Nell Irvin Painter


"The Ruckus Over Political Correctness," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 March 1994

From the issue dated March 23, 1994 

By Nell Irvin Painter

During the last several years I've been watching and sometimes reluctantly entering the ruckus over political correctness, better known as PC. I've been called a "queen of political correctness" for defending affirmative action. I've been ridiculed and have even received some ugly hate mail for supporting multiculturalism and questioning the ways in which universities were run before faculties and student bodies became more diverse. The definition of PC always seems one-sided to me, though: People who decry hate speech, cartoons, or other actions directed against members of minority groups are accused of being over-sensitive and are denigrated as being PC, while the people who characterized the groups in derogatory ways in the first place become heroes of free speech or otherwise get off the hook.

Various kinds of bigotry exist: homophobia, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, to name the most salient. In the last few years, when some of us tried to explore ways to combat the first three types, we heard a lot about the First Amendment and were warned against limiting free expression in the service of political correctness. Freedom of speech, we were told, is a fundamental American value, more precious than the sensitivities of those who might be bruised by the speech.

Yet consider the current situation, in the wake of wide publicity about the deeply anti-Semitic statements of some black activists in speeches at college campuses. Although many scholars and college administrators grudgingly admit that such activists must be allowed to speak in public forums, their position is subject to tremendous opposition. What I am hearing now are demands that hate speech be condemned immediately. Two questions come to my mind: Why are those who decry the anti-Jewish statements not also labeled politically correct? Is speech directed against Jews somehow different or more serious than speech directed against people of color or gays?

Within the current lexicon, PC has been used to characterize objections to many kinds of speech and behavior, ranging from anger over jokes and banter, to insistence that speech considered offensive cease, to a broad attempt to censor speech that is deemed incorrect because it might, through some stretch of imagination, offend a tiny, marginal group.

Last year, the news media highlighted one memorable example of what critics labeled PC in action -- the suppression of free speech by some African-American students at the University of Pennsylvania. The students carried off and destroyed a portion of the press run of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the undergraduate znewspaper. The students contended that the newspaper had repeatedly published racist material.

After national news reports about the incident, Sheldon Hackney, then president of the university, was questioned closely about the incident during a hearing on his nomination to be chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Mr. Hackney, his opponents charged, had caved in to the demands of political correctness by failing to discipline vigorously the students who had suppressed speech that should have been protected under the First Amendment. As this story was cast in the media, emphasis fell squarely on the black students' bad conduct; virtually no attention was paid to the material that originally sparked the students' anger -- for example, a photograph of a black man drinking cheap wine under the caption "West Philadelphian," which students saw as a racist generalization about the area around the university.

Time and again, charges of politically correct behavior have played out the same way. Members of minority groups and feminists and homosexuals are cast as villains who infringe on freedom of speech and clamor for censorship for reasons that are, finally, illegitimate.

A completely separate discussion is going on now about anti-Semitic utterances by black (not white) anti-Semites. The recent history of this phenomenon, which has received sustained media coverage, goes back to the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 Presidential campaign and his small-minded remarks about Jews in New York City. Demands that Mr. Jackson apologize arose immediately and continued for years, despite several mea culpas on his part. Prominent black New Yorkers also came under pressure to condemn and re-condemn Mr. Jackson's statements.

Ten years later, Mr. Jackson's "Hymie-town" slur seems relatively innocuous, since the talk has gotten much worse. Two leading figures in the Nation of Islam, its head, Louis Farrakhan, and his former top aide, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, have become emblems of public anti-Semitism. Mr. Farrakhan has delivered enough ugly speeches to make his name a symbol of hatred, and, in a speech late last year at Kean College, Mr. Muhammad vociferously attacked Jews and practically everyone else, including black people who disagree with him. Other African Americans have received prominent coverage for their nasty and senseless verbal assaults against Jews -- the City College of New York professor Leonard Jeffries and the pan-Africanist Kwame Toure (known in the 1960's and 1970's as Stokely Carmichael). The air has crackled with calls for their condemnation, from the editorial page of my local newspaper in New Jersey to the halls of Congress.

Today's anti-Semitism is indeed disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is its atavism. However, rather than replaying the coarse ethnic and racial humor that has been a staple of American life since the early 19th century (as exemplified in Jesse Jackson's 1984 remark), Mr. Farrakhan and Mr. Muhammad have resuscitated the terms of 19th- and early-20th-century European anti-Semitism. They seem to have been mining that fraudulent source of European bigotry, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a 1905 document claiming that Jews wanted to take over the world. They are using it as a means to replay the accusations made by the leaders of Nazi Germany: Jews control all the power in society; they have joined in a conspiracy against us (defined as whoever is making the charges); Jews, though a numerically small minority, are our most potent enemies.

This kind of demagoguery has evoked a tide of denunciation, for not only does it spew gratuitous hatred against millions of Americans, it also belongs to a deadly tradition. It should come as no surprise that a people who have lost so many to the Holocaust are now deeply alarmed by hearing again some of the phrases that preceded it.

But this reaction applies to other people, as well. Any people whose history is full of oppression is understandably sensitive to the lexicon of hate, and other people besides Jews have been subjected to such hate and have been targets of violence and discrimination. Today the other languages of bigotry -- such as racism and homophobia -- are not being taken with the same seriousness as is anti-Semitism.

Let me return to those black students at the University of Pennsylvania. The news reports that circulated nationally never revealed what had been published in The Daily Pennsylvanian that had upset the black students who were so roundly damned as agents of PC. As the words that had hurt the University of Pennsylvania students disappeared beneath a pile of outrage over threats to freedom of speech, those young black people became assailants without a cause. According to media coverage, only they were in the wrong -- not whatever had appeared in the newspaper's columns.

Comparing the lack of public concern about the nature and details of the black students' grievances against the newspaper with the publicity accorded their action is, indeed, quite revealing. And it fits into a long tradition of ignoring or trivializing the terrible things that happen to African Americans -- black life, for instance, seems always to have counted for rather little, when compared with the value of the lives of whites.

The silence surrounding what appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian speaks all the louder when set against the coverage of Mr. Muhammad's and Mr. Farrakhan's speeches, which have been quoted directly, again and again. Every editorial, every news story, contains some of the specific offending quotations.

The clamor provoked by Mr. Muhammad and Mr. Farrakhan seldom includes ringing demands for protection of their freedom of speech. These days, in fact, the cry of freedom of speech is seldom heard. A New Jersey Assemblyman is sponsoring a bill to ban incendiary speakers and deprive colleges of state funds if they let rabble-rousers use their facilities.

As disturbing as the disparity is between the response to the Penn students and to spokesmen for the Nation of Islam, this gap suggests a means of dealing with both PC and anti-Semitism. In our current public life, where bigotry against many kinds of people is flourishing, we can combine our concerns for freedom of speech and our antipathy to anti-Semitism.

Why not, in a spirit of reconciliation, deal with all hate speech in the same way, no matter whom it hurts? Let everyone talk -- yes, even bigots. But at the same time that we uphold freedom of speech, let us denounce all words that denigrate members of groups that have suffered discrimination. Let us denounce anti-Semitism vigorously and indefatigably. But let our denunciations not stop with anti-Semitism.

Let us protest against all speech that insults our fellow citizens, be they black, female, gay, lesbian, fat, disabled, or Jewish. Let us set aside the PC narrative that turns the targets of hate speech into the targets of ridicule: no more jokes about "differently abled, visually challenged, lesbian, Jewish, Native Americans"; no more automatic rejection -- without even looking at the material in question -- when students of color or women protest that what they are assigned to read is insulting. When students or colleagues, particularly those who have not previously been numerous in academe complain of discrimination, their complaints should be taken as seriously as we take anti-Semitism, not ridiculed as representing PC.

I'm not advocating hate-speech codes or calling for protests. I am suggesting that various kinds of insult be taken with the same gravity. It is time that we reaffirmed the values of fellowship and decency by admitting that intolerance -- whether anti-Semitism, racism, or homophobia -- intimidates and injures others. Better to reach out to one another and acknowledge that any hateful invective hurts its intended targets -- and should be subject to quick condemnation. It's time to bury accusations of political correctness.

Nell Irvin Painter, professor of history at Princeton University, is completing a biography of Sojourner Truth.

Reproduced from The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 March 1994. Copyright Nell Irvin Painter.

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