The battle is joined.
On college campuses everywhere, the fight is furious. On the one hand -- more or less the left hand, or the New Left hand -- we have the Politically Correct, in regimented rows, armed with the best of intentions and more fashionable jargon than you can shake a stick at.
On the other hand is the miscellaneous band that opposes them -- many political conservatives, but also growing numbers of others, including old-line liberals, irritated students and in some instances even the American Civil Liberties Union.
The P.C. have the best trained troops, no doubt about that. They all know better than to call a Native American an Indian or a he/she a he, and they are on the side of the world's victims, whom they tend to define as women, people of color, homosexuals -- and animals with handsome furs, according to one wag.
Their battle cry is "multiculturalism," and they believe that Western culture in general and American society in particular is inherently racist, sexist and in need of some really serious bodywork when it comes to the distribution of power. They also believe their opponents are frightened reactionaries who are trying to set the clock back to a time when minorities knew their place -- under somebody else's heel.
Their hodgepodge opponents -- what can we call them? The Incorrects? How about the P.I.? -- in the past have tended to splutterings and fulminations from high places in Republican administrations, but they have been gaining more widespread support. They've also gained an organization: the National Association of Scholars, formed in 1987 to fight for their cause. And in recent months a spate of articles in national magazines from New York to the Atlantic has presented their case in generally favorable terms.
The battle cry among the varied P.I. membership is "free speech," which they believe the P.C. are limiting by regulations such as campus speech codes and by labeling anyone who doesn't agree with them as sexist, racist or homophobic.
Other P.I. charges against the P.C. include preferential hiring and admissions, political indoctrination of students, and committing unspeakable acts upon the canon, the once-commonly-agreed-upon body of literature and art that is taught to students. In their less even-tempered moments, the P.I. also tend to mutter that the P.C. have no respect for truth, beauty and the American way -- that they have no values, for heaven's sake.
OK, THOSE ARE THE TYPES. Now let's move into reality with an example:
When faculty members at Duke University moved to establish a chapter of the National Association of Scholars there, Stanley Fish, chairman of the Duke English department and formerly a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, wrote a letter to the Duke student newspaper saying the organization was "widely known to be racist, sexist and homophobic."
Well, says Don Avery, chairman of the history department at Harford Community College and a member of the local NAS affiliate, "Obviously NAS is against racism, sexism and homophobia. What we're for is a logical and free discourse of all ideas."
Well, says Dr. Fish in his turn, nobody has kept the NAS from speaking freely -- it's been quoted often enough in media stories about the P.C. -- and the reason he called the organization racist, sexist and homophobic was "because they are."
"You can tell the orientation of an organization by the ends which it wishes to effect," he continues, saying that at the founding of NAS it "denounced" women's studies and black studies "and called for their expulsion from the campuses." And that, he insists, is racist and sexist.
But that's a false charge, says Stephen H. Balch, president of the NAS and associate professor of government at Manhattan's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"We've never come out against women's studies and black studies per se," he insists. "We've said that many of those studies are pursued tendentiously," that is, with the objective of raising students' consciousnesses rather than with academic goals.
Back to Dr. Fish: If an organization "labors in every way to prevent women's studies and minority literature and black literature from entering into the curriculum, then that's sexist and racist," he says. "If it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, it's a duck."
Which brings us to a remark by Deborah S. Rosenfelt, professor of women's studies and director of the Curriculum Transformation Project at the University of Maryland at College Park.
"This can get to be an 'I am not,' 'you are, too,' 'I am not' situation," she says.
THE PROBLEM AT THE ROOT of the P.C.-P.I. dispute is a big one, perhaps the quintessential American problem: How to make true for minorities and those who have been without power the nation's ringing promises of equality.
The P.C. believe special efforts must be made to include those who have been without entree to the corridors of power; the P.I. believe that some of those special efforts have resulted in restrictions of free speech and other unfairness -- and have not necessarily resulted in inclusion of the formerly excluded groups, either.
Take, for example, the issue of freedom of speech and campucodes. In response to the rising number of incidents of harassment of minority students, who are present in far greater numbers than they were in the universities of the past, many schools have adopted codes specifying what students can't say, do and write on campus.
The P.I. view is that such codes restrict free speech. The P.C. side is that such limitations on speech are necessary on today's campuses.
The problem "can't be reduced to free speech in the liberal interpretation of the term," says Elaine Hedges, professor of English and coordinator of women's studies at Towson State University.
"The assumption behind that is that all groups are equal. That is simply not the reality. It assumes some kind of ideal world in which everybody has equal power and resources," but "until that is the case, we need to make sure that groups that tend to get ignored and be discussed in detrimental ways should get the respect they deserve."
Columnist Ellen Goodman, in a recent piece about a Brown student who was expelled for shouting racial, religious and homophobic epithets, puts it this way:
"There is a time when one person's freedom to say anything he wishes can inhibit another's freedom to participate in the same class or community, or to say anything at all. Imagine sharing a class with someone calling you 'faggot.' The First Amendment can collide with the Fourteenth. Free speech can inhibit equality."
Opponents of the P.C. just don't buy this. "The imposition of speech laws, I think, has exactly opposite effect" of the one intended, says Arthur Eckstein, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland College Park.
Although he hasn't seen much of a P.C. problem at UMCP, he has heard from friends at other schools that it can create "an atmosphere of fear" in which people won't speak out for fear that what they say will be misconstrued as racist, sexist or homophobic. (To paraphrase Ms. Goodman, "Imagine sharing a classroom with someone calling you 'racist.' ")
P.C.-ness "is a posture that forbids certain kinds of discussion. It tends to use certain terms as a way to intimidate people into silence, terms such 'Eurocentric' or 'white male' or 'people of color,' " agrees Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at Hopkins.
At the end of a lecture, he adds wryly, "You will hear someone object that you haven't tied it in to the fate of Hispanic women -- when it had nothing to do with Hispanic women."
The P.I. are not taking all this lying down. Within their ranks an alliance has formed that some might consider unholy: Conservative Republican Henry J. Hyde, a congressional representative from Illinois, has introduced a bill to ban campus speech codes at schools receiving federal funds. His unlikely ally is the American Civil Liberties Union.
FACULTY HIRING AND AD- missions is another hot spot where P.C. intentions to better the lot of minorities run headlong into P.I. criticisms of unfairness.
The P.C. goal is to have academic faculties -- and student bodies -- that are as multicultural as the society itself. The P.I. respond that this results in faculty members being hired -- or students being admitted -- on the basis of their color, sex or ethnicity rather than their academic qualifications.
That's not necessarily so bad, say the P.C.
It is, too, say the P.I.
UMCP's Dr. Rosenfelt remembers some experiences at a West Coast college, where "we were very committed to doing anti-racist hiring."
There were "times when I had disagreements over whom the program ended up hiring for lectureships," she says, and "when I felt that we hired people more because they were representative" of a particular group than of an academic need.
But, she continues, "I'm not totally convinced that it's not more important to do that." Later she adds, "It could be a very important social mission."
That's exactly the point, say the P.C.
But, Dr. Gordon rebuts, in the end hiring for multiculturalism may defeat its own purpose, by demoralizing people who suspect they've been hired only for their race, sex or ethnicity. Kenny Williams, for example, a black professor of English at Duke and a member of NAS, was quoted last fall as saying that any black who signs on to work at Duke under the university's plan to hire one black per department "is crazy -- because it is a stigma. The assumption is, you weren't really qualified."
But Henry Louis Gates Jr., another black literature professor at the same university who gets quoted in support of both P.I. and P.C. views, has a different opinion.
Standards will rise as the small pool of black Ph.D.s grows over time, fostered by the black academics now being hired, he predicts.
Anyway, he is reported as saying in a recent issue of the Atlantic, "We have the right to mediocre scholars, you know. Just like white people. It's racist to say that all blacks have to qualify for the Nobel Prize to be hired by universities."
"STRUGGLES IN THE CYCLES of inclusion" is what Dr. Rosenfelt calls all this jousting back and forth about whom to include in the faculties of the future. And, if we're going to speak about struggles in the cycles of inclusion, how about those canons?
The canon -- the body of literature and art taught to students -- is another bone of contention between the P.C. and the P.I. It's a pretty similar bone to the multicultural one: The P.C. say the canon should reflect more than just one culture and gender, and that the traditional one tends to reinforce the cultural primacy of white men. Their opponents say hey, is the canon supposed to be about ethnicity -- or about quality? You aren't going to throw out Milton, are you? Or Dickens? Or -- say it ain't so! -- Shakespeare?
Extremists among the P.C. may indeed be ready to throw out Milton, Dickens, Shakespeare and just about any other Dead White Male you might mention, but that's extremists for you. (Extremists among the P.I., in their turn, practically fall to the ground and froth at the mouth at the thought of anyone daring to teach, say, "The Color Purple" on a college campus.)
The more common approach, according to Towson's Elaine Hedges, an editor of the "Heath Anthology of American Literature," is to keep the DWMs, but add some women and blacks and Native Americans and whoever else needs adding.
"Traditionally those anthologies have been edited, conceived, compiled primarily by white males, and the literature in them has reflected that," she says, but in 1991 what is called "American" should include more than that.
As for the charge that curricular multiculturalism results in the substitution of inferior writers for great ones, she says, "How you define quality is likely to depend very much on what you have always been given to read. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy": What you know becomes your definition of what is good.
"We need to broaden our definition of literary merit," she says, and "recognize there isn't one hard and fast standard."
This thinking, however, seems like the thin edge of the wedge to some of the P.I., who argue that what it really means is that the P.C. believe there are no standards beyond political correctness, and that colleges today are teaching all kinds of 12th-rate junk just because the junk was written by a person of the correct gender, color and sexual orientation.
Contributing mightily to their anxiety is the ascendancy on elite campuses of the school of literary criticism known as deconstruction, which can be read to mean that a literary work has no intrinsic meaning or value, and that whatever significance such a text is believed to have comes from its readers and the readers' political attitudes.
Taking such critical methods to their extreme, it wouldn't be too hard to demonstrate that a grocery list, say, is the equal of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Look, Ma, no standards.
But that's the extreme. Far more common is Dr. Fish's view, which is not that there aren't any standards, but that "standards of merit are themselves continually the subject of debate and are continually being refashioned." The poems of John Donne, for example, fell out of critical favor in the 18th century and were not restored to wide admiration again until the 20th century.
And the refashioning hasn't been anywhere near as radical as the P.I. fear it has been, says Dr. Rosenfelt. "On almost every campus in the country, the traditional curriculum is thriving. It's much less endangered and jeopardized than its anxious
defenders seem to think."
Dr. Fish agrees -- and notes that his own course syllabuses would be given an "A++" by the NAS for his reliance on classic texts.
THAT'S NOT ENOUGH, SAY the more sophisticated among the P.I. -- because it's not just what you teach, but how you teach it.
The P.I. see in the P.C. habit of harping on racism, sexism and other forms of oppression a pervasive and dangerous anti-Americanism, one implying that all American institutions are rotten, and that democracy in the final analysis isn't any better than totalitarianism.
This is what the P.I. mean when they say the P.C. are pushing a political agenda on the nation's campuses. Harford's Don Avery cites an example from the University of Texas at Austin, where the administration tried to switch the reading for the freshman composition from texts assigned by the teachers to an anthology called "Racism and Sexism," which Newsweek called a "primer of P.C. thought."
The P.C. have two responses to this kind of argument. One is to ask, more or less, what's wrong with fostering sensitivity on matters of race and gender? The other is to counterargue that the apolitical university of yore the P.I. are so fond of invoking really wasn't apolitical at all; it was just that its politics were racist and sexist and therefore not recognized as political by the white males who ran the place.
Richard Boothby, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola College, takes a relatively kind view of the P.C. attempt to expose the frailties of the Western tradition, but he also thinks the P.C.s' constant culture-critiquing can get out of hand.
"It's not difficult to show how much of the going discourse in the humanities today tends to do this -- to get so caught up in this hermeneutics of suspicion that it forgets some of the more positive [aspects of the culture]," he says.
But at the same time there's nothing new about this situation of critique causing fear, he continues. "People accused Socrates of the same things as Stanley Fish is accused of, corrupting youth, filling their minds full of useless nonsense that goes around in circles. . . .
"All these things were said about Socrates," he notes, "and not only did he not get tenure, he got killed."
THE P.C. ARE VERY FOND OF this view of themselves as the necessary gadflies on the corpus of Western civilization, and they argue a corollary: that anyone who opposes them must therefore automatically be opposed to reform of any kind.
Thus Ellen Goodman writes, "The movement against [P.C.-ness] another way of trashing idealism, putting a lid on change, pushing back what in a less heated phrase might be called humanistic values. Even progress."
Not so, says Hopkins' Mark Crispin Miller. Although criticism of P.C.-ness can be nothing more than an attempt to discredit all left-of-center thinking, at the same time "there are people on the left who are too quick to dismiss the controversy around political correctness as nothing more than a repressive move against dissent," he says.
P.C.-ness isn't genuinely leftist, he continues, it's just "posturing that will advertise your rectitude." He adds that "all the inequalities that the left worries about are as bad as ever, and P.C.-ness has made no difference to all that because it's just a dogma."
But the P.C. have still another method of deflecting criticismaccusing their opponents of being, well, passe. Duke's Stanley Fish is especially eloquent on this subject, suggesting that those who oppose the P.C. have missed the boat and should be called the politically envious or the politically disappointed.
The funny thing is, though, that some observers say something not so different about the P.C. themselves:
Ralph Whitehead Jr., who teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, sees what he tongue-in-cheekily calls "the P.C. professoriat" as "people in a defensive posture, who've lost the popular battle for mainstream opinion and who have sort of retreated behind the ivy walls." And they "should be so lucky as to have a genuinely subversive effect."
Noting that today's campuses put a much greater emphasis on vocational and career preparation than did the schools of 30 years ago, he says that "the real subverters are people who believe we are all here just to provide trade-school instruction for a class of technocrats. The P.C. professoriat is undermined by that, by those new conditions, every bit as much as the traditionalists are."
Loyola's Dr. Boothby also sees "the turn away from rigorous study of history and literature and philosophy" as coming not from the P.C. but from "the larger forces at work in our culture to which the university itself is subject."
And "the irony is that while many of us in academia are decrying the way political correctness squelches real exchange of views," he continues, "our own governmental officials are scrambling to squelch real exchange of views, and academe has very little to say about that."
But that's another story. As for the story of the P.I. and the P.C., perhaps that should end with Elaine Hedges' words:
"If people think we can move into a new era without extremists and without pain, then that's very naive," she says. "This is
where we are, and we have to struggle through it. . . .
D8 "All we can do is keep dealing with those extremes."