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Earthquake in P.C. Land

By Jonathan Rauch
National Journal, March 6, 1999

We in Washington, as you know, have a pretty good handle on this country. The United States is best thought of as a system of laws, rules, regulations, programs, agencies, court cases, bills, findings, judgments, allowances, deductions, credits, and administrative proceedings that we in the capital nurture and tend with the loving hand of a benevolent gardener. We know why crime has fallen: our momentous 1994 crime bill. We know why the divorce rate has declined: our momentous 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. We know why the economy is strong: our momentous 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1996, and 1997 tax bills.

Still, it must be confessed that once in a blue moon, without our help, the culture out there spontaneously shifts, sometimes even in ways that matter. In Madison, Wis., something like that happened on Monday.

To the surprise of no one so much as itself, on March 1 the faculty of the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus revoked the university's speech code for professors. Now, when I say this is notable, I must confess a certain bias. For years I've been writing and agitating against speech codes, and the opportunity to agitate arose again when a free-speech group called the Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights invited me there to give a talk. (They paid my travel expenses, though my speech was free, pardon the expression.) Still, what I saw when I got there was not what I had expected to see.

UW is, after all, an epicenter of political correctness. It promulgated a speech code for students in the 1980s, when that was what everybody was doing, only to have the code blown away by a federal judge who ruled it unconstitutional in 1991. ``If we cannot use this kind of rule, we will find other ways'' to fight racism, swore the university's then-chancellor--one Donna E. Shalala, who went on to become President Clinton's Health and Human Services secretary. But the university's second attempt at a speech code ran afoul of another court decision, in 1992. Since then, the students have had to make do with the First Amendment.

The faculty, though, was another story. In the 1980s, UW was among the first schools to institute a speech code for professors, and this code was never taken to court. The notion was, and still is, that federal antidiscrimination law entitles minority students to a non-``hostile'' educational environment. So faculty were warned darkly that professors' ``expressive behavior'' (what you and I call ``speech'') is ``subject to discipline'' if it ``is commonly considered by persons of a particular gender, race, cultural background, ethnicity, or handicap to be demeaning to members of that group''; if a listener has objected to such speech; and if the speech ``makes the instructional setting hostile or intimidating or demeaning to members of the group of average sensibilities.''

Here, in one odious little package, are all the hallmarks of the politically correct mind. The rule sees only groups, not individuals; it gives sensitized (or politicized) listeners a veto power over others' speech; its vague language sets no clear limits on the speakers' jeopardy. To say that the code perpetrated a reign of terror on campus would be wrong. It was rarely used, and many professors were unaware of its existence until the repeal movement gained force. But it did reflect the ethos of an era when the mere accusation of racism was a sentence of perdition.

In 1990, an art professor named Richard Long was spuriously accused of antisemitism by two graduate students with axes to grind. Neither of them was Jewish, but never mind: In Stalinesque secrecy--meaning that everybody knew except the target--the university proceeded to investigate Long, without notifying him formally, naming a plaintiff, or detailing any charges. In 1991, Long, who is an ebulliently outspoken conservative, was finally summoned to answer such questions as, ``Have you ever used the word `feminazi'?'' Still later, the matter was dropped as mysteriously as it arose. Long was neither charged nor vindicated.

``I was devastated,'' he says. ``Your name is tarnished forever. For 20 years I tried to do everything they asked me to do. I loved being a professor. My father was a tenant farmer, so I saw this as a kind of opportunity. I venerated this university. I was a fool, obviously.''

In those days, the speech code and the climate it represented looked as sturdy as the Berlin Wall--which, it turns out, is exactly how sturdy they were. In 1999, Long is rubbing his eyes. ``I thought this would last a thousand years,'' says Long. ``I never thought it would change in my lifetime.''

What happened? First, a string of cases like Long's alarmed a few professors, who asked the university to reconsider the speech code. By 1997, when the faculty senate appointed a committee to reconsider the code, even its proponents were ready for some change. The question was how much.

A lot, in the event. The committee's moderate majority proposed a new rule, one that began with an endorsement of academic freedom and ended with due process protections for accused professors. In the middle was language that substantially narrowed the threat to free speech, mostly repudiating (for instance) the ``don't offend minorities'' standard.

A radical faction on the committee, however, favored an even weaker code, or no code at all. In this group were the committee's three student representatives, one of them openly gay and another, Asian-American. ``That was pretty powerful,'' says Jason Shepard, the gay senior on the committee, ``to have the three students be the ones constantly advocating a weaker speech code.'' Here were the professors talking about protecting the sensibilities of minority students, and there were the minority students saying: Please--don't protect us!

To their own amazement, the radicals ended up losing in the committee by only one vote. Even more to their amazement, when the moderates' code went to the faculty senate in December, one professor after another rose to denounce it for providing too little protection for speech. A man who claimed to have tasted repression under South American regimes said that the moderates' proposal ``doesn't pay enough respect to the precious Bill of Rights.'' Alarmed, the pro-code forces rallied, and last month they played their trump card.

On Feb. 1, at another faculty senate meeting, a series of student activists rose to defend the speech code--which, by then, meant defending the moderates' limited but still substantial reform. (No one was bothering to defend the old code anymore; that was how much the ground had already shifted.) One black student leader said he ``cannot tell you how often'' he heard complaints about professors' insensitive comments.

Why, he said, something had happened just last week! In one of those peculiar coincidences known to us journalists as a ``trend,'' up to the microphone came a junior who reported that, in a Chaucer class, her professor had used the word ``niggardly.'' She complained to him, but in the next class (this was a few days after ``niggardly'' had, notoriously, cost a D.C. government official his job) the teacher opened a discussion of the issue, apparently in an effort to make clear that he had not in fact used a racist term. But in his attempt, he used the word again, five or six times. ``Even after I said to him how bad it hurt me and how I felt, he still went on as if I didn't matter and as if my feelings weren't valid,'' she told the faculty senate. Around the room, mouths fell open. ``I was stunned,'' one professor told me.

As it happens, ``niggardly'' wouldn't have been banned under even the moderates' speech code. But the faculty got the message. And so, on Monday night, the faculty approved a new code on ``expression in instructional settings'' whose operative sentences are these:

``The university is, therefore, unswervingly committed to freedom of speech as guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and to the principle of academic freedom. . . . Accordingly, all expression germane to the instructional setting--including, but not limited to, information, the presentation or advocacy of ideas, assignment of course materials, and teaching techniques--is protected from disciplinary action.''

To a great extent, the power of political correctness lies not in argument but in intimidation: in its proponents' use of charges of racism and sexism and what have you, along with threats of formal sanction or informal harassment, to browbeat their critics. P.C. people forever speak of the power of racist or sexist or homophobic speech to ``silence'' minorities, but everyone knows who has been doing the silencing. To visit UW today is to see that people there are no longer afraid.

Full archive of Jonathan Rauch's National Journal columns (at Reason magazine)
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