Campus protests and the bloated reaction to PC

Joanna Harlow
Online Editor

Political correctness is changing its face. When talking about the “safe-speech” movements occurring on college campuses over the last month, we must recognize that “p.c.” is a misnomer. I think of the term as a conservative buzzword, used to chastise a threatening left. The term is so broad reaching that it has lost most of its value.

If you do a broad sweep of social media, you will see students standing up for each other and against the detrimental attitudes of major institutions that have been left unchecked for decades.

These students are asking to have some democratic say in the ethical leanings of an institution they are giving their money to. Students have little power in the university system, where schools are not run by student officials or educators, but by untouchable administrators. When we talk about this issue, we must acknowledge that protest can be unreasonable, while the oppressing force is unreasonable. Institutional racism is the preeminent example of this idea.

Ultimately the response to the “safe-space” idea has been blown out of proportion by the paranoid members of the Baby Boomer generation. The cyclicality of history tells us that the previous generation must be wary of the next, and the Baby Boomers certainly have reason to be worried. The younger generation will be burdened with taking care of the largest population of senior citizens America has ever seen. Perhaps this is where the worry about p.c. arises from.

Scale is an important component of this discussion. Politically correct zealotry may be a threat to certain individuals expressing their opinions on the internet, but it is not really a threat to democracy. Obviously, within the rule of American law, the p.c. left has limited power. It can shut down or intimidate critics on some campuses in troubling ways, but since it is operating on American soil, it can’t threaten the framework of the Constitution.

Last week,  President Obama, whose daughter will go to college next year, gave his two cents on the issue. “I want you also to be able to listen. I don’t want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up. And that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side,” President Obama told George Stenfanopoulos of New York Magazine. He went on to say that students attempting to ban speakers or works they do not agree with is a “recipe for dogmatism”. He considers the method ineffective,  and said that “the purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work.”

So why are college students responding this way? Perhaps logic and reasoning, though it checks out in theory, has not worked. As a college student, I know and understand political protest of the past. I think of the Free Speech Movement, which took place in 1964 on the Campus of the University of California, Berkeley. Nearly 800 students, who were protesting the censure of civil rights activism on campus, were arrested from the sit-in. Protests like these are part of American mythos at this point, and students do understand the methods they employ. The  strategies they are employing now, however ineffectual,  indicate exacerbation. What is being called “the Anti- Free Speech Movement” is a writhing mass of chaos happening on college campuses around the country. There are many different factions of people involved. Some seem to believe in censure, but most are lobbying for control.


Lumping these individual movements together and dismissing them as “obnoxious” is not the correct approach. Not all of these movements are equal.  A good example of the difference between these movements can be observed in the protests at the University of Missouri and Yale. In October, students began protesting for the resignation of a college official who sent an email “asking” students to be sensitive to racial issues when choosing Halloween costumes. A student quickly took on the International Affairs Committee which sent out the email. Under the traditional definition of political correctness,  the suggestion in the email would be valued. The tension on Yale’s campus over race and the fight against bureaucratic control has reached a peak, but without a focused nucleus of power to bring down, students are under backlash from the media, and criticism from academic communities around the country. The protests haven’t done them any good so far. But other movements, like the one at the University of Missouri, deserve more credit.  

At the University of Missouri, Payton Head, student government president, first raised concerns about bigotry on campus on Sept. 12. In October “Concerned Student 1950” was created, referring to the first year the University of Missouri admitted black students. On November 3, student Jonathan Butler launched a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until the president resigned. On November 7, with hundreds of prospective students flooding Mizzou’s campus for the university’s recruiting day, student protesters intervened with a “mock tour” where they recited racist incidents that occurred at MU. On November 8, black football players announced they would not practice or play until Wolfe resigns, possibly costing the university a fine of $1 million.

Jesse Ballenger, a secondary education major here at Lock Haven, helped organize a “Stand with Missouri” event which took place Nov. 18. near the fountain on Ivy Lane. Ballenger says that “the most important thing to remember is that the issue of institutional racism is not limited to the university of Missouri. It’s not hard to see it when it’s blatant at college campuses, I mean just look on yik yak for 2 minutes and you’ll see that racism is still alive and well on our campus and other.” On how he and his fellow organizers respond to the accusation of censorship Ballenger says “ Instead of an affront to free speech, this is the epitome of free speech. This is the application of free speech with its original intentions in mind. we may choose to let this movement fall on deaf ears or to ignore the implications of their demands, however as we have seen in Ferguson, Baltimore, and now in Missouri, Yale and Ithaca, these issues are becoming significantly harder to simply ignore.”

What these movements have shown, is that there is a large number of students who are discontent with the university system. The movements which capture media attention are either the largest or most extreme. One way in which the protests are limiting themselves is their war with the media. In the past, the media has been key to publicizing protests and gaining support.  At the protest on Missouri’s campus yesterday protesters stopped journalists from covering the demonstrations. Although it is not clear why they are doing this, I expect it is to limit sensationalism and keep the message centered on campus relations.

Despite their differences, these protests bring to light disagreements with the way authority is imposed on college campuses. When a large majority of the student population disagrees with the tacit rules of the institution they are paying for, it should be hard to dismiss. The opposition often cites “helicopter parenting” as the real culprit of these controversies. The idea that students are not self-sufficient, that we lack work ethic, that we do not understand the pace of the world we will step into when we graduate, is a fallacy. But if students behave in a certain manner, it may be the result of this unfair treatment. When an authority speaks down to students, patronizing them collectively for a perceived societal flaw they cannot control, they are in fact taking away the power of critical thought and individual opinion that they are condemning the lack of.

Coming from a school with limited student organization, and almost no controversy in this area, I consider myself an outsider to these issues. I have been witness to conversations between professors and students who are concerned by a rising unease with ideas which challenge the Christian faith in particular. Although some students reject the ideas of works which do not fit their worldview, a good professor can prove to them easily that they need not adhere to every theory presented to them, but must make use of critical thinking in order to understand its meaning and significance. If this has failed so far on this campus, I have not been witness to it. A threat to the Christian worldview might be more likely to cause a stir LHU, but the movements around the country are about race and antiquated attitudes, not religious differences.

Can this movement be taken to an unhealthy level? As far as it is a movement, of course! Attempting to apply p.c. universally, disregarding cultural boundaries and educational purposes, can go too far. But that does not make it illegitimate. The same slippery slope ideology is common among gun-rights activists who claim that some regulation always leads to too much. Unlike guns rights activists, however, the concerned population is mostly liberal.

The complexity of these issues is stretching further and further. At the University of California, attempts are being made to ban anti-Israel speech. Under the most stringent regulations, students found to be in violation of these codes would face suspension or expulsion. One of the school’s Regents most vocally advocating for the more stringent version of the speech code is Richard Blum, the multi-millionaire defense contractor who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.

As events unfold, it is important to remember that every campus movement is separate, just as every university has its own institutional values. To dismiss the protests, you are both taking agency away from students, and ignoring important racial and social tensions. 


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