As you may remember from your own experience, or that of your children, colleges generally send out a letter to incoming freshmen, offering them a welcome to the school and perhaps a few useful tips on arriving and getting started. I’m sure I got one of those letters, and I’m pretty sure I ignored it.
This past summer, the dean of students at the University of Chicago, John Ellison, sent out a letter to the class of 2020 that got everyone’s attention. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
A “trigger warning” is a message intended to alert people when something is coming up that they may find to be upsetting, like those TV announcements that “the following program contains adult material that may be inappropriate for some family members.” In this case, it refers to the practice at many colleges of warning students whenever there might be a discussion of anything disturbing in one of their classes.
Officials at some of those institutions took issue with Ellison’s letter, saying that he misunderstands the function of trigger warnings and/or safe spaces. They claim that those devices protect victims of racism, violence or other bad experiences from being further traumatized, and encourage diversity by making those people feel welcome.
Ellison makes it clear, however, that he is talking about intellectual freedom, not physical safety. He says that students should expect to “speak, write, listen, challenge, learn” and “exchange ideas with people of all backgrounds.” What he did not say, but we all understood, was that the university was taking a stand against political correctness.
That’s a term that is very much in the news these days, and very much a part of our national discussion, but I’ve noticed that it means different things to different people. Here’s the definition I found on the Internet: “the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.”
I think that’s a pretty accurate and unbiased explanation of the phrase, but I doubt it’s precisely what you would get from the average person on the street. That might be something more like, “You can’t say anything that offends a minority, even if it’s the truth.”
When it comes to offending people I am somewhat of an authority, as I have been doing it on a regular basis for 32 years now, and not entirely by accident. One of the decisions we made upon acquiring this magazine was that I would write a column for each issue, in which I would offer my unvarnished opinion on industry issues or whatever topic moved me, without going out of my way to spare anyone’s feelings.
That was a risky approach for a new business to take, because we were entirely dependent on the goodwill of our advertisers and, indirectly, our readers. It was, however, a calculated decision.
I didn’t read a lot of trade magazines myself at the time, because I simply found them too dull. They were so afraid of offending somebody that they never really said anything at all, and my guess was that other people weren’t reading them either. I was willing to bet that honest opinions would result in more readership, which would in turn result in more advertising.
Over the years my bet paid off, although I did receive the occasional angry letter. Those complaints were dwarfed by the number of people who expressed appreciation for our frankness, and more importantly by those who told us that they read the whole magazine.
Before I hurt my shoulder from patting myself on the back, I should confess that in spite of my willingness to offend colleagues, I have occasionally bowed to political correctness myself. Last year, for example, I recounted a story in an editorial about an incident that happened to me in Boston when I was a young man.
My story included a conversation that I had with a certain person from a certain group, and the other editors here felt that the story would be offensive to that minority. As much as I didn’t like the idea that I couldn’t tell a story that was completely factual, I eventually acquiesced and struck that portion from my editorial.
Those of us who do not fall into any “disadvantaged” groups have to be very careful these days, because we are the first to be called out by the insensitivity police. That doesn’t bother me, because I agree that I’ve been very lucky in many ways and have some degree of sympathy for those who haven’t been.
Others in my demographic feel differently, and there are a lot of them. We even have a name for them now; they’re called Angry Old White Men. Wikipedia says they have a conservative viewpoint, characterized by opposition to racial and gender-based doctrine, affirmative action policies and political correctness culture.
They have become a powerful voting bloc, one that is largely responsible for the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. Apparently they see in him a champion who shares their anger, their biases, and their conviction that the country is in decline. Perhaps most important of all, they see him as the very nemesis of political correctness.
It’s none of my business whom you vote for, nor do I really care. (I’m not thrilled with the choices myself.) In past election years I’ve tried to analyze the positions of the major party candidates in terms of the effects they were likely to have on the school supply industry, but I don’t see how either of these people are going to have a major impact on us, other than their effect on the economy as a whole.
Trump frequently states that he will end Common Core, but considering the fact that the federal government is prohibited by law from any involvement with Common Core, it is pretty much just an applause line. If the states wish to continue with Common Core I imagine they will do so, although they may call it something else.
Hillary’s website says that she will pay teachers more, rebuild crumbling schools and give school districts money to implement more computer science training. With all due respect, these are the types of things that everyone always says about education, and nobody ever does.
I do care about political correctness, because I think it has done real damage
to business, education and national security, among other things, but I don’t see either of these people putting a stop to it. Hillary doesn’t see anything wrong with it, and the things Donald says about immigrants, Muslims, women and other groups are not politically incorrect. They are just incorrect.