I have been somewhat amused by the current rage in the press to attack "politically correct" thought on our college campuses - where faculty and students are alleged to have launched an intellectual reign of terror against anyone they deem sexist or racist - because it has been a caricature of contemporary debates. Now I'm not so sure it is a laughing matter.
The charge of PC was rarely heard on campus before the press picked it up. Indeed, difficult issues regarding curricular and policy reforms have been discussed with notable respect.Where, then, does the term originate? Its most recent manifestation is found in "Illiberal Education" by Dinesh D'Souza, a former editor of the notorious Dartmouth Review and currently a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. Other attacks have also been initiated by the New Right off campus and subsequently been picked up by popular magazines, like Newsweek with its Dec. 24 cover story questioning whether there was not a "New McCarthyism" on campus.
The gist of the charges is that attempts to diversify college student bodies and the curriculum to reflect more accurately the true diversity of peoples and intellectual perspectives represent a wholesale effort to purge white males and the whole Western tradition from the university.
But this is not what I hear on campus. What I hear are exciting opportunities to expand, not limit, our views by adding previously unrepresented perspectives by women, minorities and non-Westerners that allow us to see our society, our history and our works of art in the round.
The debate is not about banning Shakespeare; it is about adding Zora Neale Hurston or Tony Morrison as perceptive writers on the human experience. It does not seek to eliminate the study of freedom in American history, but to ponder our equally long history of unfreedom to learn how democratic ideas coexisted and indeed flourished in the presence of slavery.
In short, the attempt is not to exclude, but to realize our pluralist democratic traditions more fully. Nor is the debate simply about adding new content, for in incorporating views previously excluded from history and literature we see the whole in illuminating new ways.
Why then is the Right so worried? Are they so threatened by knowledge that challenges conservative orthodoxy that it is they, in fact, who seek to exclude and narrow our vision, thus negating the very traditions of critical inquiry they claim to uphold?
They must be, because their tactics of thought control are truly Orwellian, accusing their opponents of doing precisely what they are guilty of themselves. Censor the opposition by accusing it of censorship. Attack classical liberal learning as illiberal. And, in the cruelest twist of all, label their victims as McCarthyites.
A university electronic bulletin board recently carried the following anonymous question: "How come it is acceptable for you to call me racist, sexist or homophobic, but not for me to call you a nigger, kike or queer?" The question is appalling for its sheer ignorance of the difference between examining ideas and prejudging individuals.
It is a similar failure of ignorance to distinguish between their own social and political values and the broader human experience that leads the Right to illiberal attacks on the very essence of the classical Western liberal tradition. This is what makes it as dangerous to our democratic values today as McCarthy was in the 1950s. We should be worried.