DISCUSSIONS of political correctness on campus always puzzle me a bit, because they usually have as their starting point a view of the academy, in fact the world, that is contrary to established reality. That is, that into this calm pool of egalitarian rational discourse comes the big foot of racial and gender politics, ready to stomp down anyone who offends, diverges, challenges liberal orthodoxy.
The stomping part I understand. But that calm egalitarian pool? Oh, phooey, boys and girls.
During the last few months there has been gnashing of teeth about pilfered student newspapers at various institutions of hired education, spirited away in the night by students who found certain free speech objectionable and so imprisoned it. This is no good.
The right to free speech must include the right to objectionable speech.
That is the overarching argument, and I buy it. But the uproar implies that these students are being insulated from counter-orthodoxy, thought-policed in liberal bastions.
Let's let real life intrude for a minute among ivory tower discussions of hate speech, free speech and the now ritual complaint that variations from some P.C. party line are put down.
During the final weeks of school, graduating college seniors could get a quick current events education about how the world works:
* A sailor was sentenced to life in prison for punching and kicking one of his fellows to death in a bathroom. The dead man was gay and had requested a discharge because of frequent harassment; his assailant admitted that he had lied to investigators when he said the beating had been prompted by the gay sailor's sexual advances.
* A Louisiana man was acquitted of shooting and killing an unarmed 16-year-old Japanese exchange student who came to the wrong house looking for a Halloween party.
* Twenty-one Secret Service agents in Annapolis, preparing for a visit by the president, stopped for breakfast at a Denny's restaurant. All but six were served in short order. The six were black. The restaurant chain faces a lawsuit in California based on similar complaints from 32 black customers.
* And finally, Sen. Jesse Helms said he would not support Roberta Achtenberg for assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development because she was a "damn lesbian."
Ideas should be freely exchanged not only because one woman's obscenity is another's Bovary, but because you can learn a lot of good stuff from bad stuff. At Penn, a group of black students seized and destroyed thousands of copies of the campus paper because they found offensive the writings of a conservative columnist.
During the course of their Ivy education, someone should have taught those students that a pointed exchange of letters, columns and counter-columns always does more to further human understanding -- and usually the just cause -- than censorship.
Look at Senator Helms' comments. They do not reflect badly on Ms. Achtenberg, who was confirmed, as she deserved to be. They prove that the senator speaks his mind, and that he is not working with much when he does so.
Ignorant free speech often works against the speaker. That is one of several reasons why it must be given rein instead of suppressed.
There are complaints that because of incidents like the one at Penn, students feel inhibited about airing their opinions on campuses that have become oversensitive to minority groups.
But let's remember that for every highly publicized incident of overreaction or suppression, there are many incidents of small-scale incivility and bigotry.
Let's remember that there are good inhibitions, and there are bad inhibitions. If people can no longer discuss their differences, that is bad. If people tell fewer racist and sexist jokes, that is just fine.
The class of '93 has gone out to meet the world. And no matter how loud the hue and cry about political correctness, this is the fact behind the fracas: After four short years these students enter a world in which intolerance for discourse is overwhelmed by intolerance for people -- for people waiting to be served breakfast or for people being beaten to death in a bathroom. Liberal orthodoxy? Phooey, boys and girls. Most of what you learn in life is something altogether different.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.