political correctness

Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Political Correctness Debate Hits NYU

The debate among NYU students, as well as all university students, is whether the culture of political correctness should be promoted or reevaluated.

Nov 12, 2016

The past few years have seen an increasing wave of efforts to provide university students with protection from potentially disturbing material. However, many sources argue that these efforts, although well-intentioned, often promote coercive political correctness, jeopardizing freedom of speech.
On Sept. 12, New York University Professor Michael Rectenwald first tweeted from his Twitter account called Deplorable NYU Prof. He used that platform to anonymously voice defiant opinions against safe spaces and trigger warnings. His posts and the consequences that followed are only a part of a larger issue: the numerous controversies arising from the culture of political correctness.
Safe spaces and trigger warnings have given rise to a new politically-correct vocabulary. In a speech for incoming freshmen at Clark University, Chief Diversity Officer Sheree Marlowe defined microagressions as negative comments that may unintentionally cause harm by targeting people based on their membership in a marginalized group.
According to an article in The Atlantic, trigger warnings and avoidance of microaggressions may have a negative impact on a student’s growth.
“It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong,” argued the authors.
In April 2015, Christina Hoff Sommers, American Enterprise Institute Scholar and conservative author, was scheduled to give a talk at Oberlin College. Known for her conservative views on feminism and rape culture, Sommers’ conference generated unrest among the students.
A group of students decided to organize a safe space for students who felt negatively affected by this event.
Students also put up posters accusing her of misogyny and supporting rapists. During her speech, some of them wore duct tape over their mouths, while others jeered at her remarks. According to Sommers, the reactions to her speech put her physical safety at risk.
“Oberlin activists had ‘safe space’ for those triggered by my talk. Oberlin admin. provided police security to protect me from safe spacers,” said Sommers on her Twitter account.
Another similar incident that preceded Rectenwald’s controversy was the Halloween incident at Yale University in 2015. It started with an email sent by 13 administrators to all Yale students; they discouraged Halloween costumes which were deemed culturally insensitive. In response, Professor Erika Christakis sent an email to her residential community calling into question the right of the administration to outlaw certain costumes. Christakis and her husband, Professor Nicholas Christakis, said that this threatened freedom of expression.
Students subsequently accused the Christakis’ of promoting cultural insensitivity. Students petitioned for their resignation and left handwritten criticisms outside their home. Widely-circulated videos showed large crowds of students gathering around Dr. Christakis, confronting him for his views.
In an outburst of anger, one of the students even shouted to the professor, “You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!” As a result of the events, the Christakis’ decided to go on leave.
Almost a year later, and partly as a consequence of the aforementioned incidents, Rectenwald revealed his identity as the Deplorable NYU Prof. “My contention is that the trigger warning, safe spaces and bias hotline reporting is not politically correct. It is insane,” said Rectenwald, referring to NYU’s stand on political correctness.
“This stuff is producing a culture of hypervigilance, self-surveillance and panopticism,” he added.
He was criticized by other NYU professors for the incivility of his Twitter posts. One of the most controversial tweets — “What if Trump triggers a few hundred thousand liberal totalitarians to jump out of their dorm windows? one can only hope. #TriggerWarning.” — was heavily criticized for encouraging suicide.
Rectenwald also was condemned for ridiculing transgender pronouns: “Conservative Student Now 'HIS MAJESTY' As University of Michigan Lets Students Pick Their Own Pronouns.”
According to Rectenwald, who is now on a paid leave, the NYU administration strongly encouraged him to go on leave as a consequence of his tweets.
The official website of NYU published the correspondence between Professor Michael Rectenwald and Dean Fred Schwarzbach, showing the disagreement between Rectenwald and the administration.
“Contrary to what you have been saying publicly, we don't give leaves based on faculty members' posts on social media,” expressed Schwarzbach in his first email. He noted that the paid leave was requested by Rectenwald himself and that it was unrelated to his Twitter posts. Rectenwald did not explicitly deny that statement in the email exchange.
Whether or not Rectenwald’s claim was veracious, the culture of political correctness remains an unsolved issue among university students. The latest point of controversy is the letter sent to students by the University of Chicago, which explains that trigger warnings and safe spaces, while not forbidden, are not supported by the university. The letter was also heavily criticized.
Safe spaces and trigger warnings, while advocated by some, are often derided by others as an attack on freedom of expression; Rectenwald’s case is one of the many issues that have arisen as a result. The debate among NYU students, as well as all university students, is whether the culture of political correctness should be promoted or instead reevaluated.
Rodrigo Luque is Deputy News Editor. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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