacobin at the time, the longstanding complaint against economics is not that it has been “delusional or biased to the right, but that it [is] technocratic.” Mainstream economics had little to say about solving the pressing political problems students worry about, like racial justice and inequality, echoing similar criticisms against bias in the humanities.
“The problem is that in an introductory course, what the professor says is generally taken as fact,” one walkout organizer told the Harvard Crimson. If not quite that, then the professor-student relationship certainly is an unequal one, and introductory courses exert a powerful influence on students moving forward. And as the organizers pointed out in their open letter explaining the walkout, Economics 101 is a required course for many students in the social and political sciences. Students as a class have every right to defend their interests.
Another favorite reference point in the debate over campus “PC culture” has been student protests against commencement speakers like Bill Maher, IMF Director Christine Lagarde, and Condoleezza Rice. Jonathan Chait brought it up in his essay on political correctness back in January, without referencing the strongest argument in its favor. These speakers collect enormous fees. Bill Maher, for instance, collects upwards of $50,000 per commencement speech according to the Daily Mail. Students have every right to raise their voices when universities pay the equivalent of a full year’s tuition for a platitude-laden speech by a rich, powerful “thought leader” whose self-important opinions are well-documented. No one is silencing Bill Maher by telling him he can take a hike.
In a world of finite time and resources, choosing what to expend them on will always carry political implications. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind famously makes the argument that opening up the Academy has somehow hurt democracy by allowing students to pursue anything other than the vaunted Western canon of authors such as Plato, Macchiavelli and Rousseau, to name a few. It’s a favorite among conservatives who love to decry the decline of respect for traditional values and the rise of so-called “moral relativism.” It’s also a censorious political statement aimed at determining which words deserve our time (surprise, old white male ones!).
Put differently, it’s a conservative’s gesture toward the politically “correct.”
But I happen to respect the classics and their persistent explanatory value. Maybe the debate over “political correctness,” over how and who gets to define the scope of public discourse, is just a continuation of the age old debate over the question at the heart of The Republic: What is Justice? And to say that students, or anyone really, should have no say in these matters is to concede that “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” as one of Socrates’ interlocutors muses. In the big picture, calling it quits in the culture wars means telling the likes of the Koch brothers “no, you go ahead, really!”
Socrates later inverts this argument, pointing out that those at the top of the social hierarchy can easily be mistaken:
…the stronger may command the weaker who are his subjects to do what is not for his own interest; whence follows that justice is the injury quite as much as the interest of the stronger.
This, if not intentionally, aptly describes America today. Post-Citizens United, money is speech and speech is money, and rich people joyously invest in catastrophically bad ideas. For instance, it has been common knowledge for years that the NRA blocks research identifying lax gun laws as a public health threat. And massive networks of well-funded think tanks exist for the sole purpose of denying climate change, the gravest current threat to human civilization. But neither cannot alter the fact that guns kill people or that everything has to change, radically, before climate change changes us (to extinction).
As the global economy grinds to halt, the police are caught on camera beating kids and worse, the seas rise and the icecaps melt, it’s hard for a young person to ignore the gnawing sense that something is deeply amiss with the bedrock institutions of American democracy. Is it really any wonder that some of us have thrown up our hands in frustration and heard enough?