"Political Correctness" Déjà Vu

Do concerns about "wokeness" and "cancel culture" recycle a 1990s panic over "political correctness," or are we dealing with the same problem of far-left illiberalism?

One trope used to dismiss concerns about overzealous “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” etc. as made-up problems (and/or right-wing agitprop swallowed by gullible people left of center) is that this issue is just a recycled version of the 1990s battles over “political correctness.”

If you think about it, “This issue was around 30 years ago, therefore it’s a non-issue” is a pretty bizarre argument. Are #MeToo problems made up because Newsweek and Time had cover stories about sexual harassment in the 1990s when Anita Hill came forward with accusations against Clarence Thomas? Is our “national reckoning” on race just a recycling of the “national conversation on race” urged by Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s? And so on.

But obviously, the intended point is that there was no real problem of “political correctness” in the 1990s, either—just a ginned-up controversy fueled by some white men’s resentment of demands for basic decency and respect from women and nonwhite people, exploited by right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh and Dinesh D’Souza to mobilize a reactionary pushback against progressive social change. The implication is also that since the alarm over “PC” in the 1990s eventually fizzled and the sky didn’t fall, the current panic is silly.

Very few people who make this argument have bothered to rebut any of the claims made about “political correctness” in the 1990s. One rare exception is the April 19 episode of the “You’re Wrong About” podcast with Mike Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, which attempts to demonstrate that some of the most famous stories of “political correctness gone mad” were either distorted or blown out of proportion.

The one story they examine in detail is an incident from the late 1980s involving Harvard history professor Stephan Thernstrom, who canceled his class, “The Peopling of America,” due to student complaints about his alleged racial insensitivity (ranging from language such as “Indian” instead of “Native American” to claiming family breakdown could be a significant factor in black poverty). Hobbes claims that (1) Thernstrom had made far more offensive remarks than media accounts let on, including an apparently flippant comment about black men beating their wives, and (2) polite expressions of disagreement and concern by a couple of black students got blown up into a “witch-hunt” by Thernstrom and by the credulous media. His main source is a purported debunking in a 2004 book by University of California/Irvine historian Jon Wiener, a contributor to The Nation who is frankly hostile to Thernstrom.

Were some narratives of Thernstrom’s persecution, which implied that people hissed “racist!” behind his back as he walked around campus, overly melodramatic? No doubt. But contemporaneous coverage of the Thernstrom controversy in The Harvard Crimson also shows that what did happen was not quite the “nothingburger” Hobbes and Marshall gigglingly deride.

Thernstrom’s accusers brought their grievance to Harvard’s Committee on Race Relations and discussed it with several deans. The Committee did not suggest that they talk to Thernstrom in person, as Hobbes claims. (Wiener writes that one of them did eventually go talk to him on the advice of Orlando Patterson, a Jamaican-American sociology professor.) Rather, it advised that they send Thernstrom a written statement detailing their objections. A month later, Thernstrom still did not know exactly what the accusations were, and apparently felt that there were serious charges hanging over him. While one of the deans contacted by the students publicly reiterated that administrators could not “abridge the freedom of faculty members” to teach their courses as they wished, the fact that the students were not simply criticizing but appealing to authority clearly created a cloud over Thernstrom. As a Crimson column noted in March 1988, concerns about the threat to academic freedom in this case had been expressed not only by the conservative campus paper, The Salient, but by the progressive student publication, The Perspective.

(Full disclosure: I met Thernstrom several years after the controversy and, for several years, had a fairly close friendship with his late wife Abigail.)

Hobbes briefly mentions a couple of other minor incidents, such as a student being forced to move off campus for two years after posting a humorous flyer on her dorm room door containing a homophobic slur (which he contends was a trivial punishment because her parents lived just fifteen minutes away from the school). Then he concludes that the entire controversy was a big, ideologically motivated, much ado about nothing.

That’s an incredibly lazy argument.

Hobbes makes no mention, for instance, of the 1999 book by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses. (Kors, a now-retired history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Silverglate, a noted civil rights attorney, went on to co-found the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.) That book details numerous instances of clear and outrageous violations of both professors’ and students’ freedom of expression.

In an especially ludicrous case, a professor at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Graydon Snyder, was disciplined for a classroom discussion of a Talmudic example of how an illicit sexual act can be non-sinful if committed without intent. (In the hypothetical, a man fixing the roof of a house strips naked in the heat, then falls off the roof and on top of a woman who is napping—also naked—in the yard, and lands in such a way that his penis penetrates her vagina.) Snyder was using this as an example of the difference between the treatment of sexual morality in Judaism and in Christianity, which emphasizes that lustful thoughts are deemed sinful even if no sexual act occurs. A female student took offense, telling Snyder that the Talmudic story excused men’s violence toward women as long as they could claim they meant no harm. Based on her complaint, the school reprimanded the 63-year-old professor for “verbal conduct of a sexual nature" which resulted in "creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive" environment; a notice of the reprimand was placed in the mailbox of every student and faculty member, and Snyder also had to submit to his classes being monitored by a school official with a tape recorder.

A more bizarre and Kafkaesque tale unfolded in 1993-94 at the University of Hawaii involving religion and anthropology professor Ramdas Lamb. Lamb, who taught a “Religion, Politics, and Society” class that examined various controversial issues, upset several feminist students by talking about false accusations in the discussion of rape and sexual assault. This led to a charge of “hostile environment” sexual harassment—which then escalated, with the encouragement of activist dean Susan Hippensteele, into a charge that he had repeatedly sexually coerced and raped one of the complaining students, Michelle Gretzinger. (Gretzinger even claimed that Lamb had deliberately initiated the class discussion of false accusations to signal to her that she had no hope of bringing a complaint against him.) The case dragged on for months, during which Gretzinger became a prominent campus activist and Lamb was increasingly ostracized. In the end, the complaint was dismissed, partly because Lamb had alibis for the alleged assaults. However, the university refused to publicize his exoneration, and the denunciations—including protests organized by Gretzinger and Hippensteele—continued. He eventually went to court and won a slander case against Gretzinger in 1996.

The Shadow University also surveys the proliferation of campus speech codes under which numerous students were disciplined or at least threatened with discipline for extremely trivial infractions or for the expression of protected opinions. At the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, Gregory Pavlik, the token conservative columnist at the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, became the target of a racial harassment investigation over two columns that had provoked a storm of outrage on campus. (One not only criticized the 10-year-old holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of King’s personal failings, but also argued that prohibiting racial discrimination by private businesses was an infringement on liberty; the other claimed the UPenn administration showed favoritism to minorities in the enforcement of conduct codes.) A letter to the DP signed by more than 200 students and faculty had accused Pavlik of “hiding beyond [sic] the delicate laws of freedom of speech” to “slander, demean, harass, and incite violence” against minorities.

The charges against Pavlik were dropped after Kors called UPenn President Sheldon Hackney and urged him to resolve the case; the pressure worked in part because Hackney was then about to be nominated to lead the National Endowment for Humanities and did not want adverse publicity about speech suppression. (One difference between then and now: today, someone in Hackney’s position almost certainly would have been far more worried about being seen as insufficiently concerned about racism.)

However, shortly after that, in a more notorious incident, UPenn student Eden Jacobowitz was dragged through a long racial harassment case for shouting “Shut up, you water buffalo!” from his window at a group of mostly black sorority women having a rowdy late-night celebration outside the dorm. (Jacobowitz, who was Jewish, later explained that “water buffalo” was a translation of the Hebrew behema, “beast,” often used among Orthodox Jews as slang for a rude or ill-mannered person; the university insisted on treating it as a racial epithet.)

The survey by Kors and Silverglate is by no means exhaustive. Take the 1991 controversy at Georgetown, where law student Timothy Maguire nearly got expelled for publishing an article in the student newspaper detailing dramatic disparities in the law school’s admission standards for different racial groups, based on records he’d seen working in the admissions office. (While Maguire was accused of violating confidentiality, he disclosed no names or identifying details.) The paper’s entire print run was confiscated. Maguire later conceded that his article had been needlessly confrontational (it was titled “Admissions Apartheid”), but that hardly justifies the punitive response.

Or take the 1998 incident at Columbia University in which protesters were allowed to effectively shut down by “heckler’s veto” a conference held by the conservative group Accuracy in Academia. (They were especially enraged by the presence of prominent black conservative Ward Connerly, who had spearheaded the drive to abolish racial preferences in the public sector in California.) School administrators responded to the protests by demanding an added $3,200 for security—and then abruptly announced that only students and faculty would be admitted for the second day of the conference, shutting out two-thirds of attendees who had paid the registration fee. The event was hastily relocated to a nearby park, where the protesters continued to shout down the speakers. (Yes, those speakers included Dinesh D’Souza. Still no excuse.)

Of course, plenty of stories never made it into the press. A friend of mine—let’s call him Adam—was teaching English at a college in New York City since the early 1980s as an adjunct with an annual contract. He was very far from being a conservative, but he was also not on board with the new campus politics of race, gender and sexuality. (This doesn’t mean he was clueless or indifferent about actual racial problems; he once got arrested for trying to intervene when he saw cops manhandling two black teenagers detained for fighting on a subway platform.)

In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Adam was the target of several student complaints of “insensitivity.” Two of these had to do with gender. One female student complained because he had asked the class to analyze a (right-wing) anti-pornography text as an example of bad and illogical writing; the woman, who had sometimes worn a “Women Against Pornography” button, took it as a dig at anti-porn feminism and at her personally. Another woman complained because, when she argued that Denise Levertov’s poem “The Wedding Ring” was not about regret for the dissolution of a marriage but about the joy of liberation from patriarchal slavery, he flatly told her that the text offered no basis for such a reading. The third complaint was about race. A black student had told Adam that she couldn’t write a paper on The Sun Also Rises because there were no black characters and she couldn’t relate to the novel. She asked if she could write about some other book; instead, he suggested that she write a paper explaining her problems with The Sun Also Rises and why she found it alienating. When she submitted a short statement that boiled down to “I feel very strongly about diversity and multiculturalism,” he gave her a D.

Each of those complaints ended with Adam being cleared—but only after a lengthy, time-consuming, nerve-racking process of writing statements in his defense and explaining himself in meetings with deans. Finally, after the third complaint in about four years, Adam’s contract was not renewed. (He thought that, in addition to the complaints, his termination might have had to do with a letter he wrote to the administration questioning pressure on faculty to sign a letter of support for Anita Hill.) His job search after that was hampered by the fact that most of the available positions either required incorporating race, gender, and other identity issues into his teaching, or were at private conservative religious schools that expected a different kind of orthodoxy. About ten years later, Adam gave up and left academia.

Of course, speech suppression and punishment for departures from race and gender orthodoxy was only one part of “political correctness.” There was also the more general issue of the rise of an academic subculture centered around political activism and identity obsessions. (See, for example, the account by Christina Hoff Sommers of the 1992 National Women’s Studies Association Conference, or Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge’s 1994 book Professing Feminism: Cautionary Tales from the Strange World of Women’s Studies.) There was the cultish diversity/sensitivity training on college campuses, often as part of mandatory freshman orientation, also discussed in The Shadow University and chronicled by Kors in a 2000 article that sounds uncannily prescient today. Some of the programs Kors describes feature creepy sessions in which white students and sometimes faculty were required to apologize for their “privilege” or examine their inner racism, were ritually humiliated for their “whiteness,” or were berated and degraded in order to learn what it’s like to be a person of color. It’s hard to say how common such “thought reform” was, but yes, it was there.

(I’m not even touching the 1990s version of the campus rape panic, briefly discussed by Hobbes and Marshall. Another time!)

Did people like Rush Limbaugh and Dinesh D’Souza “weaponize,” as we say nowadays, the controversy of “political correctness”? Sure. Were many conservatives who railed against “PC” hypocritical? Sure. (These were often the same people who tried to get ABC to cancel Ellen after Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay!) But there were plenty of concerned people who were not right-wing or even right of center: Liberal academics like Patai and Koertge; Silverglate, who later objected to the curtailing of civil liberties—including the targeting of radical speech—in the name of the “War on Terror”; American Civil Liberties Union chapters that weighed in against repressive campus speech codes; leftist, pro-affirmative action law professors who defended Maguire at Georgetown. Even Sen. Edward Kennedy grilled Hackney about the “water buffalo” case during his NEH confirmation hearings in 1993.

After September 11, 2001, the battles over “political correctness” largely faded from the national radar. There is certainly a good argument to be made that at that point, the bigger problem of illiberalism was what some called “patriotic correctness.” (No, people didn’t get canceled for mere opposition to the war in Iraq, but the outrage-mobbing of the Dixie Chicks for saying mean stuff about George W. Bush in London was disgraceful even if one strongly dislikes their remarks. Radio stations were under heavy pressure to join the Chicks boycott, and some DJs lost their jobs for defying it.)

However, as I documented in Reason in 2002 and 2004, college campuses largely remained an enclave where left-wing “political correctness” continued to thrive (granted, alongside a spike in “patriotic correctness” incidents—from anti-war journalist Chris Hedges being forced off the stage at Rockford College in Illinois to a professor at Indiana University in Pennsylvania being penalized for putting up leaflets with the body count of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the war in Iraq).

In a particularly outrageous case at Orange Coast College in 2001, political science professor Kenneth Hearlson was suspended without a hearing after several Muslim students claimed that he called them terrorists and murderers in a post-September 11 discussion—even though an audio recording of the session showed that he did nothing of the sort. (He did criticize Muslim nations for failing to condemn terrorism against the United States and especially Israel.)

Later in the decade, 1990s-style “PC” on campuses continued under the radar. In 2004, a campus newspaper editor and a faculty advisor at Missouri State University were investigated for a Thanksgiving cartoon deemed offensive to Native Americans—drawn, as it happens, by a Native American student. It was titled “The 2nd Thanksgiving” and showed a pilgrim telling his wife, “Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn…Again…” (The case was eventually closed, thanks in part to FIRE’s intervention.) The same year, David Williams, a columnist for the student paper at Oregon State University, penned an admittedly obnoxious piece titled “A message from a white male to the African-American community,” lecturing black people for defending bad role models like O.J. Simpson and R. Kelly. The ensuing uproar resulted not only in Williams losing his spot as a columnist but in the editor running a front-page apology for printing the piece, and several student/faculty forums were held to discuss why it was printed.

If you believe that left-wing illiberalism is a problem in 2021, then “there was a huge alarm about political correctness in the 1990s and the sky didn’t fall” is an especially bad argument. From where I stand, the problem is that in the last decade, for all sorts of complicated reasons, “political correctness” spread from campus to large sectors of the culture outside universities. The college kids who argued in 1998 that the conservative conference at Columbia had to be stopped because its agenda “exacerbates human suffering” and that “it's not possible to discuss rationally matters of life, death, equality and hatred” are now using such logic to shut “wrongthink” out of the mainstream media. The creepy diversity training has migrated to corporations and government. The jargon of “privilege,” “allies,” “safe spaces,” and “racism is prejudice + power” is the “new normal” for us all.

In a 1993 critique of women’s studies in that notorious right-wing rag, Mother Jones, Karen Lehrman wrote that class discussions in many courses are filled with either “unintelligible post-structuralist jargon” or “consciousness-raising psychobabble”: “Regardless, the guiding principle of most of the classes is oppression, and problems are almost inevitably reduced to relationships of power. ‘Diversity’ is the mantra … but it doesn’t apply to political opinions.” That’s not a bad description of where we are as a culture; just substitute critical theory jargon for the no-longer-trendy post-structuralist kind.

If you want to argue that there’s no real problem with left-wing illiberalism today, be my guest. (That means you think it’s either appropriate or no big deal that veteran New York Times reporter Donald McNeil lost his job for upsetting some progressive white teenagers on a trip to Peru by voicing some insufficiently progressive opinions and repeating a racial slur in the context of discussing whether a teenager should have been punished for saying it.)

But the fact that this conversation was happening 30 years ago certainly doesn’t prove that it’s trivial or irrelevant today.

A postscript: While looking up material for this article, I stumbled on a piece penned by an academic a few years ago decrying “political correctness” as a pernicious right-wing lie.

I recognized the byline. Last year, this professor was recommended to me as someone who was interested in talking about problems with the scholarship behind the New York Times’ 1619 Project exploring slavery and American history.

The punchline: The professor was adamant about remaining anonymous.

But, you know, what cancel culture.