It’s a Friday afternoon in Oberlin, Ohio, around one month before the country heads to the polls to elect Donald Trump as its next president. The final classes and lectures of the week have just ended, and a young woman comes walking by in bare feet with a hula hoop gyrating around her waist while others are performing what seems to be a rhythmic dance to the African music that’s playing. Two black students are rapping.
It’s the kind of scene that could easily play out on a beach full of backpack tourists, but this is unfolding at one of the country’s most expensive universities.
Many female students here have dyed their hair green or blue, they have piercings and their fashion sense seems inspired by “Girls” creator and millennial star Lena Dunham, who, of course, also studied here.
In such a setting, it seems almost inconceivable that this country could go on to elect Donald Trump as its president only a few weeks later. Yet pro-Trump country is just a few miles away. Oberlin is located in Ohio, one of the swing states that made Trump’s election possible. Drive five miles down College Road toward town, and you start seeing blue “Trump Pence 2016” signs on people’s lawns.
Places like Oberlin are the breeding grounds of the leftist elite Trump’s people spoke so disparagingly of during the election campaign.
Only a few months earlier, a handful of students claimed they had been traumatized after someone used chalk to scrawl “Trump 2016” on the walls of buildings and on sidewalks at Oberlin and at other liberal universities. It triggered protests on some campuses, with students demanding “safe spaces” where they would be spared from hearing or seeing the name of this “fascist, racist candidate.”
In the months prior to the election, “safe spaces” had been one of the most widely discussed terms at Oberlin. The concept has its roots in feminism and describes a physically and intellectually sheltered space that protects one from potentially insulting, injurious or traumatizing ideas or comments — a place, in short, that protects one from the world. When conservative philosopher and feminism critic Christina Hoff Sommers was scheduled to give a speech at Oberlin last year, some students did not approve and claimed that Sommer’s views on feminism represented “microaggressions.”
When Sommers appeared anyway, leading some Oberlin students to create a “safe space” during the speech where, as one professor reported, “New Age music” was played to calm their nerves and ease their trauma. They could also “get massages and console themselves with stuffed animals.”
“Microaggressions” are the conceptual cousins of “safe spaces” — small remarks perceived by the victims to be objectionable. In addition, there are also “trigger warnings” — brief indicators placed before a text, image, film or work of art alerting the viewer or listener of the possibility that it could “trigger” memories of a traumatic experience or the recurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such a warning surely makes sense for people who have experienced war, who have fled their home country or who have otherwise been exposed to cruelty and violence.
But at Oberlin, one student complained to the university administration and requested a trigger warning for Sophocles’ “Antigone.” The student argued that the suicide scene in the play had triggered strong emotions in him and that he, as someone who had himself long been on suicide watch, should have been warned. In an article he wrote for the Oberlin Review, the student, Cyrus Eosphoros, compared a trigger warning to the list of ingredients on food items. “People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds,” he wrote. Eosphoros has since dropped out of the school.
The call for safe spaces and trigger warnings in addition to complaints about microaggressions all fall under the term “political correctness” in the United States.
Few other expressions are as ideologically charged and contested as this one. It is most widely used as an invective: Coming from the mouths of the right-wing, including Donald Trump and his millions of followers, the term is used to describe self-censorship. They consider it an expression of a victim culture, within which the hypersensitive “leftist mainstream” (also used as an epithet) seeks to isolate itself from every deviation from its own worldview. Opponents of political correctness consider it to be an overwrought fixation on the needs of minorities and one’s individual identity, on skin color and gender.
Now, two months after the election, those looking for clues as to how Trump’s victory became possible quickly arrive at the refusal of many Trump detractors — including members of Hillary Clinton’s own campaign team — to confront the uncomfortable fact that there are legions of Trump fans all across the country. It’s almost as if, in the face of Trump, liberal America collectively retreated to a “safe space.” And when they finally resurfaced after the election, Trump had won.
There was a time when political correctness wasn’t yet synonymous with hypersensitivity, feel-good oases or censorship. Originally, it was associated with the counterculture, not as a project of the academic elite and the establishment as it is today. Initially, it was an attempt to free the public debate from prejudices based on race, gender and background — from the apparently casual yet hate-filled and disparaging comments that frequently caused suffering, particularly among minorities and the weaker members of society. It was intended as an effort to get the voices of these minorities heard in the first place.
One of the primary assumptions of political correctness is that thinking starts with language. Those who use disparaging language must think that way as well. Another assumption is that of constant progress. That people evolve over time, that discrimination and inequality diminish over the centuries, from the elimination of slavery to women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage and the growing acceptance of transgender people. Progress was seen as the integration of the formerly suppressed and of minorities. At least in theory.
In the last decade, however, the obsession with minorities and their victimhood may have gone overboard. In a much-discussed opinion piece for the New York Times last month, Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, argued that American liberalism in recent years has been seized by hysteria regarding race, gender and sexual identity. Lilla says it was a strategic error on the part of Hillary Clinton to focus her campaign so heavily on African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community and women. “The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups,” he wrote.
Even as the white working class and lower class flocked to Trump in droves, students at Oberlin were busy organizing a protest against the food served at the Afrikan Heritage House. A few students had pointed out that the dishes there were at most Westernized interpretations of the original recipes, a state of affairs which showed a lack of respect toward African traditions. This offense, too, has a term: “cultural appropriation.”
Meanwhile, Asian students complained that the cafeteria served bánh mì using inauthentic ingredients, prompting accusations of cultural imperialism.
The college took the complaints seriously, as it does with all grievances lodged by students. It has a reputation to protect — and must also protect itself from the lawsuits that many of its students’ parents can easily afford.
The cafeteria had to issue a public apology. But it shouldn’t have been only the Vietnamese students who felt insulted — it should have been everyone. After all, another term often used at Oberlin is “allyship.” The theory basically goes like this: Someone who has spent his life as a heterosexual white male will never be able to understand how an incorrectly-made sandwich could trigger a trauma. Nor would he ever truly be able to comprehend the systemic microaggressions that a black woman might be exposed to. But he could make himself her “ally,” by taking her experiences seriously and accepting them at face value, whether or not he is able to comprehend them personally.
For some professors, it has gone too far. One of those is Roger Copeland. On a recent Friday afternoon, he made his way to the Slow Train Café, the only place at Oberlin where everybody meets up during the day — professors, students and activists. He has come to talk about everything he believes has destroyed his profession. He has recently accepted an early-retirement severence package and will be leaving the school in a few weeks. Professor Copeland has taught for over 40 years at Oberlin. He is a theater professor and he looks the part. He arrives wearing a Hawaiian shirt and speaks, even in normal discussion, as if he were reciting Shakespeare from the stage.
Copeland himself took to the streets in protest in the 1970s: against the Vietnam War, against Watergate — the big things. On two occasions, he was arrested.
‘Unsafe Learning Environment’
Today, though, it’s personal pronouns that his students are squabbling over and Copeland has little understanding. He says students no longer want to be addressed as “he” or “she,” but as “X” or “they” or newly created personal pronouns. At Oberlin, terms like “Latina” or “Latino” for people with Central or South American backgrounds have been replaced with the gender-neutral “Latinx.”
Two years ago, Copeland asked a young student who was editing a video during rehearsals for a stage production if she would manage to finish editing the footage by the end of the week. He didn’t get the immediate response and things were hectic. “Yes or no?” he called out in his exalted way. “Yes or no?”
The student, who Copeland says is an Asian-American lesbian woman, stormed out of the rehearsal, not that uncommon of an occurrence in theater. Later, the dean ordered Copeland to his office and accused him of having berated a student and of creating a “hostile and unsafe learning environment.” There was that term again: “unsafe learning environment.” The dean handed him a document and asked him to sign it. Copeland refused and provided the names of others who had been present and who could attest that he hadn’t berated the student. The dean said it didn’t matter. What mattered was that the “student felt unsafe.”
The matter led to a formal Title IX investigation for sexual misconduct. Copeland hired a lawyer and the probe was dropped after a year. The whole thing cost Copeland thousands of dollars. Worse yet, he says, he lost his ideological compass.
What was going on? Where, if not here, did young men and women have the opportunity to mature into citizens, into people who could also confront unpleasant views?
Copeland self-identifies as a leftist. He’s a man who has fought for social justice, for the rights of the weak, for freedom and for free speech. Now students were dismissing him as some old, reactionary grandpa who knew nothing about the vulnerabilities created by identity, skin color and gender, whether it be male, female, gay, lesbian or transgender, the full spectrum of LGBTQ, as people call it today — or “cisgender.”
Cisgender is a relatively new word and Copeland only recently became aware of it. He also learned that it is often used as an insult. It describes pretty much to a “T” what he is: a white, heterosexual man who is certain that he doesn’t want to be a woman and isn’t even a little bit bi-sexual.
Copeland isn’t the only victim. Across the country, “social justice warriors,” as they are disparagingly called, are leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, attacking professors, artists, authors and even DJs along the way.
At a bar at the University of North Carolina, a student named Liz Hawryluk complained to the DJ on a Saturday night in 2014 when he played Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” The song was a major summer hit, played at nightclubs around the world, but Hawryluk demanded the DJ immediately stop playing it.
The song includes the line, “Good girl I know you want it.” Allegedly words a rapist would speak.
When the DJ refused and the girl continued insisting, she was asked to leave the bar. She then wrote about her experience on Facebook, arguing that line in the song is a “trigger” for victims of sexual assault that can reawaken their trauma. After her post got shared a number of times, the bar publicly apologized and fired the DJ.
In 2015, feminist film researcher Laura Kipnis, a professor at Chicago’s Northwestern University, became the subject of an investigation after she published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about sexual paranoia in academia. The subject of the article had been a new ban on sex or relationships between students and professors at the university. Kipnis also criticized what she described as obsessive discussion among female students about traumas and sensitivity. She described it as a fallback to traditional behavioral patterns — the vulnerable woman, the helpless victim and the man as the perpetrator.
But the supposedly defenseless female students struck back — first on Facebook and later in the form of a protest. Two students then lodged a complaint against Kipnis for alleged sexual misconduct, arguing that Kipnis’ essay had a “chilling effect” on female students who wanted to file sexual harassment complaints. Kipnis had to hire a lawyer and the charges were dropped after a 72-day investigation. In a later article, she described the proceedings as an absurd drama reminiscent of a Kafka novel.
Roger Copeland spent a long time contemplating where these vulnerabilities and sensitivities might have come from. “The relationship my students have with the world is constantly mediated. They only have access to it through their iPhone screens and through the social networks they have joined. What we would call the virtual is the real for them.”
It’s only when they are in the lecture halls, when someone like Copeland is speaking to them, that this filtered reality is suddenly suspended. This suspension can evoke a defensive reaction in those who are only used to receiving select news from a politically correct world in which everything has been furnished with warning labels and freed of any microaggressions. Internet activist Eli Pariser calls the serving of information to users using algorithms that predict what they think the reader will want to see the “filter bubble.”
Socio-cultural advancement has become something of a fetish for many students — and many have lost sight of everything else in the process.
Professor Marc Blecher, who teaches political science at Oberlin and enjoys lecturing on Marxism, had warned at a meeting one month prior to the election, likewise at the Slow Train Café, that the millennial students of today’s generation may talk a lot about social transformation, but they have lost sight of one truly decisive issue: class.
With their focus on skin color, gender and sexual orientation and the microaggressions associated with them, he argued, students were overlooking what Trump was able to recognize: Most people in the United States aren’t unhappy or angry because of their gender, their personal pronoun or the lack of a trigger warning in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (due to misogyny). They’re angry because they aren’t able to pay their rents, and they have the feeling that nobody cares — that the liberal-progressive public is more concerned about whether the bathrooms used by transsexuals should be those of their biological or perceived gender. Shouldn’t the discussion be about the fight for wealth redistribution rather than definitions and identities?
Sidestepping such issues often underscores just how helpless many of these students have become, Blecher says. Still, he doesn’t want create any misunderstandings. “They are not spoiled sons and daughters. Oberlin’s brand is social progressivism. The school wants to admit students from financially weaker families, students from Hispanic or African-American families, some are kids from the streets. Some have spent the last five years trying to get in and then their guidance counselor at high school gets them into a place like Oberlin. They were the most promising students we could find. And you know what? They arrive here and it is hell for them!”
Academic expectations are high, which he says makes the students feel like they don’t belong here — and, in a way, they don’t. “At its core, Oberlin is a highly exclusive place that wants to be inclusive. It’s an unavoidable contradiction. So some lash out.” And how do they do that? They look for a discourse, for a language. What they find is language like “microaggressions,” “safe space” and “intersectionality,” meaning the traits that some minorities have in common. “Their frustration keeps growing to the point that they start attacking the food in the cafeteria!”
The interesting thing, says Blecher, is that the students’ feelings of outrage are correct — they are just misplaced. “What’s really keeping them down are class dynamics and racial segregation. But we don’t talk about that.”
The Limits of Freedom
In places where microaggressions lurk and trigger warnings become necessary, certain things can simply no longer be discussed. The children of the 1968 student protest generation took for granted the freedoms that their parents fought to obtain, holding them to be self-evident. The grandchildren of the 1968 generation now want to retract some of those freedoms. Free speech — once the highest achievement the leftist student generation had fought for — is now largely and paradoxically being invoked by populists and the right-wing.
When Donald Trump calls Mexicans who cross the borders rapists, when he cracks jokes about women, and when, at gatherings in his honor, people lift their arms in Hitler greetings and fans of his top adviser Steve Bannon tweet “Sieg Heil” — that all falls under “freedom of speech.”
The roles have been completely reversed. Whereas today’s leftist student movement is willing to sacrifice the freedom of speech — fought for by their political predecessors – on the altar of trigger warnings and “safe spaces,” this right is now being defended by the very same right-wing whose political antecedents sought to prevent it back in the day.
This new right can be seen every day on Fox News. The cable network interprets freedom of speech to mean the right to insult. And that freedom of expression also provides a license to spread untruths. That’s also a problem with Trump’s new America: One part of the population is growing increasingly sensitive and no longer wants to read “Antigone,” while the other is growing increasingly brazen, calling Mexicans rapists and seeing all Muslims as terrorists. In Donald Trump, they will soon have a president who emboldens them.
Their narrative holds that they would love to say what is actually on their minds, but the “social justice warriors,” the guardians of political correctness, led by the “liberal media,” won’t let them. They too feel they are victims — at least they act like it, complaining that you can’t say anything in this country anymore. Indeed, they feel much as the leftist students did in the early 1960s. The only difference being that there really were things that you couldn’t say back then.
‘We Were Young and Inexperienced’
Bettina Aptheker was one of the leaders of the free speech movement back then, some 52 years ago. On the morning of Oct. 2, 1964, she climbed on top of a police car in front of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall and gave a speech. Aptheker was 20 at the time. In her speech, she quoted former slave Frederick Douglass, who said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” It was one of the events that launched a movement — initially in the West, and then worldwide — for social transformation, for women’s rights, civil rights, then for gay rights and later for transgender rights, a movement that is directly connected to today’s students at Oberlin College. Ultimately, though, they created the opposite of what they had sought. Aptheker and her fellow campaigners ultimately created a monster, the PC Monster.
Bettina Aptheker calls herself an absolutist. But even she is no longer certain that the right to free speech can be absolute in these insult-filled times. She’s still in academia today, working as a professor of feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz. One morning at the end of September, she was teaching a class called “Feminism and Social Justice.” The vocabulary used by students today more or less has its origins in feminist terminology. “When Trump taps Clinton on the back during a television debate,” Aptheker says, “it is a classic microaggression.”
Her parents were among the most prominent and outspoken communists in the United States and became targets of persecution during the McCarthy era. Aptheker was also a member of the Communist Party, something, she says, that made her familiar with the straitjacket of political correctness. Today she is 72 years old and has lived together with another woman for 40 years, from a previous marriage she has two children. She points to photos standing on her bookshelf — pictures of families comprised almost exclusively of women. Her daughter is also an outed lesbian and comes for Christmas with her children and her partner. It is all evidence of a social transformation that nobody would have thought possible half a century ago.
“We were young and inexperienced back then. We thought everyone should be able to say anything, cost what it may.” But now Aptheker ponders the second half of that sentence. One example of the price paid back then, she says, was that a bunch of American neo-Nazis turned up on campus at Berkeley in full regalia — with swastika armbands and signs reading, “Burn Aptheker.” As a student, she didn’t like it, but she thought it was tolerable, something covered by freedom of speech.
Today Aptheker says she even deliberates over Halloween costumes. Costumes triggered a national debate last year after the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale University sent out an email warning students to avoid wearing “culturally unaware and insensitive” costumes that might offend minority students: So please, no feathered headdresses, turbans or ‘war paint’ and no wearing of blackface or redface.
A Paradigm Shift
Perhaps such limitations on freedom make some sense. Aptheker says she’s no longer certain today whether we should accept a situation where the weaker in society are insulted in the name of protecting free speech. She’s learned a lot about microaggression through feminist teachings.
When she took to the barricades at Berkeley a half-century ago, the issues at hand were more pressing, like ensuring that African-Americans could vote. In the face of such a challenge, the “5,000 microaggressions blacks faced daily in the South” took a back seat.
But are the issues being raised by students today not equally important?
Ismail Muhammad is waiting at the corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, the very place at the university’s southern entrance where Aptheker once stood on top of the police car. The handsome 27-year-old African-American wearing Nike basketball shoes is a Ph.D. student and an expert in modern American literature. Muhammad gained a certain amount of prominence when, in the middle of the outrage over trigger warnings and safe spaces, he made a quiet and determined case for why a rejection of such concerns was ignorant and myopic. He believes absolute free speech is no longer sustainable — not in times of shitstorms on the social networks, character assassination on the Internet and bald-faced lies and parallel worlds on the television news stations. He argues that the movement for social transformation that has been ongoing from the 1960s to the present has actually been nothing more than the continuation and the further evolution of the thinking of the 1968 generation of student protesters.
Today’s “social justice warriors” are now, for the first time, seriously calling into question the daily discrimination that has been a regular part of life for hundreds of years. That, Muhammad says, is the first paradigm shift to have happened since the 1960s, a new level.
Muhammad believes that the Baby Boomers, who were raised with the values of the 1968 movement, but also their successors, Generation X, are just as unable to comprehend these concerns as Bettina Aptheker’s opponents were during the 1960s.
The fact that this phase is happening right during a time when the country has elected a president who stands for racism and sexism, could provide the movement with strength and legitimacy. It might also lead them to shed their self-image of victimhood. Perhaps, as Professor Blecher at Oberlin proposed, they will instead focus on class and poverty. If people had done that 20 years ago, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here now facing a President Trump in just a couple of weeks.
On the day after the vote, Oberlin College held a symposium called, “Making Sense of the 2016 Election.” A few days later, 2,400 students, staff and former employees called for Oberlin to be made a “Sanctuary Campus,” a kind of “safe space” for the illegal immigrants that the incoming Trump administration has said it wants to deport.
A few days after that, news of the vote breakdown in Oberlin came in: 4,575 votes for Hillary Clinton against 412 for Donald Trump. They now want to find those Trump voters. And confront them.