On a winter’s night 20 years ago, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who was working on an English paper heard a ruckus outside his dorm. A group of sorority sisters was singing, stomping and yelling, and he couldn’t concentrate. So he shouted out the window at them: “Shut up, you water buffalo!”
The young man, Eden Jacobowitz, was Jewish. The women he yelled at that night were black. He was subsequently accused of violating Penn’s policy against racial harassment. In the months that followed, what became known as “the Water Buffalo Incident” would threaten the confirmation of Penn’s then-president, Sheldon Hackney, as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; attract the attention of the ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee; provide the world with a thorough gloss of the Hebrew wordbehema, which translates more or less to “ox of water” and is used in Israel, where Jacobowitz had lived and studied, to mean “thoughtless, rowdy person”; and be dissected, in such forums as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Times of London, Rolling Stone, theVillage Voice and the New York Times, as the ultimate example of political correctness run amok. The women eventually dropped their complaint against Jacobowitz, stating that the media uproar prevented them from getting a fair hearing. He graduated, sued Penn, went to law school, and went into human resources. No one involved in the incident wants to talk about it today.
The international outrage over what happened to Jacobowitz should have stopped PC in its tracks. Instead, that outrage was swept aside by a rising tidal wave of people claiming offense over nonsense. In the decades since, PC has spiraled out of control, starting on college campuses and graduating into the real world, eventually splitting the nation into two sides, red and blue, that don’t speak to one another, despise each other, and don’t even bother to try to understand the other’s point of view.
That, anyway, is the argument made by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Philly-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (a.k.a. FIRE), in his new book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. He posits that political correctness has hamstrung free speech, resulting in a society where citizens lack the “experience of uninhibited debate and casual provocation” that keeps minds open and dialogue flowing. People lose their jobs because of jokes and misinterpretations; they’re hung out to dry in public when they misspeak; they quake in fear of being accused of “disrespect.”
Those who dare question whether these offended parties have actually suffered harm are shouted down by the hurt-feelings “sensitivity” industry and social media and news organizations trolling for hits. And the costs of disagreeing with the PC guardians ratchet ever upward—costs that all of us pay.
Penn’s water buffalo debacle marked the moment when a remark ceased to be assessed on its merits and instead became subject to the ears of the beholder. Jacobowitz’s epithet wasn’t racial, but the women shouting outside his window perceived it to be. The content no longer mattered; their reaction, their hurt feelings, did, and that’s what the administration acted on in charging the freshman with using a racial slur.
This didn’t go unnoticed. An American Lit prof at Duke University at the time warned that under such logic, language would “cease to have any communicative value.” Proof of this came soon enough in incidents—in Washington, D.C., at the University of Wisconsin, in North Carolina, and as recently as 2009 in California and 2011 in Florida—in which the word “niggardly,” derived from a Scandinavian term and meaning “stingy,” resulted in resignations, reprimands, firings and at least one lawsuit. In the Wisconsin case, the student who complained about her Chaucer prof’s use of the word fumed that it continued even after she informed him that she was offended. She told the faculty senate, “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.”
In the post-Buffalo world, as Lukianoff puts it, “Claiming to be offended is the ultimate trump card in any argument.” You hurt my feelings, and that makes you wrong. This is the process whereby TV anchor Jennifer Livingston became a cause célèbre for complaining she was “bullied” by a viewer who emailed to chide her for being obese. She retorted on the air: “You can call me fat and, yes, even obese on a doctor’s chart. … You don’t know me. … I am much more than a number on a scale.” All of which is true, but … was her pen pal bullying her? He’d concluded his email, “I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.” If Livingston hadn’t been so ready to jump on the victim wagon, she might have interpreted his words as a gentle remonstrance that she take better care of herself.
Why, in disagreements ranging from Chinese Tiger Moms to sequestration to boycotting Chick-fil-A, are we so ready to vilify those who criticize us? When I spoke with Lukianoff, he mentioned Jonathan Haidt’s theory, put forward in the speech “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” that we “sacralize” our own points of view, believing them to be particularly righteous and moral. “And that means we demonize the other side,” Lukianoff explained. “If you disagree with me, you’re a bad person.” We learn these habits, Lukianoff says, in school, where we’re taught that there are right ways and wrong ways to think.
What’s a wrong way to think? Ask Alex Watkins, who was suspended from second grade at his Colorado elementary school for hurling an imaginary grenade at an imaginary box to save the world from evil. Or, locally, the Penns Grove Middle School teacher who let a student make a “Wanted” poster for a runaway slave for a history lesson, and had a black activist complain. Or the Georgia college kid who was expelled after he protested his school president’s plan to build a parking garage. The student posted on Facebook that the project was a “memorial” parking garage; the president claimed this amounted to a violent threat to murder him. Really. In all three cases, anyone with a lick of sense would see an incident blown way out of proportion by people who … well, who want everybody to think the same way they do.
We all want that; it’s human nature to desire to be among like-minded companions, unless you make your living as a radio talk-show host. But we need disagreement, Lukianoff warns, if we are to learn and grow. Consider the “speech code” at Swarthmore College, which defines sexual harassment to include “unwelcome verbal or physical advances; persistent leers; sexual innuendoes, comments or jokes; the persistent use of irrelevant references or remarks to a person’s gender, sexuality or sexual orientation; sexist remarks about the target’s clothing or body; expressions using sex stereotypes whether or not they were made about or directed to the grievant and whether or not intended to insult or degrade … ” [emphasis mine]. Now imagine you’re a Swarthmore student taking, say, the course “Race, Gender and Environment.” Do you foresee classroom discussion being furthered by that code? Or perhaps you’re just a 19-year-old kid who’s kidding around. A fellow student who takes offense at something you say can haul you up in front of the disciplinary board whether or not you intended to insult him—because his feelings get hurt.
And you can bet there will be a phalanx of folks to help him cope with those feelings. A student at Penn who feels she’s been sexually harassed has, according to the student handbook, a choice of the following on-campus resources from which to seek “information and counseling”: the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs; the African-American Resource Center; the Penn Behavioral Health Employee Assistance Program; the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Labor Relations; the Office of the Ombudsman; the Division of Human Resources of the Office of Staff Relations; the Division of Public Safety, Special Services; Penn’s Women’s Center; Student Health Services; Counseling and Psychological Services; and the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life. Christ, no wonder the school costs $60,000 a year.