The term “politically correct” is one of the most incendiary phrases of contemporary political jargon. Advocates for values deemed politically correct — anti-racism, anti-misogyny, anti-transphobia, and so on — suggest that being politically correct is simply that: correct. Why would anyone want to be anything else — unless, that is, they are motivated by bigotry, or something worse?
This position appears reasonable enough, and it might even be undisputable if it didn’t seek to obscure an underlying impulse — for political correction. Under regimes of political correctness, political correction is the typical response for those voicing “incorrect” opinions. Indeed, imposing “correct” ideas by the “necessary” means is precisely the crux of the problem.
A discussion of PC is well-served by tracking this political label to its earliest appearance. Official Soviet sources show that the term politicheskaya korrektnost (political correctness) was used as early as 1921 to positively describe “correct” thinking. As expected, its author was none other than the primary architect of the Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Lenin. Lenin’s promotion and later enforcement of political correctness followed from his notion of partiĭnost, or party spirit, which also stood for “party truth,” or the correct interpretation of the world and everything in it. After the revolution, political correctness was enforced by the Soviet terror. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s Red Guard later adopted and adapted “autocritique,” a technique for the enforcement of political correctness, while adding “struggle sessions” for good measure.
I mention the Soviet and Sino-Communist sources of political correctness not to invoke a Red Scare but rather to note that the contemporary “social justice” movement is marked by the same impulses. Former Soviet and Maoist Chinese citizens recall a system under which verbal spontaneity and skepticism could be fatal. During our soft cultural revolution, those accused of ideological deviation — such as Google’s former employee, James Damore — while neither tortured or killed, are sent to the metaphorical gulags of public censure and unemployment.
In adopting social-justice-based policies and mechanisms, North American colleges and universities are unwittingly drawing on totalitarian resources of enforcement. The ranks of administrators swell, and college tuitions increase, due largely to the outsized administrations devoted to special student needs. Most college administrations now include Bias Response Teams, tribunals that adjudicate behind closed doors reports of “microaggressions” and “bias infractions” at over 230 colleges and universities nationwide. Bias hotlines, safe spaces, trigger warnings and no-platforming or shutting down of speakers yield the right to curtail free expression and open inquiry to social justice advocates and social-justice-dominated college administrators.
In academia, the mere questioning of social justice ideology and its mechanisms can land one in hot water, as it did in my case. I began by anonymously tweeting criticisms of social justice trends, and was soon noticed by a reporter from the NYU student newspaper. I agreed to an interview, and allowed the paper to reveal my identity as the operator behind the Twitter handle @antipcnyuprof.
The response was swift and severe. I was met with a strong rebuke from the Orwellian-named “Liberal Studies Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group,” which literally declared me “guilty” for “the structure of my thinking.” The same day, I was called before my dean and the head of Human Resources, both of whom strongly suggested that I take a paid medical leave of absence. My tweets and interview were seen by an unnamed staff member as “a cry for help.” In other words, as in the Soviet Union, airing views at variance with the apparent official ideology was treated as mental illness.
After returning from the leave, I was hailed with a blistering series of emails from a handful of faculty colleagues. As they pelted me with racist and sexist slurs, they ironically called me a “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist” and “Satan” himself. Incidentally, I had never mentioned a single individual or identity group in any of my discussions of the issues.
The fallout from my anti-PC Twitter “misdeeds” and the backlash over subsequent media exposure proved the point of the entire exercise. As they responded to my criticisms, the social justice ideologues demonstrated their authoritarian character. With their notoriously vituperative, pack-and-attack mentality, they acted as if they could punish and defame me with impunity.
Finally, by effectively ceding control to the social justice ideologues in their midst — just as the administrators at Evergreen State College would later do in the case of Bret Weinstein — NYU’s administration revealed that social justice ideology is now official doctrine in the university.
Political correctness is wrong not primarily due to the values it espouses but because it amounts to coercion or “social tyranny,” as John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty. Enforcing an orthodoxy like social justice infringes individual rights while producing a chilling effect. Specially protecting dogma and those who advocate it is antithetical to open inquiry and free expression, the hallmarks of the university. We must act now to preserve this institution — not only for its own sake but for the broader society that depends on it for trusted knowledge and an informed citizenry.
Michael Rectenwald is a professor of Global Liberal Studies at New York University. He is the author of Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature (2106), Academic Writing, Real World Topics (2015), and editor of Global Secularisms in A Post-Secular Age (2015).
He has filed suit against NYU and four professors at the university for defamation. NYU spokesman John Beckman said in January that the “lawsuit is without merit.”