the national interest

Barack Obama Versus Political Correctness

Barack Obama, speaking yesterday. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders delivered a speech at Liberty University, where he received a respectful, if largely unsympathetic, hearing from an overwhelmingly right-wing Christian student body. Also yesterday, in a strange coincidence of timing, President Obama appeared at a town-hall meeting in Iowa, where a student asked him about Ben Carson’s proposal to cut off funding to allegedly biased universities. After denouncing the proposal, Obama allowed that the culture of the left on universities has grown deeply intolerant of opposing viewpoints — that, without citing or even necessarily being aware of Sanders’s speech in particular, the right-wing equivalent of Sanders delivering a speech on a liberal campus would produce outrage. Obama argued:

It’s not just sometimes folks who are mad that colleges are too liberal that have a problem. Sometimes there are folks on college campuses who are liberal, and maybe even agree with me on a bunch of issues, who sometimes aren’t listening to the other side, and that’s a problem too. I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that either. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think you should be able to — anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with ‘em. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.” That’s not the way we learn either.

Political correctness is an issue that breeds a lot of confusion. The term has been terribly abused over the years by conservatives who have used it to describe pretty much any form of liberalism or often just common decency to others. It of course should be possible to favor sensitivity to others and an awareness of the continuing power of racism and sexism without endorsing the extremes of p.c. culture, just as it was possible to oppose communism without resorting to McCarthyism. One of the problems with p.c. culture is that it allows the likes of Donald Trump to pass off their bigotry as opposition to political correctness (just as communists used McCarthyism to discredit all anti-communism).

Second, political correctness is a phenomenon found in numerically small, but disproportionate, corners of American life. The notion, frequently proposed by conservatives, that political correctness has overtaken American life as a whole is comical. At the same time, what’s going on is a broader phenomenon than “college students venting — in much the same style college students always have,” as my colleague Jesse Singal puts it. Political correctness is most closely associated with campus life, because the academy is one of the few institutions in the United States where the left has the ability to impose its hegemony. The political context of university life is very different from American politics as a whole. To conflate the two leads either to the conservative error of mistaking campus p.c. culture for the condition of American politics as a whole, or the progressive error of dismissing political correctness on the grounds that American politics as a whole is un-p.c.

A third source of confusion lies in the general proliferation of outrage culture. Across the political landscape, and especially in social media, the left and right — in roughly equal measure — have their own little bubbles of like-minded ideologues who descend en masse on outsiders who violate their beliefs, often unconstrained by any sense of proportion, context, or propriety. The right, too, has its own sealed-off thought bubbles, but this is not much of a defense, unless you look at the epistemic closure of the right as a model for liberals to emulate.

The right’s inability to conduct rational internal debate is on daily display and has had disastrous consequences for the country and the world. The impingement of this illiberal political culture on mainstream left-of-center debate is a problem of nontrivial scale. Barack Obama, as the most prominent liberal in America, has a unique power to reject an ideologically hostile virus for the liberal body politic.