Some conservative internet “safe spaces” — visited mostly by white guys like my fellow Yale alumni, most of them commenting anonymously — are ringing again with outrage and tongue-clucking over videos of black Yale students demanding an abject apology for racism last fall.
“New Videos Show How Yale Betrayed Itself by Favoring Cry-Bullies,” reads a recent headline in the neoconservative-tilting Tablet Magazine.
“More Crazed Yale Students Attack Staffer for ‘Creating Space for Violence,’” chimes in the conservative Reason magazine, even though the videos aren’t “new” but show the same 30 students in the same incident last fall.
As the author of two books about racial politics in the 1980s and ’90s, and as a journalist who lived and worked for years among angry black New Yorkers, I have five observations about these charges and the people making them.
First, political correctness — racial, sexual, “cultural” — is bad, as I emphasized in “Liberal Racism.” A liberal education should resist it. But the supposed silencing of speech by people exercising their own speech rights — even obnoxiously — isn’t as dangerous as the lavishly funded, ideologically driven campaign led by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose President Greg Lukianoff behaved as a provocateur in shooting the most infamous of the Yale videos last fall.
FIRE actually (and deliberately) chills the “free speech” it says it’s defending, as I’ve argued in a Sept. 4 New York Times column and a longer essay, “What the Campus ‘Free Speech’ Crusade Won’t Say” on AlterNet.
In the videos and my own experience here last fall, I saw some unnecessary racial “theater.” But few students, even in the offending videos, were “crazed” or “defective,” as the conservative National Review put it in “Yale’s Idiot Children,” adding, “Hysterical Yalies Protest A Free-Speech Panel.”
What most of them really were was “of color,” young and agitated. That stopped some Yale alumni from looking into their faces enough to see a struggle to reconcile clear doubts about the unnecessary acting-out that was going on with their own angry finger-snapping for some of it.
Second, what were they agitated about? Their detractors depict what the angriest and silliest do, but don’t reckon with why. Racism? Sure, but what else is new, and aren’t these kids privileged? Such thinking ends where it should begin, unless “defective” does capture what these defective critics see in any knot of angry black students.
Third, the critics never describe students of color who aren’t in those videos. In “The Closing of the Conservative Mind,” I recounted some students of color who felt whipsawed unpredictably and intimately by elders’ outsized expectations, by some whites’ low expectations and — at some indelible moments — by some whites’ fears and even malevolence.
No white critic I’ve read has wondered aloud what his or her college experience would have been had the color proportions and expectations been reversed. And none has ever publicly recalled anything he or she did at age 19.
Fourth, none has called white students “crazed” for what some of them have done. Too bad there’s no video of the “free lobster and champagne feast” that some Dartmouth students held on campus in 1990 to mock others’ construction of shanties to dramatize poverty.
Too bad there’s no video of how some pro-Iraq War Yale students harassed war critics in 2003, joining with conservative national media. The situation here got so bad that Jia Lynn Yang ’04, the News’ opinion editor (and now a Washington Post reporter), had to deplore Yale’s “Free Speech Thugs” in an April 23, 2003 column she wrote for The Harvard Crimson!
That kind of political correctness reigned at the almost-all-white-male Yale I attended in the mid-1960s. Deans “guided” us with “parietal hours” restricting women’s visits to our rooms. Students enforced unwritten rules on one another, such as those mandating heterosexual braggadocio and stigmatizing gay expression. We had safe spaces for elite “poor little lambs who have lost our way” and many other groups.
Two wrongs don’t make a right: Political correctness, left or right, isn’t the decent restraint and respect that a good liberal education should nourish alongside intellectual rigor.
Fifth, the real irony about political correctness’s narrowing of open expression is that it’s a pretty good rehearsal for what corporate human resources departments require of employees in matters of race, sex, politics and labor rights. I’ll believe that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the online screamers support open expression when they demand a Foundation for Individual Rights in Employment.
Don’t hold your breath.
Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .