Episode 32: Attack of the PC College Kids!
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow us on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook at Citations Needed and of course help us out via Patreon, Citations Needed Podcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Adam: Yeah, definitely help us out if you can on Patreon we always appreciate the support. I don’t want to sound like Sally Struthers, you know, but a simple donation - no, I’m just kidding. Sally Struthers reference.
Nima: (Laughs) That was really solid. I liked it.
Adam: I know, that was great. Moving on. So we are excited about his episode for I think the primary reason of its sort of an ever, there’s always every green controversies that never go away. There’s some that flare up and go down but there are some that always have a steady beat. They’re kind of always there. They’re kind of the white noise as it were. And one of the ones that has not gone away in my lifetime has been this notion of political correctness taking over campuses. A theater group at Wesleyan won’t do The Vagina Monologues because it’s offensive to trans women. Oberlin is banning classes featuring white authors. People are upset that someone said, “Do you see what I mean?” Because it offended blind people. We’ve heard these stories a million times that college kids are asking for safe spaces that are increasingly sensitive and decadent and are being brainwashed by their Marxists professors.
[Begin Clip Montage]
Clip #1: Political correctness. It has reached critical mass in America.
Clip #2: The push for political correctness on college campuses is leaving students brainwashed and out of touch.
Clip #3: And it also allows people in colleges, professors in colleges to do things like I don’t know redefine, you know, the biological reality of gender and pretend it doesn’t exist. This has long term ramifications that I don’t think we’re thinking through.
Clip #4: College is not about being safe.
Clip #5: Man #1: Why are the college students so politically correct?
Woman #1: Why are so they politically correct now, well they’re the inheritors of 30 years of identity politics.
Clip #7: Liberals never had a response to Reagan’s vision. They just kind of retreated into identity politics.
Clip #8: Political correctness is now starting to cost us.
Clip #9: As long as we have to talk about things in a politically correct way and we can’t say that its Islamic terror-
Clip #10: It is one of the big themes in the race for the White House this time around, candidates taking on political correctness run amuck.
Clip #11: We need to stop allowing political correctness to dictate our policies.
Clip #12: Has political correctness become dangerous?
Clip #13: Man #2: Country’s toast, Juan. This country is out of control. Started with the war on Christmas.
Woman #2: Oh my God, here we go again!
Man #2: The Halloween costumes! You can’t do cowboys and Indians. Then safe spaces. The gender pronoun thing. The bathrooms.
Clip #14: Man #3: I think everyday ordinary Americans realize that every single problem in America today relates back to political correctness.
Man #4: What do you mean?
[End Clip Montage]
Nima: The question remains. Is there a free speech crisis on America’s college campuses? Are kids these days just too soft and sensitive? What are the origins of this evergreen pundit complaint? Who does the constant harping on the threat of ‘political correctness’ and anti-free speech undergrads hurt, and more importantly, who does this benefit? It’s a question we ask all the time. Who is served by this hysteria? So we’re going to talk about that a bit and later on the show we will be joined by David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.
David Palumbo-Liu: The whole, um, controversy over so-called ‘trigger warnings’ or microaggressions and things like this is really a very small part of what goes on on campus. It’s not to say that these things don’t happen, but they’ve been blown out of proportion in order to make a story for the mainstream press. And what is less attended to is the fact that the right is also very susceptible to exactly the same thing. And the difference in this case is that they are connected to wealthy donors and they’re connected to right wing machines that are only too happy to rush to their defense.
Adam: So let’s begin this episode by playing a clip from a 2003 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This was a clip about the 2003 Democratic primary before the 2004 election in which he makes fun of Dennis Kucinich for a rather shocking reason.
Queers Vie for the Straight Tie - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Video Clip) | Comedy Central
Justice is blind, or in Dennis Kucinich's opinion can also be gay, lesbian, or trans-gendered.
Jon Stewart: As always in these debates its left to the longest shot to say the craziest thing. I give you, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich.
Dennis Kucinich: I would nominate any gay to the Supreme Court or lesbian or bisexual or transgender person to the Supreme Court.
Jon Stewart: Yes. Yes. All rise for the Honorable Justice chick-with-dick.
Nima: Yeah. Clearly that’s something that, um, I don’t think in 2018 we would hear on late night TV or anywhere on TV.
Adam: Yeah. It’s not that we’re perfect, but I think it’s clear that we’ve made progress in this sort of public domain about what’s acceptable to say about people’s identity and it’s that, you know, this word ‘identity’ gets thrown around a lot, but um, how people gender themselves is a deeply important part of who they are. This is, I think, a really good illustration of, of, because I think we take for granted the idea of political correctness or hypersensitivity in a way that we don’t necessarily see how in certain ways, and again, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but in certain ways there’s actual measurable progress with how we treat the baseline, um, humanity of people. Again, imagine being a 13- or 14-year-old trans person sitting at home in 2003 who was unclear about how to guide themselves in this, in this capacity or goes to church and is told that they’re evil sinners and then they turn on the TV and they see this like liberal beacon, reduce the entire trans community to quote unquote “chicks with dicks” and then laugh at them. I mean there, there there’s a consequence to this kind of language and it may not be easy to quantify and it may not be always apparent, but it does exist. You know, we routinely acknowledge this with things like, let’s say the n-word or things like explicit racial epithets and I think these kinds of cultural shifts help illustrate that there was some mechanism that did something there and I think one of the mechanisms was political correctness, however you want to define it. That political correctness and this instance worked.
Nima: Well, right. I mean, culture advances, things change, norms change, common sense over issues change over time. And so the idea that, you know, a joke or a reference to someone’s identity or using certain words, using certain phrases, talking about certain issues and certain ways, that will change, that will adapt over time based on how culture and society changes. And so the idea that political correctness is this hyper sensitivity is this, “Oh, just get over it and let’s go back to the good old days where we could say anything about anyone and everyone knew that it was all in good fun and you could make jokes and we could make references.” It’s like, okay, but the people who felt that way will always feel that way because they’re the people with power. They’re the people who are not going to be offended by racist jokes, by gendered based jokes, by gay jokes. Like that’s not going to offend those people. So obviously they are incredulous when other people get offended. And yet those same people are then so sensitive when it comes to what they perceive as a leftist free speech policing on campuses.
Adam: Um, if you have a chance to watch Fox News as I, I don’t imagine that a lot of our listeners do, but if some of our listeners are like me and they have Republican family members and they go home, they go home or they are, they were growing up and you watch Fox News. It is shocking. Truly what percentage of Fox News coverage is about politically correct college kids. I mean, if I was an alien and I looked down and I, for whatever reason was in this weird pocket of interstellar space where I only got the broadcast of Fox News, I would legitimately think that sophomores at Oberlin, we’re top five major threats to society. And that’s not hyperbole.
Nima: The fact that a, one Oberlin graduate co-hosts this podcast, I really hope that I am a threat to society.
Adam: Yeah, full disclosure, Nima went to Oberlin.
Nima: I did go to Oberlin.
Adam: I swear to God, I think I forgot when I actually made that reference. Um, I went to the University of Texas. I did not have a go-to punch line for political correctness. You did, you went to a university that is, um, but I think what’s fascinating to me is just how much this discourse consumed so much of how we, of what we talk about just in pure numbers. I mean, it’s not even just the right wing media, although of course Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levine and all these other right wing pundits, they never shut the fuck up. Is the defining, I think animating ethos of Republican ideology right now is to quote unquote “Trigger the Libs,” that to “Trigger the Libs” is sort of the highest moral order. Sort of like how the Klingons thought the highest thing you could do is die in battle. Like for Republicans, it’s triggering libs. That’s like the most noble thing you can do is to “Trigger a Lib” no matter how morally frivolous or ideologically pointless it may be that to “Trigger a Lib” and to threaten their safe space and their, is sort of the highest moral order you can achieve.
Nima: No, exactly. That there’s this either conflation of or confusion of being controversial and pushing the envelope. That’s kind of banal, boring New York Times editorial opinion columnist - Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss - bullshit where the best thing you can do is make people freak out on Twitter. That means you’re really pushing buttons. That means you’re really sticking it to those who are being way too sensitive about shit and that’s kind of the operating mechanism behind what’s going on. Even at The New York Times right now, it’s very strange and at the same time, the people who do the most freaking out about this are people with platforms that are not being silenced.
Adam: Yeah. This happened recently with the Bari Weiss controversy. There’s so many, we could do three hours on this. I mean we’re going to hone in on recent media examples where she said something that was sort of frivolous and racist in a maybe not overtly racist way, but she thought an a, a Japanese American ice skater was actually Japanese and said, “immigrants get the job done.” People pointed out that she was not an immigrant. She was actually American and that like Asians being confused for immigrants is actually a huge problem that happens a lot in Asian American communities. Instead of saying, ‘You’re right, I’m sorry, I apologize.’ She doubled down did, did the persecution complex and of course wrote an article about it. Now what was interesting is that there were, they circled the wagons, so the Atlantic Magazine ran two articles defending Bari Weiss, one of which was 1500 words, one of which was 2000. David Frum, an Atlantic staff writer, tweeted about it. Atlantic staff writer Julie Ioffe did the five-tweet thread about defending Bari Weiss. Now, what’s notable is that the Atlantic Magazine has never once written article defending the J20 journalists, the two J20 journalists who, one of which has been since been acquitted, the other, which still faces decades in federal prison, and this really cuts to the idea of like what we prioritize, what we talk about speech, which is to protect a specific type of speech. Speech that protects power, speech that again, Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens who were recently hired, these sort of neo-conservatives, they’re the ultimate example of being provocative without being subversive. They troll liberal liberals, but they actually say nothing that’s remotely threatening to power, right? They have boiler plate pro Israel views. They want to bomb everyone. The only thing they do is they go after, they punch down and go after college kids and people of color and mock them, so they’re sort of provoking a conversation, but it’s a conversation that is entirely punching down in one direction.
Nima: We see this from these high profile columnists. We see this from speakers at universities, college campuses around the country where there’s this expectation that free speech equals basically no pushback, no comment. Where open debate means sitting down on a panel with someone who doesn’t really disagree with you, but kind of nominally has some sort of like, you know, marginal difference of opinion, but can respectfully talk about why your brand of fascism might be, you know, I don’t know, not the best thing for America, and that their brand of fascism is actually better. That is allowed. But if there are protests against actual white supremacists against actual neo-Nazis, those protests are then deemed fascist. Not the fascists that are being protested against.
Adam: Let’s get in the weeds and some examples here. So one of the favorite things people like to do is to, in the wake of Trump’s loss, was to blame Trump’s win on political correctness that the left had gone too far. Bill Maher said that, ‘Working class white people were tired of being called racist.’ Now Bill Maher does this really great thing where he replaces his own grievances with working class white straw man. When Bill Maher says that he thinks that ‘working class white people were tired of being called racist.’ What he means is that ‘I’m tired of being called racist’. This nebulous working class white guy gets to serve as a placeholder. Now apparently there’s this working class white demographic that is like the hulk, that it’s the job of people of color and people on the left to not provoke them, and if we provoke them, then they turn into like a racist Hulk and they get really angry.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Adam: But that’s a very popular trope. Over and over again people claimed from Mark Lilla to a David Brooks to George Will, that gender pronouns is one of the things that led to Trump’s win. Now never did anyone provide any evidence to support this. No polling, nothing. It was just this assertion that took over and there it became this thing where to call something racist is what made it racist. That to name something bad or sexist or trans phobic was is what the thing that actually made it so. So David Rubin, who is this who, he used to be like progressive I guess, but he’s now, he’s this really shitty, like extreme centrist troll a, you know, always rails against the identity politics and the progressive left. This is the day after Trump’s election, he said, quote, “It’s almost as if you endlessly call people racists and bigots they’ll eventually get fed up and turn on you.” Because again, they were not racist before they were called racists.
Nima: Right. It’s just calling them that that suddenly makes them racist.
Adam: And David Brooks said a few days after Trump’s win quote, “But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days, it’s the anti racists, too,” clever stuff, “To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.” So there was this huge backlash after Trump to blame identity politics for Trump’s win and this is something that has brewed up yet again in the last few months. Again, it never really goes away, but it’s brewed up even more and the general idea is that to point out something as racist it does to provoke a racist reaction and that the only way we’re supposed to sort of deal with racism is to either ignore it, act like it doesn’t exist or don’t use the r-word because nobody wants to be called sexist or trans phobic or racists and that there’s this backlash we have to avoid.
Nima: It’s this ultimate snowflake-ism where people are so into labeling things that they can’t just like ‘say it like it is’. And that’s why Trump is so popular. It’s like, well, he says the things that racist assholes say not ‘the way it is’. He says the things that you say if you’re a fuck face. There’s a, there’s a new Netflix special, getting back to actually the Jon Stewart and the Bill Maher sort of politically incorrect into real time, this idea that comedians shouldn’t be policed and they should be able to say whatever they want without fear of recrimination, without fear of criticism because ‘Hey, that’s comedy and if you don’t get it, well then you know, you just don’t understand comedy’ as opposed to, well, maybe your joke isn’t very fucking funny. And so there’s this new Netflix special that Ricky Gervais has and there’s a really fantastic review of it in Vulture.com, uh, by Matt Zoller Seitz. And in it he kind of dissects what is in a way most frustrating about this special. So let me just read a little bit of this and it actually gets to the crux of a lot of what we’re talking about from across comedy into opinion commentary into this campus free speech debate. So the review says that:
Gervais devotes much of this special — which lasts about an hour and 20 minutes — to complaining that the world keeps telling him what he can and can’t say. He makes it sound as if hearing an opinion or a personal reaction to a comedian’s work (on Twitter, or in, say, a TV review) is the same experience as being fired or jailed by the government as retaliation for criticizing an official.
Zoller Seitz goes on to say that, um, “Nobody is denying a platform for comedians like Gervais, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, or even Louis C.K. … They’re free to say whatever they want during their routines.” And he continues:
What seems to infuriate these comedians, however, is that audiences can talk back more easily now and say, “I don’t like that,” or “I didn’t find that funny,” or “That seemed cruel to me.” What comedians like Gervais object to is being made to think about what they’ve said, and potentially feel regret or guilt over having made a poor choice of material or words. That their initial impulse is to feel anger and resentment at the person raising an objection is telling.
Adam: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. That political correctness has become this umbrella term for anything from like, okay, that’s something that’s sort of very sensitive about language to you’ve criticized me in a way that centers yourself and not my needs as a, by the way we won’t get too much into it, but the knee jerk obsession with maintaining this idea of a comedy space that is immune from criticism is pathological and it’s even popular amongst some leftists. And I find that deeply, like I made some comment about how um, how I thought George Carlin bit from like the nineties was on global warming was sort of shitty and nihilistic and a lot of people were like, how dare you criticize George Carlin, like, he’s just a comedian. He’s just, it’s like, well, okay, first off he’s making an expressly political point.
Nima: (Laughs) Right.
Adam: I’m a fucking media critic for living. I was going into the origins of like liberal nihilism about global warming from the nineties and I think comedy cements certain conventional wisdoms that actually has I think tremendous political influence. Um, indeed, that’s the entire premise of the show. Media matters, what people say matters. Um, and there was this weird like obsession with maintaining the space that we weren’t supposed to criticize comedy. That was totally arbitrary.
Adam: It’s just this thing-
Nima: Yeah, it’s bullshit.
Adam: It’s this dogma people assert. It’s just dogma, right? It’s totally dogma. Now I get why people in comedy want to maintain that space because it makes sense from a self-preservation standpoint, but it doesn’t actually make any sense.
Nima: But it’s so much easier for comedians to be heckled now. Whereas it’s not just at the show where they have the mic there up on stage. Now it’s on Twitter. Now it’s on different kinds of media. There’s much more of a kind of flattening of that ability to raise objection that I think people who are used to not being called out on their bullshit really don’t like. Referencing the kind of early, early ‘90s anti-environmentalism thing actually goes a long way to also digging in, just briefly to some of the history of this political correctness freak out. There was a New York Times piece in 1990 headlined, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” It’s everything you’d imagine, and it quotes one graduate student in comparative literature at Berkeley who says that quote, “Politically correct discourse is a kind of fundamentalism” end quote. One that gives rise to quote “pre-fab opinions” and that “among its features,” this political correctness this Berkeley students says, so remember, this is a Berkeley student, so he’s supposed to be the one who’s really offended by like hippy dippy Berkeley, that the features of this discourse are quote, “tenacity, sanctimoniousness, huffiness, a stubborn lack of a sense of humor.” That was in the New York Times. New York Magazine in January of 1991 ran a cover piece blaring out the question, “Are You Politically Correct? Am I guilty of racism, sexism, classism? Am I guilty of ageism, ableism, lookism? Am I logo centric? Do I say Indian instead of Native American? Pet instead of animal companion?” And so that was on the cover of New York Magazine. Um, and then later in the magazine it says, “The New Fascists worry about you. They see racism, oppression, and sexism everywhere.” It goes on as you would typically imagine, but those are some of the kind of origins of this discourse that we’ve seen drafting off the conservative Allen Bloom, 1987's “Closing of the American Mind” discourse that kind of William F. Buckley pushed forward. It’s all of a piece of like reacting to the opening of academic space to new voices and the need of the establishment to then tamp down on that and say, ‘You’re not wrong.’ Establishment people, people with power already. People who are going to lose their power. ‘You’re not wrong for being offended by this. It’s them. They’re wrong for even bringing this to your attention.’
Adam: Uh, in the origins of the term, and we’ll have a link to the article in the Patreon show notes, is that it was, in the seventies and eighties it was sort of used, ironically, almost tongue and cheekily amongst lefties to say, you know, this is not the right position. It was not an earnest term that, like, you wouldn’t say ‘that’s not politically correct’ in earnest. It was sort of an ironic term used left circles as a kind of parody of kind of Soviet-ism where you’d have like a line on things and that was the line you took. And then in the early nineties and late eighties, Dinesh D’Souza really popularized it on the Right as something that was actually a thing that you wanted to be politically correct. So he did this kind of literalization of something that was basically tongue in cheek. He popularized the term in a way that by the time you got to 1989, 1990, that when universities really started to open up that there was this reaction to it called political correctness that was thought control and Thought Police. And you see, you hear this term a lot ‘Thought Police’ right. Now what is not mentioned is that, in 1984, the Thought Police were actual police. They were actually putting people in jail. Whereas getting yelled at on Twitter or getting scolded by an undergrad in a public forum is of course not going to jail. That’s not making them the Thought Police.
Adam: Um, I want to dig down a couple of examples because one of the things that props up, if not the primary thing that props up the political correct panic is anecdotes. We all hear these anecdotes over and over again. Uh, Jonathan Chait, he’s a writer for New York Magazine, which we mentioned earlier, former writer for The New Republic and noted, noted perennial moaner about political correctness.
Nima: Political correctness scold.
Adam: Yeah. He writes these long, 2,500, 3000 word pieces about the problems of political correctness that rely a lot on, on conversations he’s allegedly had with, you know, anonymous friends. You see this a lot. They’re too scared to come forward. So they’ve turned Jon Chait into the professor whisper or whatever. And he lists these examples. So if you look closely, they’re never quite what they seem. Jon Chait finds these examples from magazines like campus reform, which is a magazine funded by the leadership institute, which is a Koch brothers front group. And by the way, this, so this is basically how it works. The Koch brothers, through their leadership institute and other publications, they effectively run a national spy network where they have a bounty to find the most absurd political correct stories and then undergrads, they’ll pay undergrads quite a bit of money to find these and write about them in campus reform whose writers are almost all undergrads. They’ll pay them some fee to do that and then it’ll get kicked up to reason.com or the Cato Institute, and then from there people like Jonathan Chait and others will amplify it.
Adam: So there are millions and millions of college students, but we wouldn’t be able to sort of go through and see every single transgression against the intellectual thought that they may see. So what they do is they create, the Koch brothers as well as Peter Thiel and others, they’ve created this media environment where college kids are effectively deputized to spy on other college kids to find these things that will go viral. So there’s one example that Jon Chait used, which is he said, quote, “A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on the Vagina Monologues in part because the material excluded women without vaginas.” So okay, that seems kind of a little bit absurd or kind of overwrought, but then when you actually dig into the article itself and you go back and you read the primary source, it was a student run theater group that they had a tradition of putting on the, the Vagina Monologues for 20 years. Since they broadened the definition of, of women, you know, in the last few years to include trans women, which we think is generally positive, right? They said, why don’t we do something else as a little bit more inclusive? This wasn’t the university coming down hard. This wasn’t some, you know, a top down thing. It was a group of theater performers who said, why don’t we try to make our women theater group more inclusive? And they reached a by consensus. This wasn’t some sort of authoritarian top-down thing. Another example, also found by campus reform, um, there’s a writer in the Daily Beast by the name of Robby Soave, who also lo and behold, writes for the Koch brothers funded Reason Magazine, who is obsessed with this shit. It’s pretty much all he writes, he finds these anecdotes that are sort of, on their face absurd, and he highlights them. And so he wrote an article in 2016 called, “The Craziest Demands of College Kids.” The sub headline, the first one read quote, “Abolish English classes that feature white male poets.” And this was supposedly activists at Yale wanting to abolish classes that had white male poets.
Nima: All you have to do is actually read the story and you will realize that that’s bullshit.
Adam: Right. They didn’t want to abolish classes with white male poets. They wanted to take a class that only had white male poets and have a more inclusive course that had non-white poets. Which is totally different. It’s one thing to ban X. It’s another thing to ban things that only have X.
Adam: And these are the kinds of things you see time and time again, of course this, this, this article was referenced by Jon Chait, it was referenced by The Washington Post. These things go viral and no one really follows the story. It’s a game of telephone, right? It’s, uh, it starts with these Koch funded groups on campus. And by the time it ends up in The Washington Post or New York Magazine, or in Daily Beast, there’s this cartoon character, left wing radical with all the nuance stripped out that basically becomes the straw man that these cranky old white pundits can punch. So you have 21 million students in the United States. There’s this moral panic that’s propped up by what is literally just three or four examples that two of which are not really even true. And yeah, maybe one or two of them are things that actually happened. This is the narrative with which most people understand what goes on in college because here’s the deal. The vast majority of people who comment on campus political correctness or have some opinion about political correctness, they are not in school. They haven’t been in school in college and 10, 15, 20, 30, 50 years. They probably don’t know anyone in college. Their entire perception of college is entirely secondhand based on these kinds of media reports and Fox News. So their opinion is purely based on these filtering systems that are mostly curated by billionaires like Peter Thiel and Charles and David Koch. So they’re getting a very specific narrative, which, while again, we always talk about how propaganda is not about lies, it’s about emphasis. We are emphasizing these totally obscure and exceedingly rare examples as something indicative of a broader moral panic.
Nima: Well, right, and then it’s outsized reporting from mainstream outlets makes it seem so far more ubiquitous than it actually is. Adam, you actually have written extensively on this. When you looked at The New York Times’ campus free speech coverage. You found that seven to one, the plight of the right wing or conservative students on campus, seven to one times, like that is written about reported on by The New York Times as opposed to the one time that it’s about more leftist, more progressive speech being potentially curtailed.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the frame we’re given. If I’m the average centrist or even liberal media consumer and I just read The New York Times, the perception I’m getting is that for every three cases of leftist or liberals having their speech infringed, there’s twenty one cases of people on the right who are getting the same treatment. That is a wildly disproportionate representation of what’s really going on. And, and, and the interesting thing that, that I think is noteworthy is that the entire right-wing ethos, as we discussed earlier about triggering libs, where the rise of fascism has been in the last two, three years, paralleled with, if not proceeding Trump, has been based on this kind of tongue in cheek ironic like, oh, ‘I’m just going to do this because I believe in free speech’ or to provoke. But when you create that space, invariably what you do is you fill it up with the most disgusting sewage of right-wing bile. Whether it’s threatening to dox immigrants or you know, bashing trans people, homophobia, name it, uh, that this space has been increasingly created to be more overt and more straight up, you know, sort of outright fascist in their language.
Nima: Right. Well and then that the parody that these two sides, even though there aren’t really, it doesn’t work that way, but that’s the way the media presents it. That over here there is, well these are the white nationalists and the fascists. And then over here are like the over-sensitive identity politics, tree-huggers, as if one side is not viciously violent and exclusionary and discriminatory and wants actively to destroy kinds of people depending on who they are and the other side wants the opposite of that. The other side is trying to open up inclusivity and in so doing is not going to allow rampant racism to merely not be answered on their campuses or in their papers.
Nima: These are not even two sides of one coin.
Adam: I did another analysis for FAIR in the weeks after the Charlottesville attack that left one woman dead by a neo-Nazi, where I took the top five papers that had opinion pieces on fascist or Antifa, anti-fascist. And there was twenty-eight pieces condemning Antifa and twenty-seven condemning Nazis. So it was basically even if not weighted towards condemning Antifa. So here you, where there’s this obsession with creating both sides, even the Anti-Defamation League, which we criticize a lot on the show, did the both sides framing. It’s important we condemn all, you know, both sides and what’s lacking in this discourse and what’s always lacking. And this is the complete take home point of this entire thing. If not, frankly, the entire show is, there is no sense of power asymmetry. There is zero sense that if I’m a college sophomore or a African American, I have radically different position of power than Charles Murray or-
Nima: Richard Spencer or-
Adam: Yeah, we’re a number of other sort of right wing, you know, people who give speeches that the college republicans invite to “Trigger the Libs” and troll people. So this is never something that’s kind of factored in, at least not to the aggregate coverage.
Adam: Uh, the aggregate coverage always tries to find this false balance, which is even more pernicious when you consider that there is then actual pro-fascist or at least winks and a nod to fascist person in the, in the goddamn White House.
Adam: This is not like a fringe position anymore.
Nima: And so much of this is actually born out of this backlash of the kind of late ’60s, early ‘70s’ opening up spaces on campus to black and brown people in a much, much different way than ever before. That academia actually really expanded in those years to include other voices. And there was this then eighties and then early nineties crack down on that when it became clear that, well, what’s the scariest thing for people in power? Young people who have different ideas. And so the young people who have different ideas or are being taught by people from different backgrounds, from different communities with different perspectives on the way power works, the way our history should be taught, what you should do with your life, what your goals should be. Once those start infusing the, you know, malleable, squishy, young brains in college that could be a threat to power writ large. And that was basically the impetus behind creating this phony scourge of political correctness. Just to, uh, go back to that 1990 New York Times piece, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” This is how political correctness is defined. You know, obviously certain things are deemed in this article to be allowed. Other things are deemed to not be allowed. This is what it says. This is from The New York Times, 1990: “The cluster of politically correct ideas includes a powerful environmentalism and, in foreign policy support, for Palestinian self-determination and sympathy for third world revolutionaries.”
Adam: God forbid.
Nima: “Particularly those in Central America. Biodegradable garbage bags get the PC seal of approval. Exxon does not.”
Adam: Yeah, bad things are bad and good things are good. It’s a shocking ideology.
Nima: Shocking. Shocking. Um, but that’s how it’s summed up. And, um, I think that segues very well into our guest today.
Nima: We will be speaking with David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, a writer and editor his worked can be found in the pages of The Nation and The Guardian, on Truth Out and Salon. He is the author of The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age and Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier. He’s the founding editor of the eJournal Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. We will be joined by him in just a sec. Stay with us.
Nima: Joining us now is David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. David, thanks so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
David Palumbo-Liu: My pleasure.
Adam: The broad topic of the show, David, is this idea that there’s this moral panic surrounding political correctness on campuses and that so much of right-wing media and even some centrist media is obsessed with this idea that college kids are too sensitive, too politically correct, but of course when you actually look into the contents of the stories and compare them with other forms of free speech oppression and what you described as being McCarthyism, most of it, the bulk of it in our estimation comes from the Right. You’ve been someone subject to this and someone who’s written quite eloquently about it. Can you talk about the gap between how the average media consumer views the, the sort of sinister political correctness on campus versus what the reality of it is on campus? Both in terms of the broader narrative and how you’ve personally experienced it?
David Palumbo-Liu: Absolutely. You know, I think that the, um, the media has always had an interest in these issues in terms of the university because the university is filled with young people with ideas and that’s something that they think is a very reportable kind of story. And especially when you have the current administration in Washington stoking the flames of supposedly sinister things going on on campus than the media is quite the ferret those out and amplify them way beyond proportion. So the whole, um, controversy over so-called ‘trigger warnings’ or microaggressions and things like this is really a very small part of what goes on on campus. It’s not to say that these things don’t happen, but they’ve been blown out of proportion in order to make a story for the mainstream press. And what is less attended to is the fact that the right is also very susceptible to exactly the same thing. And the difference in this case is that they are connected to wealthy donors and they’re connected to right-wing machines that are only too happy to rush to their defense. For example, Robert Spencer is famous for calling everybody who doesn’t like him a fascist. And so, you know, they, they adopt these, these terms and they inflate it and they have a, they have a megaphone that is quite, um, quite disturbing. For example, in my case, the local student newspaper, the conservative student newspaper, ran a story on me and then it was picked up by Fox print media and then was on Fox & Friends, so they have that kind of megaphone to control that message. Whereas those of us on the left have nothing similar to it whatsoever.
Adam: Just so our listeners know, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with Richard Spencer, who will talk about later, is a huge anti quote-unquote “Radical Islam” Islamophobe who runs the Stop Islamization of America and is a confederate of Pam Geller. Just as just be so people know who he is.
David Palumbo-Liu: Right.
Nima: So David, we see that this oft-cited ‘the campus is getting too sensitive,’ this and that, that there needs to be this kind of much more open dialogue. What happened to free speech? The people, most vociferously yelling about that are also those so often who come down the hardest on certain kinds of professors, professors like Norman Finkelstein to Steven Salaita. You know, we’ve seen this play out time and time again when it comes to Palestine. As someone who is deeply involved in this space, in this work, can you talk about how that winds up happening on campus and where the McCarthyite censorship is really focused?
David Palumbo-Liu: Sure. I mean I’m happy to talk about that, but just let me insert something quickly here in terms of safe spaces and all this. And this is a, uh, uh, an anecdote that I repeat an awful lot. You remember during the campaign, you know, Trump was going on and on about, you know, these people on campuses, they’re so thin skinned and they can’t take the truth and he’s going to be, he wasn’t going to be politically correct. And then after Pence was basically addressed by the cast of Hamilton, Trump immediately tweeted, what’s wrong? Isn’t the theater a safe space anymore? So, you know, these kinds of contradictions are plentiful and we shouldn’t ignore that. But yes, the Palestine exception is, is, is always there. Unfortunately. And you know, that, um, a number of pro-Israel groups, um, have been trying to use the Title VI Act to, civil right act, to try to say that a Jewish students, and again, that’s a very anti-Semitic notion that they can speak for all Jewish students as if they’re an undifferentiated mass, their feelings are hurt when people come and take issue with what the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians. And so they’re very quick to be able to silence anybody who has a critical view of Israel and they do it in any number of ways besides trying to manipulate the Title VI, which they’ve been unsuccessful in doing, but they will harass administrators. They will create this Canary Mission to, to try to, you know, in the very McCarthyite way name professors who have had anything to say about Israel. So-
Nima: And students I should point out, and students. Undergrads.
David Palumbo-Liu: Absolutely. Yeah. And I mean, they, they have contact, they try to contact students’ employers, uh, they’ve tried to contact admissions committees for students who are applying to school. So yeah, it’s very, very, um, very coordinated, very well funded and very frightening. And again, they have those resources and they also have the, the lack of ethics to be able to do that, right?
Adam: Yeah. This was most egregiously representative at the recent uproar over Bari Weiss, at The New York Times, wrote whatever boilerplate, banal, warmed over articles about the threat of political correctness in our culture and specifically on campuses. And then Glenn Greenwald, you know, gingerly pointed out that this is exactly what she did in college when she was an undergrad at the University of Columbia. Now normally I don’t bring up what people did in college because we all do stupid stuff in college, but she was on the, you know, she’s still proud of it to this day and was on the forefront of it and um, she was calling for people to lose tenure and she argued that was not the same as calling for people to be fired, which I thought was a pretty, pretty Orwellian in it’s own right.
David Palumbo-Liu: The whole point of tenure is it comes out of the notion of academic freedom that if professors feel that they’re being watched constantly they can’t stray from a particular point of view than the assumption is there’s no way to build new knowledge. Right? If you just repeating what has already been sanctioned and understood to be true, then there’s no way to advance. So if you take away somebody’s tenure, you may as well fire them because you’re essentially saying that, uh, they can’t do their job.
Adam: You mentioned earlier this right-wing kind of echo chamber machine that we see that’s been developed over decades and is very sophisticated. Uh, at the top of the show we talked about Koch brother funded groups like Campus Watch and they’re and the way they basically create a kind of spy network for these anecdotes about political correctness because they basically pay undergrads to write stories. Those get picked up by Cato Institute and reason.com, which gets picked up by everyone from Rush Limbaugh to The Washington Post. And in your situation there was a group called Jihad Watch, which, which went after you. Can you tell us about your experience being targeted by the right-wing media machine and do you feel like it’s gotten more sophisticated or is it always kind of been this way?
David Palumbo-Liu: Well, Jihad Watch is Robert Spencer’s website and when he was going to speak at Stanford, several of my students wrote blogs and they, they wrote letters of protest and the next thing you know it was on the front page of Jihad Watch. Their photographs and names and all that, which is, you know, which is okay if they’re making public statements. But he also went into private social media accounts and put up things that, that were really not his right to do so. And again, he just labels everybody who disagrees with him a fascist regardless of what the disagreement is about. And then he targeted me because I defended my students. And what’s different now is of course the Internet and the fact that you can put ridiculous things up on the Internet and all of a sudden you have a, a whole crowd of people that would, uh, be, be willing to act on stupidity and misinformation. And that’s what’s of concern. You don’t have a real journalistic world anymore where there are fact checkers and there are editors and there are people that will make sure the story has some accuracy to it. And that’s what, what is most of concern here and what happened in my case is that, you know, I was part of a group that started what’s called the Campus Anti-Fascist Network and we’re very much organized around education and defense against right wing groups that have a proclivity toward violence and, and stirring up students and bringing outsider agitators on to campus to disturb what we’re doing on campus. And so the campus newspaper, the right-wing campus newspaper here interviewed me and everything was on email. So I, I know exactly what was said to me and what I said to them. And they kept on saying, what do you condone violence? I said, no, no, I don’t. We basically only do it for self-defense. We’re not out for destruction of property or other, other individuals just as, you know, as a principle. And they just basically wrote over what I said. And they said, well, regardless of what he says, he uses the term anti-fascist, which means they’re violent and that they just ran with it. And that got picked up by Fox News and um, and Fox & Friends. And it was a libelist claim and I don’t have the money or the time to, to fight this, but this is what is most of concern. I’m very well protected because I’m a tenured professor, but I’m about the effect that it has on untenured people. And of course students that they could not do anything and they could have these, these, um, lies published. And in fact, six of my colleagues in the Stanford Law School and some of them are not liberals some of them are quite conservative, but they wrote a letter saying the public record shows he’s done nothing to suggest he would ever do what they’re accusing him of doing. And he’s well within his free speech rights. But my free speech rights didn’t really matter in this in this instance at all. And one other point I’d like to make since we’re on this is that people are concerned about, you know, censorship and all that. But think of the fact that when you let a phenomenon like this grow and go unchecked then people are giving up their free speech rights because they’re so intimidated by what might or might not happen to them.
Adam: Yeah, free speech in a country of total power asymmetry and money asymmetry. And we saw this of course with things like billionaires buying up alt weeklies or Peter Thiel taking out Gawker.
David Palumbo-Liu: Right.
Adam: These terms like free speech are kind of meaningless because the power asymmetry has to be a factor.
David Palumbo-Liu: That’s exactly the problem.
Nima: Well, what we’re seeing so often now I think is that anti-fascism, which by all measures should really be a very uncontroversial thing one would think.
David Palumbo-Liu: I know. Exactly. Precisely.
Nima: Um, this now being cast as, as the new fascism, as that’s what actually presents the biggest danger to, you know, a free speech or to property, to people, to this country, which is completely insane obviously when you, when you actually kind of understand what words mean. But, uh, most recently, you know, we saw Richard Spencer, the white nationalist racist, actually say, you know, it was reported in The Washington Post that he believes in people like him now are believing, you know, Antifa is working. That white nationalists, racists, KKK members, neo-Nazis, like himself, actual fascists, actual fascists are now uncomfortable on campuses. They’re second-guessing accepting invitations to speak because of the backlash. So where do you see this going and how can, how can this be kept up without being truly attacked as they want to?
David Palumbo-Liu: Well, you’ll, I think that his words were something to the effect of ‘it’s no fun anymore.’ Right?
David Palumbo-Liu: And I think that’s, that that’s so revealing because, you know, he and Milo and all those and not, I don’t want to make too much of a generalization, but so many of them are just basically there to make money. I mean, it’s the commodification of fascism. It’s, it’s, you know, if you go to any of their websites its full of, you know, links to their books or their public speaking. And so it really is self aggrandizing and what we’ve, what we’ve shown in all sorts of ways in what, by me when I say ‘we’, it’s anybody who opposes them, is that we’re not going to stand for it. It’s not a matter of, you know, we’re caught in the position on campus of if we don’t show up, then they feel they’ve won. If we show up and we stay within very normal parameters and then they get to have a field day and say, listen, I spoke at Stanford and the students came out, but I spoke anyway. So, you know, depending on who the speaker is, I think that we should develop the tactics that are commensurate with what they’re doing. Some speakers like Charles Murray or are not urging violence and so, you know, he has free speech rights, small as that. But we can certainly protest that racist ideologies that he’s, he’s spewing when you have people like Richard Spencer, or Milo coming and actually doing things like, well in Milo’s case threatening to dox, you know, undocumented students. I mean, things like that are really called for in measures that would prevent that from happening. That’s what I mean by self-defense. So I say that our main goal is to educate people as to the different tactics these folks are using and to develop adequate strategies to, um, to um, lessen the harm they can do. And one of our, as I’ve written about this a lot, one of our main obstacles is that administrators who refuse to see the world as we see it today. In other words, they’re using, there was somebody, the president of Yale I think recalled what happened when George Wallace was supposed to speak someplace back in the sixties and they let him speak and this and that. And that was a good thing. But that was the 1960s and I wrote, I think it was in Huffington Post, is that we’re not in the 1960s anymore. We have an entirely different material historical situation. Um, and a very different, uh, administration in Washington. So we need to get up to date with what’s happening so that we can be adequately prepared.
Nima: That also kind of speaks to the idea that in hindsight, because George Wallace is now seen as a pariah.
David Palumbo-Liu: Right. Exactly.
Nima: ‘Oh look what we did and we still won,’ whereas at the time you don’t necessarily have that perspective and can’t guarantee that Richard Spencer is obviously going to lose in the long run. Like if you’re assuming that, then you’ve already lost.
David Palumbo-Liu: Right. No, that’s exactly right. We can’t take anything for granted because you know, they, they have a lot of money. They’ve been. My feeling is that, um, this all started in the late 1980s. I mean, when we won the culture wars, when the whole notion of the eternal truth of Western Civilization and whiteness was established and then we reacted to it and we said no, there’s a whole other side of the coin. Um, you know, Peter Thiel was the editor of Stanford Review and helped establish the paper and he’s been on the same project ever since then. He really believes that multiculturalism is bad. That civilization went astray, and that is all because of what he calls political correctness. So this, they are, this has been a longstanding grudge and I think that it certainly increased over the Obama years with the idea of a, of a black President, and then when Trump came into office, it was a perfect storm. They came charging out the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson. I mean all these folks that have had axes to grind now find themselves unchecked because of our current political situation and the administrators are, for whatever reason, they only go back to these tools that were, you know, slightly useful back then, but are completely ill-equipped to, um, address the, the current situation.
Adam: Yeah of course, Peter Thiel is a multi-billionaire, said on March 16 quote, “The greatest political problem is political correctness. Properly understood that’s because that’s how we limit debate.” So yeah, do you have someone who really believes that the inability to sort of speak ones mind, as it were, which of course what he really means is for rich white people to be racist and without social pushback, even forget physical pushback.
David Palumbo-Liu: Yeah.
Adam: I did a quick survey of articles in The New York Times lamenting the threat of free speech on campuses. The ratio highlighting right wing to left wing was seven to one. So for every one article about left-wingers on campus having their speech infringed, there were seven articles about right-wingers having their speech infringed.
David Palumbo-Liu: Yeah.
Adam: So even for the sort of supposedly liberal New York Times is that this is a uniquely liberal problem when the vast, vast bulk of it, at least in my estimation, is absolutely a right-wing problem.
David Palumbo-Liu: Yeah. Especially when we’re talking about the university because you remember that, you know, when the Fisher case against affirmative action was heard by the Supreme Court that the prevailing notion that has always rescued affirmative action is that diversity has educational merit, right? So quotas are bad, race-based admissions are bad, but diversity, you know, you can define that in whatever way you want it seems. But diversity adds to, um, to the educational mission in that it helps us understand the world in different ways. And so you have universities, you know, going after, um, all sorts of untraditional students because you know, they, they want to do well by their liberal standards and you know, I don’t have any problem with that at all, that they reach out and the bring in disenfranchised populations. But the problem is once they’re brought in to supposedly to bring diverse ideas they’re shut up. I mean they’re, you know, diversity only works on a certain scale and if you do anything and you bring a worldview into the university that actually might change the university, then that is what is shut down. So the whole purpose of free speech is to advance knowledge. And what the right-wing is doing is saying no, ‘knowledge is bad,’ ‘knowledge is dangerous,’ ‘knowledge, especially if it comes from these folks, we can’t have that.’ And so that’s where that censorship comes in. And anytime that people on the left pushback against the right, they cry victim, they cry as he said, you know, very, very succinctly. They’re completely oblivious to or want to ignore the power imbalance, right? They just think that they’re being set upon. There’s that, there was an article, I think it was in Vox that came out that said, ‘I’m a liberal professor and I’m scared of my liberal students.’ Do you remember that?
David Palumbo-Liu: That was like maybe a year ago, which is ridiculous. I think I tweeted, ‘But you’re the one who turns in their grades so what are you afraid of?’ I mean he, but that’s is that kind of paranoia that anytime, I mean even the thing that Jordan Peterson up in Canada, you know, his big thing is pronouns and my point is if you can’t call somebody by the name they wish, what’s your problem? I mean, are you really going to make a stink about this and decide to put education on hold while we sort out this issue, right?
Adam: Yeah. I think someone noted that your average right-winger can name about 75 different automatic weapons.
David Palumbo-Liu: I know exactly.
Adam: But they can’t remember four or five gender pronouns.
David Palumbo-Liu: Precisely.
Adam: To this issue of power asymmetry I’m curious what you think about people like Nick Kristof, Nick Kristof has actually written this piece I think three times in the last year and a half where he’s basically like scolding liberals for being too intolerant of conservatives and there’s this myth of this like reasonable conservative or who is somehow not a white supremacist and somehow not, you know, either veiled or not veiled racist. And he does these polls where he says something like eighty some odd percent of academics say they’re liberal leaning and this is supposed to prove that campuses are like super far left and we have to sort of basically have affirmative action for conservatives. Now, of course we don’t have a, you know, no one’s forcing Goldman Sachs to have, you know, twenty percent Marxists on their board of directors. But that’s neither here nor there. I guess I’m curious, how do you, how would you respond to Kristof if he was sitting right here and he sort of gave you that take?
David Palumbo-Liu: To begin with in terms of affirmative action, uh, I gave a talk at Princeton once and we were in this, you know, one of those houses on campus that had been some owners house and they were talking about the potential danger of ethnic studies and identity politics and I said, look around this room and there were like fourteen oil portraits of white men. I said, this is identity politics. I mean, affirmative action has been the core of American universities, but for that set of folks, right? And my, my reply to Nicholas would be it, I don’t respect people that say just by dint of the fact that I feel targeted, you can’t, you can’t accuse me of anything. Right? The point is that if you are in a democracy and if you’re in a, at a university, then you defend yourself, you have the nerve to get up and say, well, what do you mean by racist? Why do you call me this? And you have a debate about it. Uh, but nobody should be protected from being called something. I mean, I think that when, when a student of color, when I am accused of something that I engage people, I just don’t take it. I, I, I want to say we’re, what are your assumptions? What is your evidence? Um, and the problem with the people that are being, you know, conservative white males mostly, they’ve just been used to being unaccountable. I mean they, they feel like they have impunity and the minute anybody questions them, all of a sudden, you know, we’re accused of making them feel guilty about slavery and all that. But the point is that no, you weren’t around then obviously, but you know, what are you going to do about the effects of slavery? Are you going to ignore the effect on our contemporary lives and then they feel victimized and that you’re not giving them a break, which is ludicrous. You know?
Nima: There was this New York Times Magazine that came out in January of 1991 when this politically correct explosion happened in the media. And one of the things they said was quote, “To the politically correct, everything is political.” End quote. And it’s like, no, no, no, everything is political, there is no baseline, of well the white person coming to your campus is not political because they’re just saying the normal stuff. And then if you talk about slavery, if you talk about imperialism, if you talk about colonialism, well then you’re bringing politics to that. And like that’s where the rubber meets the road here where there’s this assumed baseline.
David Palumbo-Liu: You’re exactly right. And when they say we don’t want to politicize the campus, the campus was politicized to begin with. I mean, you know, with the very notion of who’s going to decide what is taught, what a discipline looks like, what knowledge looks like. That’s all political. But you’re exactly right. They think that because it’s been going along so well for so long, according to them that it shows that zero politics works when in actuality all it is, is the perpetuation of the same mindset over and over again.
Adam: Yeah. There’s one immutable law of media which is the first person who says, don’t politicize something, is already politicizing it. And it’s just Maddie has competition.
David Palumbo-Liu: That’s it. That’s it.
Adam: Um, on that note, we should probably let you go.
Nima: Thank you so much David Palumbo-Liu, Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, uh, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
David Palumbo-Liu: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.
Adam: Yeah, David’s great. I’ve been following his writing for a long time. He’s very good at creating space for honest conversations about what it means to be anti-fascist and like what that means in a contemporary setting. It’s funny to watch - not funny, I suppose it’s kind of tragic - to watch the right-wing try to paint him as this left-wing, radical left-wing character when he’s such a sober and intellectually curious guy. But you know, that’s, that’s how the right-wing media machine works. Um-
Nima: Yeah, just to point out the, uh, the Vox article that he mentioned, um, the headline is from June 3, 2015 written by Edward Schlosser and the headline is, “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” One of the things that’s actually said during the course of this asinine piece is under one of the section headings, which is, “Now boat-rocking isn’t just dangerous — its suicidal.” He recounts this anecdote and it goes like this. Now remember he’s talking about what he’s claiming are liberal students that he is scared of. Here’s the little anecdote. “I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to [quote] ‘offensive’ [unquote] texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate.” And he uses that as a way to say that now he’s self censoring his own syllabi, etcetera, but what is so strange about this is if the students that were really upset and freaked out about that stuff, if they were actually liberal, they wouldn’t be. Because Edward Said and Mark Twain clearly are not the ones that are going to make students on the left freak out. It kind of gives lie to this entire swath of articles like this.
Adam: There’s an old saying, right, which is that data is not the plural of anecdotes and so much of this discourse is just a series of anecdotes. Now I do have one short paragraph I’d like to throw out, which is I definitely think there are instances where I hear a story and I think, okay, you know, even after I interrogate it or look closely or look at the details and say, yeah, that’s a little silly or that’s disproportionate, or frankly even some of the stuff is kind of I think can be used to disrupt left spaces in a way that’s kind of unhelpful and I think it would be intellectually dishonest not to sort of acknowledge that that’s a current that does exist. I don’t think it’s any more or less than it has been in the past though. I think that’s kind of where I draw the line, but the issue fundamentally is one of a) proportionality and b), you know, college is supposed to be a place where you experiment. That’s the whole point of college. It’s one of the major points of college. It’s supposed to be a place where you assert yourself and say, this is the new way I look at the world, and sometimes I think some of those may, at least in my opinion, and I say this as a cis white male, maybe a little bit gratuitous or unhelpful or or kind of silly, but that is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the larger, you know, attempts to stifle speech.
Adam: And the alternative as we talked at the beginning of the show, is that in general things have gotten much better in terms of how we talk about people and people’s identities in a way that I don’t think is possible without political correctness. So in a way I think some of the excesses as it were or collateral damage towards the larger sort of project or a larger goal and I think the hand wringing over them is really about finding the more extreme examples because again, there are millions and millions of students in this country. Right? If you didn’t give me any, any cohort of millions of people, I can find examples of things that are maybe silly. Right?
Nima: Yeah. Plenty of annoying shit. Exactly. Exactly.
Adam: Right, so it’s not that it per se doesn’t happen at all I think, but it’s, it’s so small and the way that the Koch brothers have this, have this network, the spy network, effectively, as we discussed earlier, is so cynical that I almost don’t even want to talk about those anecdotes because the way they’re achieved is through deeply, um, I think sinister means. Its sort of like with human rights were like what matters is emphasis. It’s not, it’s not so much that the underlying things aren’t true. It’s what are we focusing on? What does the media obsess over? What does Jon Chait, Nicholas Kristof and the right wing media obsess over? And when you actually run the numbers and look at the incidences of both political correctness and the stifling of speech as it were, it’s overwhelmingly an issue of the rich oppressing the poor and the institutions oppressing the student and not vice versa. And I think that’s, I think that’s where I kind of fall on this.
Nima: I actually have been thinking similar things. You know what I’ve heard from people very close to me that, oh well, you know, I, I do think that obviously we don’t want to stifle dissent and we don’t want to stifle protest obviously, but some things kind of take it too far. Well you can’t say anything in class now without people freaking out or trigger warnings or whatever. My response to that is always first off. Right. That’s far more anecdotal than widespread. But fine. Even anecdotally, if that’s what it takes, if it takes being annoyed, if it takes being a little frustrated by, oh well, you know what, we can’t even talk about that anymore. Whatever. If that’s what it takes to get to a better place as a whole to actually start recognizing people who have been marginalized and discriminated against their entire lives, their entire communities having been marginalized and discriminated against for centuries. If that’s what it takes to make the pendulum swing back just a little bit, this discomfort, this annoyance, this frustration, this sort of like, you know, ‘back in my day, like we used to, you know, be able to say whatever we wanted to in my post modernism literature class.’ It’s like, yeah, no fucking shit, but sometimes sometimes it needs to go the other way and it may be annoying, but if you’re annoyed by it, it’s because you have the privilege to be annoyed by it. Its because you’re the one who has never had to think about that before, that it doesn’t bother you automatically, that it doesn’t butt up against who you are, where you come from, um, who you love, what you look like, whatever it may be, the privilege to be frustrated by that gives it away. Well, tough shit. People are offended by it. So maybe things will be annoying for a little while anecdotally. And then hopefully, I’ll put my optimism hat on, hopefully, things can get a little better in the long run. As the apocryphal quote goes, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
Adam: Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. So why don’t we call it a day there.
Nima: Perfect. Thank you everyone for listening, of course, to Citations Needed. Follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod; Facebook: Citations Needed. Help us out on Patreon: Citations Needed Podcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Help us not hawk mattresses and snack packs. Always appreciated, especially our critical level supporters. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Our production consultant is Josh Kross. Our research assistant is Sophia Steinert-Evoy. The music is by Granddaddy. Thanks so much for listening everyone. Catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, March 28, 2018.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.