One of the debates set off by Jonathan Chait’s blockbuster New York magazine essay against political correctness is whether or not P.C. “works” — that is, whether it successfully promotes and sustains a politics of inclusion and equality.
Chait contended that P.C. rarely produces durable victories for progressive causes, but a number of commentators disagreed. Writing from the left, Alyssa Rosenberg suggested that Chait had ignored the ways “immoderate speech and dogmatism have contributed to causes of social reform.” Writing from the right, Ross Douthat asserted that “making people afraid to disagree is actually a pretty successful way of settling political and cultural arguments” in many situations.
I think it’s true that P.C. — which Chait defined as “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate the political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate” — can sometimes advance progressive causes in the short term (for good or ill). But contra its right-wing critics, P.C. does not work by silencing conservatives. In fact, it almost always emboldens them. To the extent that the P.C. argument technique (“check your privilege,” “you’re a rape denier,” “stop mansplaining”) successfully produces social change, it does so by silencing liberals and moderates.
This phenomenon was all too obvious during the first wave of P.C., which swept across college campuses in the early 1990s. Consider Nat Hentoff’s observations from a 1991 article in Dissent magazine:
One of the myths about the rise of P.C. … is that, coming from the left, it is primarily intimidating conservatives on campus. Quite the contrary. At almost every college I’ve been, conservative students have their own newspaper, usually quite lively and fired by a muckraking glee at exposing “politically correct” follies on campus.
Hentoff’s argument was vividly illustrated by Stanford’s political climate during that period. There is a rough consensus, including among some progressive commentators, that Stanford was in the throes of a particularly pronounced bout of P.C. in the early 1990s — Stanford’s President Gerhard Casper even delivered a speech called “Invectives” in 1993, urging students to be more tolerant of opposing views. Far from being silenced by this political environment, Stanford’s conservatives grew louder and louder.
For a history essay I wrote last Spring on the 1990s culture wars at Stanford, I reviewed dozens of student and faculty writings in the University archives, including many issues of the Stanford Review, the conservative newspaper founded by Peter Thiel. It was clear that Review writers were nothing short of delighted by the sense that they were under siege by the rest of the campus. Recurring advertisements in the Review featured an image of a gagged Statue of Liberty next to the phrase, “you can’t deny it baby, we drive the campus crazy.”
In a 1993 series, “Homosexuality on Campus,” a Review writer argued that homosexuality is a “mental disorder” and “there are good reasons for keeping homosexuals out of sensitive institutions in our society.” The same Review writer declared in the next issue that his willingness to publish the anti-gay article showed that “I have balls the size of Cleveland.”
The next year, the Review editors tried to provoke the “P.C. police” into punishing them by publishing a caricature of a Native American in every issue, over the objections of the Stanford American Indian Association. When President Casper wrote an op-ed chastising the Review, the editors did not hold back: In a furious editorial, they compared Casper to Joseph Stalin and said “we believe that free speech is a right that inheres in our humanity, not a privilege bestowed upon us by a University President and his law professor sidekick.”
In other words, the P.C. climate of the early 1990s did not actually have the effect of silencing the campus right. To the contrary, it emboldened conservatives to push their provocations even further.
That’s not to say that 1990’s P.C. didn’t have a chilling effect. It probably had a substantial effect on students who were less certain of their views than the Review editors. As Hentoff observed in his Dissent piece, “those most intimidated [by P.C.]are liberal students and those who can be called politically moderate.” In his 2014 book, Casper noted that he found that students increasingly self-censored when talking about sensitive subjects like abortion.
My experience as a student today is consistent with the dynamic Hentoff described in 1991. It’s not uncommon for Stanford social science classes to have a number of students who think that saying “check your privilege” is an acceptable substitute for argument, and it’s not uncommon for classes to have at least one loud, defiant right-wing student who wants to make sure everyone knows how much of a nonconformist he is. The only effect the “check your privilege” crowd has on the conservative is to make him even more dogmatic in his views. It is the apolitical and moderate-liberal students who are cowed into silence by P.C. activists.
So is P.C. argumentation a good tactic for advancing progressive goals in the long run? I doubt it. P.C. only “works” on people who are already sympathetic to liberal goals of social justice and inclusion. So while it might succeed in moving the left further to the left, it also makes the right more and more defiant. This might be an attractive strategy in spaces that already lean left, like the academy and certain spheres of social media. But at the national level, P.C. is a recipe for backsliding, reaction and gridlock.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.