Our United States of Fear: Meet the right's ridiculous new bogeyman

We're still No. 1 in panic. You see it in politics, the presidential race, education -- and especially the media

Published June 5, 2016 2:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Brian Snyder)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

As America continues its fall in international rankings of education, health and happiness, it becomes difficult for reasonable Americans to proclaim, “We’re number one!” There is one area in which the United States undoubtedly takes the top prize: panic. Barry Glassner, an award-winning sociologist, indicted the mass media, political class and general public’s collusion in the creation of a “culture of fear,” years ago with his book of the same name. The mood of the country is one of perpetual anxiety, and there is no shortage of politicians and pundits ready to convince a gullible, frightened people that we are mere inches away from Armageddon. The right wing, who have become so committed and disciplined in their hysteria that they’ve turned it into an art form, have recently nominated a new threat to the future of the nation, and the survival of Western Civilization – not illegal immigrants, or even Islamic terrorists, but indebted college students.

Not a day can pass without a cowardly and pathetic conservative, who missed his chance to condemn teenage Elvis Presley fans and long-haired hippies, warning of the dangers civil society faces from the “politically correct mob,” “social justice warriors,” and “coddled college students.” It is not just the right wing filling the cacophonous chorus of handwringers and weepers over nineteen-year-olds who have taken an interest in campus politics. The mainstream media often lends a hand by facilitating “debates” over college controversies with right wing terminology, and occasionally, a liberal, like the otherwise brilliant Jonathan Chait, will perform the familiar, “I’m a liberal but…” shtick. Kirsten Powers, a contributor for Fox News, earns her living as a master of the gimmick, and she has parlayed it into a lucrative book, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.

“Mob,” “warriors,” “silencing”: Spooky language, but no representation of the truth, or indication that the paranoiac has much sense. Certainly, there are examples of sanctimonious campus activists or overzealous professors acting with an excess of sensitivity until they become insensitive to the nuances of communication, the diversity of political ideology, and the importance of the university as a host and headquarters for robust dialogue. Contrary to the apocalyptic forecast of the PC myth, liberal activists and professors who stifle speech are such a small fragment of campus life, academic curricula, and college administration, that they are nearly insignificant.

I came to this realization after thinking about how in my six years teaching at two different universities, maintaining affiliation with my graduate school, speaking on several campuses, and having conversations with friends in the professorate at a variety of schools, I have never once experienced or witnessed an incident of politically correct suppression of speech nor have I heard of such an outrage occurring at the colleges where any of my friends teach. Some will claim that my experience is anomalous. Squads of Maoist cultural revolutionaries are indeed storming classrooms and throwing uncooperative students and instructors against the walls, but they just have not yet reached the campuses where I spend time in Indiana and around Chicago.

It turns out, however, that the data supports my story, and undermines the delirium of the self-righteous and self-appointed defenders of free speech against invisible censors.

In the spring of 2015, the National Coalition Against Censorship partnered with the Modern Language Association to survey 800 college professors from hundreds of different four year universities. Less than one percent of those surveyed said that their university mandated the use of “trigger warnings,” and only 34 percent said that they had ever “warned” students about the content of textual or visual material in the course. In most cases, the warnings were for graphic sexual or violent content. Also, 85 percent of the professors said that no student had ever requested a trigger warning, or asked about trigger warnings. Far from a muzzle on open discourse, the “trigger warning” is a largely non-existent device – more of a buzz term than a real policy.

John K. Wilson, an editor at the blog Academe, documents and describes in his book, The Myth of Political Correctness, that most suppression of free speech, especially on college campuses, comes from conservative and corporate forces, not overly aggressive leftists. The examples of right wing censorship far outnumber liberal crackdowns. When critics of academia jumped on a story about Mount Holyoke College rejecting a plan to bring The Vagina Monologues to campus, because it excluded the perspective of transgendered women, they did not bother to learn or mention that administration at Catholic universities are responsible for prohibiting performances of the same play 22 times. Similarly, there is much paranoia surrounding the prosecution of “microaggressions,” but most investigations of “offensive” behavior result in no disciplinary action. Steven Salaita, who lost his job at the University of Illinois for expressing opposition to Israel’s policies against Palestine, and Norman Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at DePaul University for his own pro-Palestine position and scholarship, were not so lucky. Oddly enough, their cases are never cited as evidence in the case against speech codes at universities.

It is impossible to argue that political correctness is never responsible for reducing the amplification of conservative opinions, but College Republican student groups exists at nearly every university in the country, and many of the examples of supposed censorship amount to nothing more than misunderstandings. Writers and pundits love to reference Jerry Seinfeld’s refusal to perform on college campuses as devastating proof of the oversensitivity of contemporary students. It is likely that students do not react well to Seinfeld’s observational humor, not because they find it objectionable, but because they don’t find it funny. Humor, like music, is generational.

Another favorite episode in the epic myth of political correctness is when Muslim students at the University of Michigan, in their rabid hatred for free expression, shut down a screening of American Sniper on campus. Reality is much less dramatic. Islamic student groups criticized the movie’s placement in an entertainment film series on campus among family comedies and superhero movies. As a substitute, they suggested screening the movie as a prelude to a student-led debate over the war in Iraq, the Middle East, and Islamaphobia. The students wanted more speech, not less. Just as often as not, the dealers of the “victim card” on campus are the white conservatives and moderates who believe their aesthetic and philosophy should occupy the center of campus by default. Only when their authority becomes subject to scrutiny do tearful cries of “political correctness” begin to echo through hallways and classrooms.

If a problem of political participation does exist among college students, it is not one of stridency, but apathy. Voter turnout rates among young Americans are consistently low, and involvement in campus politics is even lower. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA recently polled 141,000 college students, and found that only 9 percent of them expressed interest in even attending a campus protest. Argus Johnston, a historian of student movements, compiled a timeline of every campus protest of the 2014-15 year, enumerating the final count at 160. As one would guess, many colleges were the site of more than one protest. There are 2,474 four-year universities in the United States, meaning that in the 2014-15 academic year, less than 6.4 percent of American universities had even a single demonstration on campus. Anyone who spends much time at a university quickly discovers that the overwhelming majority of students do not care about “critical race theory” or “intersectional feminism.” Most of them probably could not even attempt to define those terms. Instead, they care about getting a job when they graduate, and having a little fun before that happens.

The deranged mania over political correctness appears as if it is merely hyperactive whining, but it actually amounts to something much more insidious. First, it helps to scaffold the right wing war against higher education and the liberal arts. America has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism, and people suspicious of book learnin’ have now coalesced with cynical conservative governors to assault the purpose and promise of acquiring a liberal education. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker attempted, but failed, to remove all language about learning for the sake of learning from the University of Wisconsin charter. If successful, he would have transformed his state’s largest public university system into a network of career preparation academies and trade schools. Sam Clovis, who holds the oxymoronic position of higher education advisor to Donald Trump, is an advocate of making universities “share the risk” on student loans for those who major in less vocational fields, such as English, philosophy, of any of the fine arts. Many universities, on their own accord, continue to cut funding for the humanities, and only eight percent of college students currently major in the humanities. A large amount of students already relegate their higher educational experience to job training, and that is partially because of its exorbitant and outrageous cost.

The true cancer killing the college experience is not the occasional outburst from a group of students who have not yet gained the maturity to express their concerns about racism or sexism in a way that does not alienate people. It is the subtle, but painful extortion against students, and their families, in the form of inflated tuition. The average college graduate leaves the commencement stage with a Bachelor’s Degree in one hand, and a bill of debt totaling $29,000 in the other. The burden of massive debt inhibits young Americans’ ability to purchase homes, buy cars, and start businesses, but leave it to Americans, particularly the right wing, to identify the problem with colleges as the students themselves. The transformation of scrutiny of the funding mechanism of universities, the growth of an administrative class, and the cruel and calculating increase in tuition, into an obsession over how a small minority of college students express their political beliefs is a tactic of deflection. It distracts policymakers and journalists from accurately diagnosing the real problem, and working to implement solutions, and turns their attention toward the frivolous and trivial.

The worst aspect of the anti-education hysteria sweeping the nation is the resentment it has engendered and the hostility it has encouraged against students. A favorite hobby of commentators, and even many political leaders who should know better, is to condemn an entire generation of young people as “coddled” and “weak.”

Without question I have had students who showcase a strong sense of entitlement, and believe that they deserve high grades without any investment of effort. During the typical semester, I have one or two of these students. I have far more students who inspire me to become a better teacher and kinder person.

Just this past semester, I had one student who received the grim news of a cancer diagnosis right about spring break. He still managed to turn in all of his work on time. I had another student who wrote about how her boyfriend in high school raped her, and her parents blamed her, because she did not adhere to their warnings about dating a non-Christian. Another student moved me to tears with her paper about becoming a binge drinker after the unexpected death of her father. Not long ago, I was taken by surprise when a student started to cry when I asked her why she had gone from attending every class to missing three consecutive weeks of class. She confessed that she was living in a homeless shelter with her daughter. She is now a registered nurse and homeowner.

Early in my teaching career, when a student of mine began behaving belligerently toward his classmates, and taking a hostile tone with me, I asked if he was experiencing any personal problems, and suggested that if he was not, he begin to behave with more civility. He explained that one year earlier, his parents died, and this was his first time back in college since he buried both his mom and dad. He now teaches high school history, and is planning his wedding.

Not one semester has passed without me learning that some of my students have suffered horrific losses, or overcome gruesome struggles, during their effort to study and work hard for a stable and successful future. The experience of teaching college students has made me more sensitive to the pain and more appreciative of the potential of other people.

The tough-talking phonies, who without taking the time to meet or understand young Americans, choose to denigrate and insult them are not “pro-free speech” or “anti-PC.” They are anti-human.



By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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