Campus wars over “PC” – political correctness – are the rage these days.
Conservative cranks and stiff-jawed liberals bemoan what they consider unjust restrictions on speech due to college students and their faculty enablers.
The narrative, inflected with varying degrees of sanctimony, claims that petulant youngsters have ruined a glorious American tradition of open debate.
Such nostalgia overlooks the fact that many of the people engaged in today’s activism represent communities legally or informally restricted from campus until recently. This is no surprise; nostalgia cannot exist without amnesia.
These arguments differ not in philosophy or morality, but in the amount of hypocrisy each author is willing to ignore. Their goal is to chaperone the wayward activism of young people of color by imparting to them laughably apocryphal (and unsolicited) advice.
We can certainly find legitimate problems with campus activism, even around conventions of speech, but improving activism isn’t the goal of today’s perturbed commentators.
They desire to maintain their authority and to do the real work for which they’re lavishly paid: discredit any radicalism as a looming threat to the American ideal – in other words, to make sure that unacknowledged structures of power remain intact.
Conservative heavyweight George Will recently explored the topic at The Washington Post.
We can cite dozens of other high profile examples. Taken together, these analyses illuminate a profound angst that the chattering class has transformed, as it always does with its anxieties, into a corporate-media industry.
In this case, paragons of the chattering class train their sophistry on people who cannot access the enormous audiences available to Men of Reason such as themselves.
It would be a more pleasant world if Will and Chait quit speaking, but, alas, the repression that supposedly silences them has only amplified their voices.
The systematic punishment of any articulation of sympathy for Palestinians seems not to be an issue in corporate media’s new fascination with suppression.
Yet nobody more viciously punishes disagreeable speech than Zionist organizations, cosseted by billionaire donors and the Israeli government, often with the collusion of faculty, students, community groups and administrators.
The report validates what anybody involved in Palestine solidarity knows from experience. For the uninitiated, the levels of vitriol and retribution that attend criticism of Israel can be stunning.
Kwame Turé, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, said that of all the blowback the SNCC experienced, nothing inspired more vehemence than its denunciation of Zionism.
Leaders of the American Studies Association (ASA) learned the same harsh lesson after the organization’s 2013 resolution supporting the boycott of Israeli universities.
While the ASA was subject to widespread castigation, and while its leadership was abused and slandered (including in The New York Times), the current crop of commentators concerned about censorship was nowhere to be found.
Nor are those commentators around when Zionist groups lobby to criminalize students and fire professors, or when they sponsor legislation anathema to the First Amendment.
The American Anthropological Association is next in line to face the same backlash; on Friday, its annual conference voted overwhelmingly to put a resolution backing the academic boycott of Israel to a full ballot of its 10,000 members. Don’t expect leaders of the anti-PC establishment to condemn the coming recrimination.
Hypocrisy as rhetorical device
It’s easy to spot the hypocrisy, but merely highlighting hypocritical discourse isn’t especially useful. Nobody should be shocked that corporate media are unwilling to criticize Zionism. Those media are themselves Zionist.
The folks who inhabit respectability know the rules, which we can discover not by assessing what they say but by highlighting what they ignore.
We know why this hypocrisy exists. Let’s therefore explore how and where it happens.
The main problem with the PC debate, as it occurs in corporate media, is its fervid stupidity. It is a byproduct of neoliberal disquiet whose ultimate aim is to invalidate grassroots activism.
I offer this observation not to deify campus activism – which, anyway, is too diverse to totalize – but to pinpoint the function of today’s pious concern with unruly students.
To confer responsibility for suppression to student activists is not only inaccurate, but a lazy and irresponsible avoidance of the centers of power that institutionally suppress any idea worth disseminating.
None laments the ascendancy of militarism and patriotic sloganeering in the United States.
None bemoans the brutal ruling power of corporations. None defends the many Black professors abused for condemning police violence.
None underscores the problems of overpaid administrators and contingent labor.
None contests the regulation of ideas by meddling politicians and wealthy donors.
And none, of course, dares mention the most conspicuous site of campus suppression, advocacy for Palestinian human rights, despite plenty of spectacular examples over the past five decades.
The omission of Palestine from our national conversation about restricted speech is not an oversight; it is a tactic intended to outsource the dubious behavior of the elite to people with much less power. The very point of the conversation is to legitimize state violence.
Stop debating false debates
It’s counterproductive to analyze the mechanics of a false debate. I suggest instead evaluating actual sites of repression in relation to the discourses that conceal them from public scrutiny.
Put more bluntly, there’s no need to conduct inquiry according to the paradigms circulated by writers like George Will or Jonathan Chait. Those paradigms simulate the repression so many of us abhor.
I follow a simple rule to identify the existence of a false debate: if tortured champions of Zionism and people who think capitalism is the highest order of consciousness are upset by a particular trend, then it’s best to avoid commentators purveying angst and examine which site of authority is feeling threatened, instead.