The views and opinions expressed in the following article are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of North by Northwestern or its staff.
These days, it seems as though college students are allowing unsettling words less and less on campus, slapping the label “offensive” on everything from the deeply controversial to the only mildly touchy. And the term “offensive” is proving unshakeable.
Weinberg sophomore Raghav Narula agrees: “For better or for worse, you get the impression that colleges across the U.S. are becoming more sensitive places…that things seem slightly on edge.”
Once something is dubbed “offensive,” even by a numbered few, even if its truly not offensive or inaccurate, it becomes entirely un-PC to argue otherwise. To quote a recent article in the Atlantic, “The thin argument ‘I’m offended’ has become an unbeatable trump card.”
That being said, the line is sometimes crossed. And determining when that line is crossed is difficult. Each instance of potential political incorrectness calls for a unique response. But on the whole, college students should be more inclined to allow controversial free speech than prevent it.
Why should this be the case? President Schapiro said it best in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed last year: “If the First Amendment doesn’t matter on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?”
Moreover, how are students supposed to reap the full benefit of college if their viewpoints go unchallenged? If every clashing of beliefs rings of an affront? Part of college’s value rests in its ability to introduce students to new ways of looking at the world. And that confrontation can’t help but make students uncomfortable and sensitive. It’s part of the learning process.
New York Times Op-Ed contributor Frank Bruni wrote on this very aspect of learning last year: “Education is about growing bolder and larger. It’s about expansion, and that can’t happen if there’s too strong an urge and a push to contract the ground it covers…Isn’t upset a necessary part of that [learning] equation?”
Yet across the United States, books have been banned from classrooms for being too controversial, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Speakers, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a prominent activist and Islam detractor – have been barred from delivering speeches for being too polarizing.
Here at Northwestern, the PC movement has certainly reared its head, though the events here more point to the complexity of political correctness – figuring out where we draw the line – rather than overdone political correctness. That is to say that potentially un-PC events here at Northwestern seem to be low in number, and the reactions to them prove more nuanced than egregious.
Northwestern Communication professor Laura Kipnis published an Op-Ed last year in The Chronicle for Higher Education deriding the sexual paranoia on college campuses. Students protested, asked the administration to condemn the article, and eventually a Title IX investigation was opened by the university into whether the piece and a tweet Kipnis wrote constituted gender discrimination. Many students called for Kipnis’ firing.
In this case, students felt singled out, unsafe, and their claims of sexual assault delegitimized. Did Kipnis’ article cross a line? It’s likely. Was the opening of a full-blown Title IX investigation an overreaction? I don’t know. But calls for Kipnis’ firing were completely misguided. All faculty members have the right to express their own personal views, so long as they are not expressed as the views of the university.
In 2006, McCormick professor and Holocaust denier Arthur Butz, who authored a book denying the Holocaust, commended Iranian President Ahmadinejad for voicing a similar belief. His comment, which in itself was far more egregious than Kipnis’ article, rightly prompted a public outcry. But even then, Northwestern President Henry S. Bienen acknowledged that Butz was ultimately exercising his freedom of speech. On whether the administration was going to fire Butz, Bienen wrote: “We cannot take action based on the content of what Butz says regarding the Holocaust – however odious it may be – without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect.
One example of overdone political correctness occurred last year in the wake of the student government’s decision to pass the divestiture resolution, which asked the school to divest from six Israeli companies “profiting off of the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.”
Even though the Northwestern administration chose not to carry out the student government’s request, many alumni and students alike expressed how offensive the resolution was. Many others merely expressed their opposition to the resolution.
But disagreeing with the resolution is one thing – so is being uncomfortable, disturbed, or angered by it.
But offense shouldn't be the response to a decision made by democratically-elected student officials after multiple civil (though heated) debates. It shouldn't be the response when more people merely disagree than agree with you (This is coming from someone who thought the resolution shouldn’t have passed). In America's PC climate, offense is something else all together. "I'm offended" automatically ends questions and conversations that shouldn't necessarily end.
To be clear, claims of offense came in the aftermath of the resolution’s passing, and as such didn’t stymie the student government debate itself. But they did stymie post-resolution conversation on the topic, and hindered what could have been positive, productive conversation surrounding the issue.
Sophomore Jonas* feels similarly on the notion of offense: “I don’t think it’s fair to ever discount someone’s feelings. But I do think that focusing on individual reactions rather than concrete solutions distracts and can inhibit legitimate progress and conversation, in terms of the BDS [boycotts, divestment and sanctions] resolution and otherwise.”
So before resorting to the argument, “I’m offended,” first make sure that you truly are. This isn’t to discredit legitimate allegations of offense, or to raise the bar of what constitutes offense. It’s just to make sure certain important conversations don’t end prematurely – at Northwestern and beyond.
*Last name omitted at the source's request.
This story was updated at 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 to protect the identity of a source.