Chait’s key insight is that “political correctness” — which first “burst onto the academic scene in the ’80s and ‘90s” and then “went into a long remission” — has now returned, with a vengeance. He defines political correctness as “a style of politics where the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Citing the raft of protests against innocuous college commencement speakers, the proliferation of “trigger warnings” on course syllabi, and the rise of militant identity politics on social media, Chait argues that political correctness poses a direct threat to the American liberal tradition.
I don’t have much to add to Chait’s blistering critique of P.C. culture, which is by and large consistent with my own reporting on the campus cultural left. However, I would make one friendly amendment to Chait’s account of why, at the start of 2015, we find ourselves in the midst of a wave of assertive identity politics and speech policing.
Chait suggests that P.C. was revived from the bottom-up. Initially, he argues, P.C. only had traction among grassroots activists, principally on college campuses. In the last few years, its influence grew dramatically thanks to (1) a newfound cultural militancy among campus activists, and (2) the intervention of social media, which “shrunk the distance between P.C. culture and mainstream liberal politics” and gave P.C. “a vast new cultural reach.” The bottom-up narrative is widely accepted among P.C. critics — the New York Times’s Ross Douthat, for example, attributes the P.C. resurgence in part to the confidence of “younger activists, on campus and online.”
This account, while mostly accurate, ignores the ways that the resurgence of P.C. has actually been orchestrated from the top-down. Campus activists might be the most visible practitioners of P.C., but they have been responding to signals — and, in some cases, legal decrees — from federal government officials.
Consider some of the recent actions of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). During the Obama presidency, the OCR has been waging an escalating crusade against sexual harassment and assault that, in my view, has played a critically important role in the P.C. revival Chait describes.
In a 2013 mandate, the OCR ordered college campuses to enforce unprecedented speech codes to protect students from harassment. Under the terms of the mandate, according to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, colleges would have needed to prohibit “unwelcome” “sexual or dirty jokes,” as well as the “unwelcome” “distribution of sexually explicit drawings, pictures or written materials,” and virtually all offensive content “of a sexual nature.” After months of intense pressure from First Amendment advocacy groups, led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the OCR quietly backed away from the more extreme elements of the decree.
The mandate nonetheless had an impact on campus politics. It signaled to activists that high-level officials in the Obama administration endorse the logic of P.C., which dictates that disagreeable ideas should be regulated rather than engaged. College students and administrators now regularly cite Title IX “harassment” rules in efforts to silence offensive speech.
The administration’s approach to rape on campus has had a similar effect. It goes without saying that campus sexual assault activists have made particularly effective use of the P.C. argument style — that is, demonization and appeals to identity, rather than intellectual engagement — to delegitimize their opposition. (See, for example, the application of the term “rape denialist” to people who question hard-line sexual assault policies.) By going all-in for the campus activists — reducing the burden of proof, using language that suggests the accused is always guilty — the administration again signaled to the P.C. left that it has the government’s backing.
The P.C. impulse is evident in other White House policies, like the refusal to use the term “radical Islam” to describe jihadist terrorist attacks, for fear of offending Muslims. But more than anything else, the administration’s posture toward hot-button campus issues like speech and sexual assault has been crucial to the second-wave of P.C.
Once again, Chait’s bottom-up narrative — where P.C. culture originated on college campuses and penetrated the liberal mainstream after being amplified by social media — certainly captures part of the truth. But it is also true that this administration has been encouraging and sustaining the campus left along the way.
In my view, the most significant factor in the revival of speech policing is not social media, or activist disappointment on the economy, or the persistence of racial and gender divisions. To begin with, none of these theories fully explains the timing of the P.C. resurgence. A better account would understand the P.C. revival partly as a top-down phenomenon, driven by the Obama administration’s campus policies, which emboldened the P.C. forces and enabled them to colonize mainstream liberal discourse.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.