The struggle to stay two steps ahead of the thought police goes on, but the thought police are catching up!
I recently encountered a few interesting news tidbits.
For instance, the University of Michigan adopted an anti-discrimination code that stated, in part, “students must be free to participate in class discussion without feeling embarrassed or intimidated.” The code allowed students who felt uncomfortable by a professor’s comments to claim a grievance, even if no other students were offended.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City featured an exhibit at which white patrons were given special buttons to wear. One said: “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.”
The Washington Post reported on construction workers in Washington, D.C., who people-watch during lunch breaks, including admiring attractive women. The reporter found no boorish “humiliating catcalls, smacking sounds or obscene suggestions.” Still, the article inspired a protest by feminists who accused the Post of “romanticizing harassment.” The Post’s ombudsman chastised her paper’s own reporter for failing to offer “substantive reporting” that accounted for feminists’ objections.
Random House’s “Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” has suggested using the term “waitron” as a substitute for the words “waiter” or “waitress.”
A comedian made a joke about Italians and the Mafia. Subsequently, 52 members of Congress signed a letter accusing him of “soiling the reputation” of millions of Italian-Americans. Similarly, Hallmark withdrew a greeting card that showed a thin person being squeezed by a fat one after a complaint from the California-based National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
Given our current political climate, it seems like another day at the office.
Yet these stories are contained in a book I found while recently rummaging through my shed. I bought that book -- John Leo’s “Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police” -- when I was in college. It was published in 1994.
Back then, Leo, a right-leaning longtime columnist for U.S. News & World Report, relished critiquing “political correctness.” In fact, he’s still at it. Leo is now part of MindingTheCampus.org, which says it seeks to promote ideas that are shunned on contemporary college campuses. (Because they are conservative.)
The term politically correct, or its noun derivative, has popped up throughout the 20th century. But PC culture as understood today was spawned on college campuses in the 1980s.
One prominent example occurred in 1987. Then, Jesse Jackson led 500 students in a protest against Stanford University’s freshman course on Western civilization. Demonstrators infamously chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go.” Critics said the course was too biased in favor of those dreaded dead white males, like Aristotle, Shakespeare and John Stuart Mill.
At the time making the counter argument was neither career- nor life-threatening. That same year University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom was widely heralded after publishing “The Closing of the American Mind,” in which he criticized PC forces for imposing radical ideological conformity that dismissed the “Great Books” curriculum.
Back in the day many of us, especially those not attending elite colleges like Stanford, largely ignored the PC brigades, or saw them as an amusing, annoying novelty.
But, as we see now, their ideas had staying power. And we better understand this now as Social Justice Warrioring.
SJWs have given us things like “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” “bias response teams” and “microaggresions.” We witness Twitter-driven protests over “cultural appropriation” (Halloween costumes, a teenage white girl wearing a Chinese dress to her prom) -- all which links back to what John Leo was writing about a quarter-century ago.
This, however, might be second-goofiness.
The PC nuisances around when Leo was jabbing them are old enough now to be parents of college kids. What’s worrisome is that their arguments are spilling over into the business world: Nike killing off “Betsy Ross” shoes, Google firing an engineer for discussing why so few of his peers are women, ESPN anchors trafficking in progressive politics. Just to name a few.
As Robby Soave, associate editor of Reason magazine, wrote in the Washington Examiner earlier this year, “Wokescolds grew up on college campuses, but they are no longer confined to the university or to the insular bubble of Twitter. It used to be said that they would get a remedial dose of reality when they moved into the world of work. If only that had proved true. Instead, workplaces with young staffers are most vulnerable.”
I wonder if John Leo realized how prescient he was a quarter-century ago by selecting his title. Unless the wokescolds begin to devour their own -- and evidence suggests this is happening -- and realize how this can go wrong, survival for non-SJWs may depend on a good pair of running shoes -- as we try to stay at least two steps ahead of the thought police.
Bill Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland.