Who the anti-PC argument actually hurts

Sean Lundergan | Contributing Writer

It seems time we set some things straight. Being “PC” is not the same thing as infringing people’s right to free speech. Furthermore, it’s not nitpicky political correctness to criticize overtly racist acts like dressing in blackface, yelling the n-word at a group of black students or drawing a swastika in feces on a dorm.

The recent protests against racism at Yale and Mizzou have brought attention to these and other ongoing infringements of civil rights by those universities. Passions on both sides of the debate have escalated—one side wants to combat racism and the other wants to protect the rights of those who may or may not act in racist ways. Yes, Erika Christakis of Yale presented her thoughts about offensive Halloween costumes in a thoughtful, conscientious way. But she glosses over the issue central to the discussion when she says of her enjoyment of participating in other cultures: “Am I fetishizing and appropriating others’ cultural experiences? Probably.”

While I applaud Christakis for reflecting and encouraging others to discuss these kinds of issues, the trivialization and appropriation of others’ culture is a component to the white privilege that underlies all racial issues in America. She goes on to distract from the real issue of cultural appropriation with the typical fallacy about religious people being offended by provocative attire; religious people aren’t a marginalized group in society. It’s not about censoring anything that might offend someone—as one student told Christakis’s husband Nicholas, “It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here!”

What the University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe told black students is far and away more callous and ignorant: “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.” And what’s really unfathomable is that so many people have criticized the students for protesting against this and other instances of racism instead of Wolfe.

No one likes to be told what to say. But when you’re saying something that marginalizes an entire group of people, it goes beyond the free expression of your ideas; it becomes a contributing factor to that marginalization.

The question thus arises of the role of free speech in institutions of higher education. Should all forms of expression be allowed on a college campus? The easy answer to this question is yes, and when it’s framed in this way many people would be likely to agree. But it gets trickier when one contemplates how violent or disruptive to the social and psychological security of some students this expression may be. Now, some would hold their view that speech rights should go unimpeded in this scenario, but others falter, noting that the security rights of the victimized students bear consideration as well.

The problem of rights that we face in the U.S. today is not the liberal crusade against free speech that racism-deniers proclaim it to be. It’s the fact that, in 2015, not only do we have a culture that perpetuates white privilege and racism, but those who make an effort to reverse this appalling reality are slandered as opponents of speech rights. So when people trying to change the status quo are shot down as “PC Police” or misguided protestors, it’s not conducive to the protection of rights that are due to all people. All it serves to do is to promote the objectively false notion that we’re living in a post-racial society where white people are being unfairly oppressed. And in that respect, attacking those who protest racism is equivalent to the racist actions themselves: It perpetuates the status quo in which it’s acceptable for minorities, especially black Americans, to be denied status equal to that of whites.

No one likes to be told what to say, but there seems to be a double standard. The systematic suppression of disadvantaged voices has become so ingrained in our culture that those who try to counteract it are seen as overreacting; but when those privileged by society feel as though that privilege is threatened, they go to great lengths to suppress those who threaten it. Kind of ironic, in a way.

  • Tim Zhang

    I am a racial minority, yet I see that being PC is against everything America was founded upon. Universities are not safe spaces, but intellectual spaces. Without opposing voices, students follow a single ideology throughout college just to find out how cruel the real world is once they graduate. Merely shutting down different voices will solve nothing but raise hatred. Use clever comebacks if you feel offended; grow some skin. Oh well (Orwell), what can be done now that the universities has already gone so far off track?

  • Christian Ralph

    Thank you for writing this.

    The administrator’s role at Yale was quite literally the “master” of the residential hall and as a result was responsible for building up the community and ensuring unity. Let us make no mistake: these costumes are racist… There is no argument against that.

    So as an administrator who has a role in protecting vulnerable members of the residential college, they need to speak out against actions that would damage the community. Instead this administrator talked about essentially defending the spread of intellectual ideas. But maybe there needs to be a balance. I shouldn’t have to confront and have to deal with racism in an area that is meant to be a place where I live and sleep… I should be able to relax and not be slapped in the face with racism and that is a goal these students were trying to work towards (among others).

    I realize that we learn about things all the time; we can’t always control when these conversations arise, but just because a school is dedicated to pursuit of knowledge and learning doesn’t mean they have to pursue this goal over all else. I go back to my room to relax and unwind so it’s not unreasonable for a standard that protects this right to be upheld without being bombarded with racist ideas in the name of pursuing intellectual discussion. So as a result, that is why the students are justifiably upset.

    Because of that, it becomes crystal clear that the students have an argument even if you ultimately disagree with it. Because of the role on campus for the administrator, it was absolutely the job of the professor to ensure people weren’t threatening the community. If we are serious about wanting to end racism, we must fight towards the eradication of it in any shape or form. That means tackling it in college and not accepting the fact that just because the world outside is college that we should accept that as a fact and perpetuate the same racist systems. It also doesn’t mean that freedom of speech is being attacked. Freedom of speech only protects an individual against repercussions from the government; it doesn’t prevent people from disagreeing with you and wanting to see a change in policy that leads to a better society.

    Again, thanks for writing this!

  • John

    The overall point of the pertinent Yale email was to question whether it was the role of the administration to tell students what/not to wear. Instead, the much-pilloried sender suggested that it should be the role of the student body to establish social norms for itself (much as, for example, this article is doing). It didn’t touch on “the real issue of cultural appropriation” because she believed, in her role as an administrator, that she was not capable of setting definitive guidelines for students to follow, and that even if she were, it would be inappropriate for her to do so.

    Naturally, this resulted in her husband being cursed out, and attendees of a free speech conference being spat on and called race traitors by pro-(to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what their stance is) demonstrators.

  • queenme

    If college isn’t about creating an intellectual space, then what exactly is it about?