Standing Up to the PC Bullies
by ROBERT WEISSBERG
January 27, 2011
Solving America’s problems is hard enough without self-imposed obstacles. And the most destructive of these self-imposed burdens is shooting the messengers who bring “bad news.” This willful blindness is the equivalent of forbidding doctors from asking about “embarrassing” or personally “sensitive” behavior. In politics, messenger killing “bullets” are accusations with names like Islamophobia, Homophobia, Racism, Sexism, and if that doesn’t work, accuse them of the Mother of all Modern Evils: Hate.
Messenger shooting is increasingly commonplace but seldom closely scrutinized. And absent putting it under the microscope to develop an antidote, culprits easily escape scot free and tribulations multiply. Consider an almost generic example.
Professor Robert Engler has taught sociology at Chicago’s Roosevelt University for 12 years. Like many professors, he occasional tells a joke, but in this instance, mirth cost him his job, probably his career plus thousands in legal fees. Here’s the joke:
A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona about the new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, 'No hablo English.'"
The gag may not be a side-splitter, but it hardly insults Hispanics. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2010 it elicited two written complaints as ethnically offensive, and as a result, he was fired and his course, “City and Citizenship” (a graduation requirement) was discontinued. In fact, his department refused to put the “harassment” charge in writing and Engler only discovered the accusation in the student newspaper.
And why was this lame joke so harmful? Cristina Solis justified her complaint with "If that is what it took to give him a reality check, and to make sure that no other student has to go through that, maybe it's for the best." She also claimed that Engler’s joke was inappropriate for "a school like Roosevelt University, which is based on social justice."
This mountain-out-of-a-mole hill strategy is hardly unique--a free speech organization FIRE encounters dozens per year. Important lessons are to be learned from this seemingly minor Politically Correct outrage.
First, American education has produced an entire generation that is hyper-sensitive to any affront, real or imagined, who collect grievances as some hobbyists collect postage stamps. Indeed, victimhood seems hard wired into their DNA so an insult-free environment, regardless of millions spent for sensitivity training, let alone accommodations, is beyond reach. Further add quick-to-demonstrate groups whose raison d’être (and funding) depends on quick-trigger mobilizations of angry followers.
Second, it is impossible to anticipate what might stir the pot. Unlike Pakistan, our blasphemy laws are unwritten, even unknowable in advance. The eminent Harvard historian Stephen Thernstrom was brought up on charges that he offended black students when he said “slave” instead of “enslaved person” since, it was claimed, “slave” de-humanized those in bondage. When the Dean took the student’s side, he decided not to teach the course in the future.
Third, the aggrieved party is judge and jury. Professor Engler could not request that an impartial panel of humor experts to assess the joke’s hurtfulness. After all, the only admissible credential for this expertise is one’s racial or ethnic identify, and who can challenge that? So, if a black accuses a white of racism, trial over.
Fourth, emotional harm trumps scientific truth. The truth may set you free but it will not win back your job. When co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel laureate James Watson characterized sub-Saharan Africans as having lower IQ’s than whites, he was pushed out as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (see here). Nor did he regain his job when he backtracked with” there is no scientific basis for such a belief” (actually ample but not all scientific data support Watson’s initial statement. For confirming data, see here).
Fifth, once stigmatized as “offensive” there is no redemption. Dog killers get a better deal. Profusely apologizing, adding endless qualifiers, claiming that one’s offensive remarks were misinterpreted or taken out of context do not bring absolutions. And it only takes a tiny handful of incidents to kill public discussion. Larry Summers will probably go down in history not for his stellar academic record but as the Harvard Dean who famously hinted that biology might explain why women do not occupy top scientific position. Anybody want to re-open the debate?
Finally, and perhaps most depressing, those deemed guilty of “offensiveness” will seldom receive any public backing, regardless of the charge’s ridiculousness, its scientific accuracy or one’s expertise. Even the accuser’s outright scurrilous lies will not draw public rebuke. The heretic is on his own though trusted friends may privately provide succor. Nor is the First Amendment relevant—this only protects you from government action, not enraged private citizens. Perhaps the only exception has been Juan Williams who got a $2 million dollar contract from Fox News after admitting that airline passengers in Muslim garb made him nervous. I suspect that ordinary passengers uttering those “hateful” words would receive extra airport security.
What can be done? In the short run, not much—the offended cannot be mollified. Prosecuting heretics is undoubtedly just human nature; only the subject changes—religious dissenters in medieval times, those who link violence to Islam today.
But, there is some good news—orthodoxies bringing dangerous willful blindness are not forever. In Victorian times even mentioning venereal disease was taboo; today schools may be legally required to explain it to youngsters.
The path to success begins by overcoming the accused heretic’s isolation. PC types are typically bullies quickly emboldened when they can attack timid, isolated enemies, one at a time. Perhaps Roosevelt University faculty and students should have organized an ethnic humor night with stand-up comics telling Hispanic, Jewish, Black and Polish jokes? Bring in Jackie Mason or Chris Rock. Give Professor Engler an open mike and a coach to polish his delivery.
More important, don’t surrender to those using “being offended” as the ticket to success. Appeasement only brings a bigger bill next time around. How many times have we seen an “offensive” incident eliciting demonstrations demanding hiring more minority faculty, extra sensitive training, a new publicly funded cultural center and similar accommodations to, allegedly, heal the wounds? In fact, these pay-offs often encourages hoaxes.
Finally, when all is said and done, there is no substitute for invoking truth or at least an argument that is likely to be true. The truth often hurts, it can be offensive and lowers self-esteem, but public debate built on soothing lies invites disaster. Consider what might now happen at Roosevelt University. Other professors teaching potentially controversial subjects will cleanse any “insulting” references to Hispanics or other easy-to-anger groups. Topics like crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency will vanish lest a slip of the tongue, even the wrong facial expression, brings charges of harassment. Prudent faculty might also revert to plain vanilla boring lectures and award sensitive students “A’s” as an insurance policy. Other might just pander to these groups to play it safe. Classes will grow duller, less spontaneous and Hispanic students, among other thin-skinned students, will receive an incomplete, watered down but flattering education filled soothing lies. And they will never know it and so graduates will have feasted on a diet of lies and omissions. So much for Roosevelt University’s commitment to social justice.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.