In the late summer of 1991, I think I might have been the most insecure person alive. I was driving a Ryder van from Georgetown, Ky., (my hometown), to Cambridge, Mass., to start my first year at Harvard Law School.
I was pretty sure the admissions committee had made a mistake, or — at the very least — I’d just squeaked in on some kind of redneck affirmative-action plan. I’d done well in school, but I was hardly an imposing academic specimen, graduating from a public high school in rural Kentucky and then a small Christian college largely unknown (at the time, at least) outside the Southeast. I spoke no foreign languages. Aside from a short-term mission trip to Honduras, I’d spent virtually no time outside the United States. I hadn’t started any nonprofits, had done nothing much to “change the world,” and my athletic accomplishments were limited to a mediocre intramural sports career. In short, I felt like I was a pretty ordinary person going to an extraordinary place, shortly to be surrounded by extraordinary people.
In the academy, the early Nineties represented the first peak of political correctness, with routine shout-downs, speaker disruptions, and the growth of an unapologetic speech-code movement. But I wasn’t aware. Today, we take for granted how quickly we can research any new environment, prepping ourselves at least for a version of reality. Not long ago, if we happened to miss a news article or a news broadcast, we just missed it. And I had missed 99 percent of the reporting on the world of PC.
My first few days of law school, I focused on making friends, and I found out that virtually everyone was intimidated by the prospect of the Socratic method. I was surrounded by the most leftist people I’d ever encountered, but it was all civil. For a short time, politics took a back seat to academics. We were all scared together.
A few weeks into my first year, I drafted a letter on behalf of a small number of pro-life law students. We notified the student body that even though Harvard health fees covered elective abortions, students with conscientious objections to funding abortion could request a partial refund of their fees. It wasn’t much money, but the principle was important. So we drafted a short letter and stuffed it into every student’s mailbox (The campus mailbox was a forum for student engagement, featuring near-daily activist messages). I had asked respondents to fill out a form and drop it into my mailbox, so the next day I checked my mail and was pleasantly surprised to see it stuffed with forms. Still naïve, I thought, “I just tapped into the latent pro-life movement at Harvard Law School.”
How foolish. The first form I looked at simply said, “Go die, you fascist.” The next said something like, “Go die, you f***ing fascist.” Multiple messages were variations on the same theme: A death aspiration (not a true threat — they wanted me to die but weren’t willing to do the deed), profanity, an accusation of fascism, or some combination of all three. There were a few genuine responses — from pro-life students — but the hate dominated.
From that point forward — in class after class — I had a simple choice: be silent or face the strong probability of insults, shout-downs, cat-calls, and other lame efforts at intimidation. In extreme instances, conservative students had their faces pasted on gay porn and posted in the halls. Other students endured activists calling future employers and demanding their termination. While I didn’t face the full wrath of campus activists, I endured more than my share of intensely personal backlash. The shout-downs were routine, so were the insults.
And the entire experience made me a better, wiser person.
I felt at the time that I’d faced and passed a test — that I’d proven to myself that my convictions were worth more to me than social acceptance. Looking back, I realize now how minor and trifling that test was. Shouts and insults are nothing compared with the trials of real life after law school, but at the time it mattered, a lot. In a strange way, I was ultimately happy for the scorn. After the initial shock, it was oddly affirming, confirming that I was pressing the other side exactly where it didn’t want to be pressed.
Political correctness demystified the Left. I saw amongst the radical students a herd mentality more rigid and unthinking than I’d ever seen in an entire life growing up in a fundamentalist church (yes, fundamentalist — our little sect believed only its members merited eternal life). The herd conventional wisdom hardened virtually overnight, debate was minimal to nonexistent, and condescension and anger substituted for reason and thought. Activists raged at Christians for being intolerant, yet they exhibited less tolerance and open-mindedness than any angry pastor or minister I’d ever heard — and I’d listened to lots of anger from the pulpit. I often met liberals who’d literally never heard a coherent conservative argument and never met a conservative Evangelical. Especially in pre-Internet days, the liberal cocoon of elite education, urban liberalism, and radical readings could be virtually hermetically sealed. Even now — with an entire Internet of information about alternative ideas — Leftists often “learn” about conservatives by clicking on links with headlines like “Jon Stewart DEMOLISHES Sean Hannity” or “Right Wing Wingnuts Still Hate Science.”
PC taught me how radicals influence the larger, non-radical Left. Jonathan Chait’s now-infamous (at least in radical circles) recent essay against PC intolerance has its antecedent in countless conversations amongst thoughtful liberals dismayed at being called bigots for not being sufficiently supportive of any given radical reform or radical argument. As quickly as conventional wisdom hardens, even mild dissent has to be suppressed, and the easiest targets are those who see themselves as broadly supportive of the Left. It’s easier to force a more moderately liberal professor to bend to radical will than it is to force Rush Limbaugh to vote Democrat. Stephen Hayward’s outstanding National Review cover story shows how radical campus activists routinely dominate liberal campus educators — especially when the educators have no stomach for a fight that will see them labeled as racists, homophobes, or sexists.
In the intolerance, I also saw hope. During one particularly memorable day, when radicals started shrieking when I questioned why our professor referred to an unborn child as a mere “clump of cells,” I remember speaking to a small group of students after class. They told me they were questioning some of their pro-choice views. “Why?” I asked. Because, they responded, if the leading pro-choice activists couldn’t debate the issue without shout-downs, then perhaps their positions weren’t as intellectually coherent as they led us to believe. Intolerance and intimidation do not breed affection and loyalty. Reasoned arguments and basic kindness have their own appeal, and often the barrier to greater influence lies more in the inability to speak (or to be heard) than in the perceived inadequacy of the ideas.
In the early 1990s, some of my less-combative conservative friends were intimidated (or annoyed) into silence. They just didn’t want to deal with the nonsense, and they didn’t want to deal with the backlash. So they kept quiet, kept their heads down, and left school with their conservatism more or less intact. But after speaking to thousands of contemporary conservatives on dozens of campuses across the nation, it seems to me that political correctness has lost even that modest power over the right. We’re over it. We don’t care.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impotent. Far from it. As Gordon College’s ordeal shows (or Brendan Eich’s or dozens of examples of on-campus repression), when radicals have real power, then PC has real teeth. At the same time, it maintains influence over not just the more moderate liberals (who fear negative labels) but also the larger mass of the more politically apathetic or ill-informed. In the absence of strong convictions, people will often take the path of least resistance, and the forces of PC do their best to make non-conformance costly, even if the “cost” is mainly annoyance. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias is fond of saying that in the battle of ideas, stigma tends to defeat dogma, and stigma is particularly powerful when a person is unprepared to be stigmatized.
Our nation is increasingly polarized, and PC bears significant blame. There exists a great mass of conservatives who are now utterly immune to the stigma and name-calling, a vocal mass of radicals who tolerate no dissent, and a shrinking apathetic middle that is subject to intimidation but also annoyed by ideological hectoring. There are still thoughtful liberals and conservatives who hash out differences with reason and respect, but I fear the space for that dialogue is shrinking. PC doesn’t so much liberalize our nation as divide it, and the divisions will only widen the louder and angrier the forces of political correctness become. The Pew Center’s research on political division shows this growing divide — tracking from 1994 (my last year of law school) to 2014 — the results are sobering:
I don’t pretend to believe that PC is the sole reason for national division, but political correctness is changing America, and not always in the direction that the Left desires. I’m living proof — and so are the conservatives across the country who’ve faced political correctness and emerged more convinced, not less, in the rightness of their cause.
— David French is a senior legal counselor at the American Center for Law and Justice.