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How to Fix Our Toxic Debate About Political Correctness on Campus

The issue is real; solutions are few. Here are four rules we should agree on.

As if on cue, the new academic year has brought fresh controversy over political correctness on campus, initiating a now-familiar cycle of online debate. It began when the University of Chicago dean’s office sent students in the class of 2020 a preemptive letter stating 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.” The school’s academic culture, Dean Jay Ellison warned, “may challenge you and even cause discomfort.”

Critics pounced. Slate’s L.V. Anderson said the letter “seems more designed to strike a blow in the culture wars than to edify incoming freshmen.” Kevin Gannon, a professor, wrote at Vox, “It’s not about academic freedom; it’s about power”—that is, maintaining power over students. Jay Michaelson, at The Daily Beast, argued that “this was all about donors” and “was a prime example of virtue signaling, which is when a person makes a statement merely to burnish their credentials within an ideological community.” And The New Republic’s Jeet Heer called it a prime example of something else: “how the outcry against ‘political correctness’ often leads to policy changes that limit free speech.”

Enter New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who has identified a new faction in this dispute between P.C. and anti-P.C. camps: the “anti-anti-P.C. left.” These are people who prefer not “to make an important choice, to accept or reject rules of discourse which justify the suppression of dissenting beliefs on grounds of safety.” He added, “While some progressives defend p.c. ideology, and other progressives of course oppose it, a very large group in the middle object to criticism of political correctness without having any desire to defend it.”

It’s clear, however, that no single group in this debate has a monopoly on myopia or deflection; all of these parties are talking past one another. For instance, Chait is correct that critics of the letter have “seized upon the ambiguities” of terms like “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” But the anti-P.C. position has been guilty of the same conflation—perhaps even more so—by routinely treating trigger warnings as draconian mandates that professors “are expected” to issue rather than a range of informal pedagogical choices professors sometimes use at our discretion to foster discussion of difficult material. As those of us who have written on trigger warning pedagogy can attest, a well-worded heads-up at the beginning of class can improve class discussion—but how do you explain that to someone who believes that trigger warnings are outright censorship? By the same turn, it’s also difficult to critique the P.C. left—as I have—without being drowned out by snide opportunists in the business of ridiculing college students.

We’re trapped in an absurd cycle in which lazy, hyperbolic treatment of campus affairs by the anti-P.C. faction stokes outrage on the left, who in turn—as Chait observes—often criticize that faction without bothering to address the limits of political correctness. Perhaps this essay is just another stage in that cycle; I may well be talking past my critics, too. But as a professor—that is, as someone responsible for building courses, engineering classroom discussions, mediating debates, and advising students across the ideological spectrum—I am closer to this issue than most. Therefore, I modestly propose the following rules for discussing and addressing the very real issue of political correctness on college campuses.

1. Stop making this a free-speech debate.

Free speech and academic freedom are core values of higher education; they’re foundational to teaching, learning, and research. As such, colleges and universities should prioritize them. But that doesn’t require outright opposition to “political correctness,” “trigger warnings,” or “safe spaces,” which describe a dramatic range of practices and policies, many of which are perfectly compatible with free speech. Not every invocation of these terms—or other bugbears, like “microaggressions”—is meant to silence a conversation about race, class, gender, politics, or any other hot-button subject. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Colleges should promote the exercising of free speech by promoting discussion of how to solve the genuine problems of access, opportunity, safety, and inclusion on campus. Even official statements meant to promote free speech tend to resemble speech codes. For example, the University of Chicago’s eloquent Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, written by select faculty and released early last year, declares that “the University may restrict expression that … is directly incompatible with the functioning of the University,” and that “the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.” In these words, we find overlap with the language of safe spaces.

Not every ideological disagreement on campus is about “free speech,” though somehow they all end up being treated as such. Even saying you support free speech can be a way of categorizing protest as illiberal, thereby setting limits on what kinds of speech are countenanced. Guest speakers shouldn’t be shouted down, and classes shouldn’t be disrupted by loud protests; but the language used to prevent such things in free-speech statements like Chicago’s—a model for others—is the same language that ratifies the suppression of protest and civil disobedience.

2. Don’t ban, or require, trigger warnings.

A uniform policy requiring faculty to provide trigger warnings is a violation of academic freedom and an obstacle in our efforts to respect the specific character and circumstances of each student and each class. The same is true of a uniform policy against trigger warnings. Professors should be free to choose whether to provide trigger warnings, and how to deploy them, based on our professional discretion.

Critics of trigger warnings continue to repeat the same mischaracterization: that trigger warnings allow students to avoid uncomfortable material, and professors who use them are facilitating that avoidance. Actually, professors devote a lot of time and effort to developing a syllabus and preparing class sessions, so we’re unlikely to simply accept when a student objects to reading and engaging with something difficult. It would be a lot easier—and a lot less controversial—to simply leave material off the syllabus altogether if we were so indifferent about teaching it.

A trigger warning is not an excuse to avoid emotionally or ideologically difficult material. While being triggered may prevent students who suffer from post-traumatic stress from engaging with material immediately in the classroom setting, a warning allows students to choose whether to reckon with the material in the classroom or during office hours, not to avoid it altogether. Not one of my students has ever tried to use my trigger warning as an excuse to skip material. I give the class a brief heads-up when we cover material that, in my best judgment, could be traumatizing for students who have undergone certain kinds of traumatic experiences; and I remind them that I’ll make myself available to talk through the material in a one-on-one or small-group setting if need be. This not a violation of free speech, nor an act of “coddling,” nor a way of removing challenging subject matter from the curriculum; it’s sound and attentive pedagogy.

Further, disagreement between professors and students about trigger warnings is itself an opportunity for discussion in person or in print, one-on-one during office hours or during class. A centralized policy for or against trigger warnings is its own kind of speech code, and would stifle the conversations that students and faculty have on a day-to-day basis.

3. Safe spaces should be situational, not universal.

Over the course of almost eleven combined years of college and graduate school, and four years employed as a professor, I couldn’t tell you whether I’ve ever been in a safe space—at least not the static, physical sort that Chait and others are so worried about. In practice, “safe space” has been so difficult to pin down because it’s a catch-all term for ad hoc, supportive scenarios: discussion or therapy groups on campus that serve students struggling with mental illness, assault, harassment, or discrimination. Certainly meetings of campus conservative clubs on liberal campuses can be safe spaces, too.

Society is full of safe spaces. The white-collar workplace is nothing if not a safe space for a particular set of professional norms and values (the colloquial warning “NSFW” exists for a reason). Hospitals, abortion clinics, and churches are physical areas with unique cultural, in some cases legal, expectations. We even discuss bathrooms—as North Carolina recently showed us—in terms of safety, both physical and ideological. To the extent that “safe space” means anything, then, it’s a form of situational solace or healing, not a fixed, cordoned-off area. If you wouldn’t walk into a chapel to castigate someone seeking temporary solace in prayer for being unfit for the “real world,” you shouldn’t castigate students for seeking temporary solace from contentious environments like college campuses.

Safe spaces on college campuses should be no different from those anywhere else. We can reasonably expect that campus groups or services dealing with sexual assault, homophobia, religious discrimination, racism, and physical and mental health might be more likely to host safe spaces (safe sessions might be a better term), and should be allowed to offer patrons solace from not just a campus, but a world that threatens their safety (and in some cases questions their very humanity). Safe spaces need not be actual buildings or rooms designated permanently like locker rooms for each category of ailing student. But if they are—as are churches and doctor’s offices—they shouldn’t be controversial.

Classrooms, too, can be safe spaces in a specific and important sense: They are training grounds for civil and civic discourse, shaped inevitably by the political and cultural standards outside of the classroom. Classrooms need to be places where every student—regardless of political orientation, race, creed, and gender—feels like they can safely participate, interact, and learn. But if what passes as a “conservative” viewpoint is dehumanizing language about LGBTQ people, or if what passes as a “liberal” viewpoint is “white men are inherently evil,” then professors should indeed caution against such unproductive speech (at our discretion).

Nevertheless, an entire college campus can’t be a safe space in any practical sense. That is, the regulations that ought to apply to hecklers outside of the sexual assault crisis center won’t necessarily work for the performing arts center, the latter being a space where artists should be free to test boundaries, as so much great comedy, drama, and dance have done. And the duty of a college to protect its students from harm should not be conflated with a duty to scrub pro-Trump chalk messages.

4. Let speakers speak, and let protesters protest.

Colleges should not be places of censorship, but of “critical inquiry” (to use a University of Chicago term). Administrators, faculty, and students should all be in discussion about who gets a campus platform, and why. It’s also reasonable for that discussion to culminate sometimes in the decision not to invite—or even to disinvite—a speaker. An invitation to speak on a college campus doesn’t come with a promise of immunity from protest.

With every syllabus and core curriculum, faculty and administrators have to decide what material to include and what to leave out. Similarly, there is no objective, apolitical list of visiting speakers. To the extent that conservatives, for example, are troubled by a lack of conservative speakers on campus, they should be equally troubled by the fact that a conservative academic like John Derbyshire, who believes in the inferiority of blacks, or Suzanne Venker, who instructs women to become financially dependent on men, have become causes célèbres. When Derbyshire and Venker were disinvited from speaking in the Williams College “uncomfortable learning” series, critics blamed political correctness; but it was more about quality than equality. There are better speakers. John Lott, for example, has “uncomfortable” views on gun advocacy; Antonin Scalia had “uncomfortable” views on same-sex marriage; Walter Williams has “uncomfortable” views on the impact of welfare on black families. But the anti-P.C. movement is too beholden to gadfly politics—too interested in shock and offensiveness as political strategies—to address the problematic dearth of conservative voices on campus.

This is all to say that a considered, negative value judgment about a speaker may be partisan in effect, but is not necessarily “P.C. censorship.” And for those arguing that one should “hear the speaker” on campus before forming a value judgment: You don’t always have to invite someone to campus to know why you shouldn’t invite them to campus, precisely because their speech is not censored, but widely available.

I understand that when voices rise up to prevent a speaker from coming to campus, it feels contrary to the premise of free speech. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that protest is speech, too. Even when protest threatens to “chill” the speech of others, we should be precise about who ultimately does the chilling, and why. Consider the recent case at Syracuse, where documentarian Shimon Dotan had been invited to screen his film The Settlers, about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, at a conference on campus. M. Gail Hamner, a religion professor and conference organizer, disinvited him because, as she wrote in an email to Dotan, “my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come.” But it wasn’t “crybully” P.C. students who forced this decision. Hamner’s email continues:

In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues.

In other words, she was succumbing to the pressure from—or at least fear of offending—a collection of faculty. What really empowers protest and pressure groups to “chill” speech is not a thirst for ideological conformity, but old-fashioned power dynamics within institutions that are increasingly conscious of their “brand” and “customer service.” Which is why the most important thing a university can do to ensure rigorous discussion of political correctness—including its limits—is not to talk about free speech in the abstract, but to throw real institutional support behind bullied faculty and marginalized students whose speech is threatened by illiberal forces on both sides of the P.C. divide.