The Coddling of the American White Male

I am a white, cisgendered, straight male born into a middle-class family. In general, my perspective is not useful when thinking about political correctness. There are no stereotypes I need to challenge, and the whole world is my safe space. I am not writing this piece to displace the voice of minority groups. I am writing it because I am someone who has been on both sides of this debate. Discussion about political correctness has reached a stalemate in the United States, with both sides believing their opinion is irrefutably right.

When someone is arguing for political correctness, they can easily create a straw-man argument for the other side. In 2016, that straw man is Donald Trump. For the Republican presidential candidate, PC culture is when people get angry at anything he says, such as his comments about Mexicans as “rapists” and “criminals.” He represents a contingent of powerful white men who see political correctness as an attack on the First Amendment. This particular issue is not about the words, however. When I say, for example “Trump can’t call all Muslims terrorists,” I am not censoring Trump. I am calling him a bigot.

The rise of Trump, which can at least in part be attributed to a pushback against people seeking greater representation, has led to a number of deadlock screaming matches about political correctness. Anti-PC advocates love when students shout down speakers because to them it shows hypocrisy. This is certainly true in some cases, and of course no one should block their ears when confronted with opposing ideas. Still, in many situations PC proponents are being expected to be tolerant of the intolerant. Students will and should continue to resort to protest if that is the only option given when they are faced with hateful rhetoric.

The far more powerful anti-PC arguments, though, are those coming from the left, because the people who fight for them believe they are doing what is best for everyone. The most popular argument of this variety is delineated in Greg Lukianoff and Stern professor Jonathan Haidt’s piece last year for The Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” The authors argue that PC culture is harmful to open debate and to the mental health of its proponents.

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The article is primarily about how political correctness — namely safe spaces and trigger warnings — allegedly treats college students like children. There are valid points made in the piece, and the fact there are professors out there worried about losing their jobs if they don’t use trigger warnings is alarming. There is definitely the possibility of going overboard on political correctness, and conservatives will be the first to pounce when that happens. Much of this could be solved, however, by discussion within the classroom. After all, classrooms are a place for discussion, and unless a professor outright refuses to talk about these issues, there is little basis for complaint. The problem with anti-PC arguments that claim students are only harming themselves ignores one thing: these students are real people.

Assuming that people who want safe spaces are unjustly hiding themselves from the “real world” is unfair. Safe spaces are not intended to keep people from speaking their mind. They are meant to allow anyone to say what they want without fearing chastisement. Perhaps LGBTQ students would like to have debates in which their identity is not challenged whenever they speak up. Perhaps students who have been molested would appreciate trigger warnings so they don’t have to face the possibility of reliving their trauma every time they open a book. Lukianoff and Haidt show some sympathy for those who have post-traumatic stress disorder, but only to say: “Students with PTSD should of course get treatment, but they should not try to avoid normal life, with its many opportunities for habituation.” This general advice glosses over the wide variety of students’ individual experiences.

But worst of all is the assumption that Lukianoff and Haidt make about safe spaces shielding students from reality. They essentially argue that students need to understand that they will be facing bias their entire life. Yes, that is probably true. But why is it so wild that students are unwilling to placidly accept discrimination as part of life?

The town I grew up in was 99 percent white, and in high school I thought being politically correct meant being a liberal extremist. Going to NYU was the first time I was confronted with reality. At one point in sophomore year I said, “Racism wasn’t really a thing when I was younger.” I was stared at for a while until I realized that I was very, very wrong. I realized I did not like political correctness because it made me uncomfortable to talk about issues like race. And perhaps this is the greatest irony: if people are arguing against PC language because it seems unfair to them and their beliefs, they are finally experiencing a small part of what it is like to be in a stigmatized group.

The PC dialogue is being stymied by people refusing to hear the other side at all. We need to try to understand each other. Anti-PC people are not (all) racists who are upset about not being able to call all Muslims terrorists, and pro-PC people are not sheltered liberals unprepared for the real world. We have a choice: either set aside our egos and engage in thoughtful debate, or admit that we harbor intolerance.

I changed my mind about political correctness after numerous conversations with people who are different from me. When a friend tells me something I said offhandedly is offensive or oppressive, I do not try to tell them they are wrong. Like anyone, I do not like being told I am being racist because that was not my intention. I do not have their lived experience, though. It is time for white men and other normative groups to practice the same kind of self-policing everyone else has for centuries.

Being PC is not about fragility or censorship. Being PC is being for equality. And really, equality should not be controversial.

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, October 11 print edition. Email Thomas Devlin at [email protected]

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