While I disagree with many of professor emeritus Dr. Robert Weissberg's individual points, I fully agree with him that political correctness limits the capacity of individuals, institutions and nations to engage in successful problem solving. And I believe that this increasingly will pose a disadvantage to the United States as it competes with China and other rapidly rising nations in economic, educational and political endeavors. I am not so troubled by liberal answers as I am by the myriad of questions and concepts that liberals are afraid to honestly explore. This engenders self censorship and limits our capacity to engage in effective problem solving and policy making. An example of this was seen when liberal Harvard Professor Robert D Putnam resisted releasing the findings of research that, much to his distress, demonstrated that increased diversity erodes civic involvement and social capital in communities. But, at the end of his paper he reverts back to political correctness and presents recommendations that do not logically stem from his findings. In spite of the social and economic strain that he documented, he declares that diversity is "inevitable" and "enriching" and recommends the creation of community centers. Underlying political correctness made it impossible to even explore the possibility that perhaps the social and economic costs of policies that actively increase diversity and undermine assimilation ,outweigh the benefits. This same mindset leads to that paradox that those who "celebrated diversity" or any other social phenomenomare rarely if ever willing to study their real social and economic impact.
A myriad of other beliefs are held as unexamined articles of faith and those who question these a priori truths are treated as heretics. For example when former President of Harvard Larry Summers proposed that perhaps biological may be one factor among many that explains the underrepresentation of women in the sciences, rather challenge him through spirited, intelligent debate, vitriolic protests erupted that ultimately lead to his resign. We are now at a point where an honest expression and debate of competing visions on race, culture and other controversial topics has become all but impossible. In effect, such taboos limit our capacity as a society to understand and create viable solutions for the economic, educational, political and social challenges we face.
Clearly, only in the context of a half century of unparalleled peace and prosperity did key segments of American Society have the luxury of elevating feelings above fact and engage in social engineering not grounded in historical experience. In contract, resurgent powers like China suffered more than a century of famine, poverty, chaos and conquest. And for the first thirty years of its existence, Marxist driven policies resulted in a man made famine that claimed the lives of at least 18 million and severe setbacks in education, industry and culture. This shocked the Chinese leadership to surge forward with unprecedented reforms, which were only made possible by profound changes in the decision making process. Whereas solving and policy making were once driven by static ideology and a priori truths, divorced from experience, they were now dynamic and results driven. In other words, if a policy or course of action produced results, it was pursued, if not it was abandoned and concepts were adjusted accordingly. As is the case with (comparatively) free markets, the fortunes of individuals and industries increasingly became a product of their choices and less of the machinations of state planners and politicians. In contrast the United States has moved in the exact opposite direction and not by chance, the Unite States has increasingly become indebted to China and other resurgent powers.
Take the issue of education; political, economic and educational elites have expressed concerns that academic achievement of American students is a threat to our economic and social welfare. Of particular worry was the academic performance of American students relative to our competitors and the continuing performance gap that exists between ethnic groups within the United States. So how have our "experts" responded to this "sputnik moment"? First, they have been nearly unanimous in their calls for increased federal spending, indifferent to the fact that over the last thirty years this has not produced discernible results. Furthermore, they fail to note that per student expenditures are already much larger than in Japan and South Korea, which are wiping the floor with us.
Secondly, they have pursued a myriad of reforms, among these ideologically driven germs are: multicultural curriculum transformation, the elimination of honors courses and discouraging academic tracking. While at the School of Education, not one of my professors spoke about the need to increase the competitiveness of our students within national and international job markets. Capitalism and competition were not to be mastered, but confronted in the name of "social justice". We were never told to draw lessons from the success of East Asian students both in their countries of origin and in the United States. The possibility that ethnic performance gaps may stem from the behaviors, culture and custom of individuals and groups was never raised. We were repeatedly told that our those who did not achieve were victims and the culprits were always external factors, like racism and other real or imagined grievances. The idea that they were in any way responsible for the perpetuation of their educational shortcomings was beyond the pale of polite discussion. Clearly in the case of educational affairs, political correctness has limited our capacity to understand and create viable solutions to our ills.
The political correct worldview becomes most apparent when we compare how the United States and other nations approaches issues of immigration.. If over half of of a particular immigrant group ended up on welfare, the politicians and general population of Singapore would call for an immediate moratorium of immigration from that nation in question. The more liberal members of the study might be open to a resumption, only under the conditions that only the more skilled and educated members of that group would be invited in and the use of welfare would be prohibited. The nations of origins would almost certainly be billed for the cost of providing health care, education and incarceration to their citizens. Why? Because any nation that is not beset by political correctness recognizes that immigration must first and foremost serve the interests of the host country. In contrast, the possibility that a congressional debate would be held that explored the rates of welfare use among different immigrant groups would be next to impossible. The fact that welfare is used by only 5.4% of immigrants from India and 54% of those from the Dominican Republic should be considered vital data for conscientious politicians and policy makers, yet they remain in the shadowy realm of unspoken taboos. If acknowledged, troubling figures on performance gaps between different groups are used to justify a further expansion of federal programs. Good policy making is always based on a sober look at the facts on the ground, not on the assumption that a program will substantially alter outcomes. So, while a sensible planner would probably support programs designed to help members (that are already present) of a group with low socio-economic outputs, they would consider it sheer follow to actively increase the size of that group, at least until they were able to demonstrate that the facts on the ground have changed. But, in the real of political correctness, such lines of thinking are forbidden, regardless of the social or economic costs.
And how would most Japanese respond to proponents of multiculturalism who believed that new immigrants did not have to assimilate the norms, behavior, culture and customs of their new nation? How would they respond to those who believed that (let's say) conservative Moslems from Somalia did not have to assimilate on the grounds that all cultures and values were not only equal, but enriched the nation by increasing its diversity? To start off with, they would not welcome any population that did not have a strong potential for quick assimilation. And after a few drinks of saki, they would be emboldened to declare the obvious - the fact that Somalis are beating down the door to get into Japan and not the other way around is a testament to the superiority of Japanese Culture (in encouraging positive social and economic outcomes). Or more specifically, Japanese culture (not race) has been a key element in producing the peace, prosperity, rule of law, cleanliness and courtesy that made Japan attractive to the Somalis in the first place. The thought of the more successfully accommodating the less successful culture would be absurd to anyone who has not yet elevated sensitivity and relativism to religious heights. And any government that would foster drastic demographic change (not accompanied by profound assimilation) would be thrown out in a flash. Why? Because, culture (not race) and the values, behaviors, norms and institutions that it engenders makes a nation what is is. And culture and traditions do not exist as abstractions; if they are not learned and lived by natives and newcomers alike, they lose their hegemony and are lost in but a generation.
This does NOT mean that the United States should fear demographic and cultural change. I am certainly not extolling the xenophobia that characterizes most other nations. America's openness and desire to welcome new immigrants and the talents and energy that they bring are strengths. But, it seems reckless to simultaneous pursue dramatic change, while prohibiting an honest assessment of the risks and rewards, costs and benefits that it offers. This philosophical shift has limited our capacity, relative to other nations, to make wise, balanced decisions for the benefits of natives and newcomers alike. And the growing divide between officially sanctioned, political correct discourse and the real sentiments and desires of many Americans hearkens us back to the final decades of the Soviet Union. Not allowing for the open and honest expression of discontent deprived soviet decision makers of invaluable feedback that allowed them to address the widespread social and economic ills that were plaguing their society. As Dr. Putnam demonstrated in his studies, frustrated citizens either "hunker down" and withdraw from civil and political participation or vote with their feet. Or worse yet, they gravitate towards demagogues that foment and capitalize on their anxieties. In the mean time, China, South Korea and other nations that have not yet been encumbered by political correctness are surging forward with economic development and innovation, as we fall further into debt. And the handful of politicians like Dr. Ron Paul who promote honest discourse and painful but necessary solutions are labelled as "extremists."
Standing Up to the PC Bullies
Solving America’s problems is hard enough without self-imposed obstacles. And the most destructive of these self-imposed burdens is shooting the messengers who bring “bad news.” This willful blindness is the equivalent of forbidding doctors from asking about “embarrassing” or personally “sensitive” behavior. In politics, messenger killing “bullets” are accusations with names like Islamophobia, Homophobia, Racism, Sexism, and if that doesn’t work, accuse them of the Mother of all Modern Evils: Hate.
Messenger shooting is increasingly commonplace but seldom closely scrutinized. And absent putting it under the microscope to develop an antidote, culprits easily escape scot free and tribulations multiply. Consider an almost generic example.
Professor Robert Engler has taught sociology at Chicago’s Roosevelt University for 12 years. Like many professors, he occasional tells a joke, but in this instance, mirth cost him his job, probably his career plus thousands in legal fees. Here’s the joke:
A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona about the new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, 'No hablo English.'"
The gag may not be a side-splitter, but it hardly insults Hispanics. Nevertheless, in the spring of 2010 it elicited two written complaints as ethnically offensive, and as a result, he was fired and his course, “City and Citizenship” (a graduation requirement) was discontinued. In fact, his department refused to put the “harassment” charge in writing and Engler only discovered the accusation in the student newspaper.
And why was this lame joke so harmful? Cristina Solis justified her complaint with "If that is what it took to give him a reality check, and to make sure that no other student has to go through that, maybe it's for the best." She also claimed that Engler’s joke was inappropriate for "a school like Roosevelt University, which is based on social justice."
This mountain-out-of-a-mole hill strategy is hardly unique--a free speech organization FIRE encounters dozens per year. Important lessons are to be learned from this seemingly minor Politically Correct outrage.
First, American education has produced an entire generation that is hyper-sensitive to any affront, real or imagined, who collect grievances as some hobbyists collect postage stamps. Indeed, victimhood seems hard wired into their DNA so an insult-free environment, regardless of millions spent for sensitivity training, let alone accommodations, is beyond reach. Further add quick-to-demonstrate groups whose raison d’être (and funding) depends on quick-trigger mobilizations of angry followers.
Second, it is impossible to anticipate what might stir the pot. Unlike Pakistan, our blasphemy laws are unwritten, even unknowable in advance. The eminent Harvard historian Stephen Thernstrom was brought up on charges that he offended black students when he said “slave” instead of “enslaved person” since, it was claimed, “slave” de-humanized those in bondage. When the Dean took the student’s side, he decided not to teach the course in the future.
Third, the aggrieved party is judge and jury. Professor Engler could not request that an impartial panel of humor experts to assess the joke’s hurtfulness. After all, the only admissible credential for this expertise is one’s racial or ethnic identify, and who can challenge that? So, if a black accuses a white of racism, trial over.
Fourth, emotional harm trumps scientific truth. The truth may set you free but it will not win back your job. When co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel laureate James Watson characterized sub-Saharan Africans as having lower IQ’s than whites, he was pushed out as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (see here). Nor did he regain his job when he backtracked with” there is no scientific basis for such a belief” (actually ample but not all scientific data support Watson’s initial statement. For confirming data, see here).
Fifth, once stigmatized as “offensive” there is no redemption. Dog killers get a better deal. Profusely apologizing, adding endless qualifiers, claiming that one’s offensive remarks were misinterpreted or taken out of context do not bring absolutions. And it only takes a tiny handful of incidents to kill public discussion. Larry Summers will probably go down in history not for his stellar academic record but as the Harvard Dean who famously hinted that biology might explain why women do not occupy top scientific position. Anybody want to re-open the debate?
Finally, and perhaps most depressing, those deemed guilty of “offensiveness” will seldom receive any public backing, regardless of the charge’s ridiculousness, its scientific accuracy or one’s expertise. Even the accuser’s outright scurrilous lies will not draw public rebuke. The heretic is on his own though trusted friends may privately provide succor. Nor is the First Amendment relevant—this only protects you from government action, not enraged private citizens. Perhaps the only exception has been Juan Williams who got a $2 million dollar contract from Fox News after admitting that airline passengers in Muslim garb made him nervous. I suspect that ordinary passengers uttering those “hateful” words would receive extra airport security.
What can be done? In the short run, not much—the offended cannot be mollified. Prosecuting heretics is undoubtedly just human nature; only the subject changes—religious dissenters in medieval times, those who link violence to Islam today.
But, there is some good news—orthodoxies bringing dangerous willful blindness are not forever. In Victorian times even mentioning venereal disease was taboo; today schools may be legally required to explain it to youngsters.
The path to success begins by overcoming the accused heretic’s isolation. PC types are typically bullies quickly emboldened when they can attack timid, isolated enemies, one at a time. Perhaps Roosevelt University faculty and students should have organized an ethnic humor night with stand-up comics telling Hispanic, Jewish, Black and Polish jokes? Bring in Jackie Mason or Chris Rock. Give Professor Engler an open mike and a coach to polish his delivery.
More important, don’t surrender to those using “being offended” as the ticket to success. Appeasement only brings a bigger bill next time around. How many times have we seen an “offensive” incident eliciting demonstrations demanding hiring more minority faculty, extra sensitive training, a new publicly funded cultural center and similar accommodations to, allegedly, heal the wounds? In fact, these pay-offs often encourages hoaxes.
Finally, when all is said and done, there is no substitute for invoking truth or at least an argument that is likely to be true. The truth often hurts, it can be offensive and lowers self-esteem, but public debate built on soothing lies invites disaster. Consider what might now happen at Roosevelt University. Other professors teaching potentially controversial subjects will cleanse any “insulting” references to Hispanics or other easy-to-anger groups. Topics like crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency will vanish lest a slip of the tongue, even the wrong facial expression, brings charges of harassment. Prudent faculty might also revert to plain vanilla boring lectures and award sensitive students “A’s” as an insurance policy. Other might just pander to these groups to play it safe. Classes will grow duller, less spontaneous and Hispanic students, among other thin-skinned students, will receive an incomplete, watered down but flattering education filled soothing lies. And they will never know it and so graduates will have feasted on a diet of lies and omissions. So much for Roosevelt University’s commitment to social justice.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.